It’s 1301 and Edward I is again beset by problems. Philip IV of France is plotting to re-take Gascony and sees an opportunity to do so by discrediting Prince Edward, the heir to the throne. Edward is betrothed to Philip’s daughter Isabella by a peace treaty ratified by the Pope, but when his ex-mistress is found dead in the convent to which she has been banished, the potential scandal threatens to cancel this. Edward’s close relationship to Gaveston, his new favourite, is also causing tongues to wag. Hugh Corbett is sent by the King to deal with the situation, but with his nemesis de Craon snooping around on Philip’s behalf and the death count starting to rise, can he possible find the murderer and prevent the scandal? And is it even possible to do both?
OK, let’s be honest, the first four Hugh Corbett books were fine, but not much more than that. To be fair, they were the first four books that Paul Doherty wrote. Then, for whatever reason, he took a three year break from the series, during which he began the excellent Brother Athelstan series, with The Nightingale Gallery and the Roger Shallot series, with The White Rose Murders, both of which were a quantum leap in terms of quality. So I had high hopes for this one, as hopefully Doherty would continue this run of excellent form into his main series.
For this one, Doherty abandoned the theme of the first four books by adding much more of his own interpretation to the historical events. Gaveston (the titular Prince of Darkness) was real – indeed he will make a later appearance in the excellent The Cup of Ghosts, the first book in the Mathilde of Westminster series. What Doherty has done is craft a series of fictitious events – and an excellent mystery – leading up to Gaveston’s exile. By crafting his own series of events – even Eleanor, Prince Edward’s mistress is made up – he has given himself much more of a free reign in the plotting which constrained the first four books and this book positively sparkles.
The plot is multi-layered – many plots are being spun, with both de Craon and Gaveston spinning their webs, a descendant of the de Montforts stalking the King, a previous mysterious death of a young couple in the nearby forest and pretty much everyone lying about something. There’s a sequence of real terror as someone sets loose some savage war-dogs on Corbett and Ranulf and the mystery itself is a cracker. The solution is more of a “only one thing makes sense” but this is properly clued – hurrah – and the many plots dovetail nicely for a very satisfying ending.
A real delight and it seems almost a shame that I’m going to taking a break from Doherty for a short while. But it’s great to end this week on a high. So, dear reader, thank you for allowing me this indulgence of this week, and please seek out one of Paul Doherty’s many excellent series.
Oh, a final thought – this one yet again spoils Satan in St Mary’s and also names the killer in The Angel of Death – but, to be honest, I think you’d be better off starting with this one. It’s an absolute cracker.