It is the turn of The Man of Law to tell his tale of death and murder – if you recall, the theme of this series of stories is that Chaucer’s pilgrims not only told each other The Canterbury Tales, but also, in the evening, these tales of terror. Unlike The Knight’s Tale, as told in An Ancient Evil, this is not a supernatural story, but rather a tale of kings, queens and traitors.
In 1358, Nicholas Chirke, a young lawyer, has been tasked to investigate some strange occurrences following the death of Isabella, the Queen Mother, who has been exiled to Castle Riding in Norfolk due to her part in the death of Edward II. Her servant was carrying a valuable secret but was murdered while trying to escape London, and the secret is lost. Now everyone, including the shadowy Guardian of the Gates, lord of the London underworld, is trying to find the secret out, for whoever holds the secret will have all the power they could ever wish for. And needless to say, people are willing to kill for it…
So far, I’ve read two from this series – the first, An Ancient Evil, was fine, although Patrick liked it a lot more than me, and the last, A Haunt of Murder, which I thought was rather wonderful. Both of these, though, had strong supernatural elements, whereas (and this isn’t a spoiler) there isn’t a sniff of any such thing here. So, how does this compare with the rest of the series?
Well, I’m a bit torn here. On the one hand, I’m determined to get through the remainder of this series by May, as that’s when, after a ten year break, Paul Doherty returns to the series with The Midnight Man – not sure who’s tale that is, mind you, and there’s another to follow thereafter, The Soul Shadower. But, to be honest, it’s my least favourite series of his due to the fact that it’s a collection of disparate tales, rather than a typical series. Not that I dislike them – let’s get that clear from the start – but probably my least favourite.
If you haven’t read any of these, and most libraries ought to have at least one from the series, the tale is structured with a framing sequence featuring the pilgrims, where, as the tale progresses, we realise the teller’s part in events – hardly a mystery – but also where the other pilgrims have been tangentially involved as well. It’s not an approach that I’ve seen before, and Doherty is to be congratulated for such an imaginative structure. As for the story itself…
It’s a very full tale. Often in the pages of my fellow bloggers the ideal length of a mystery novel is mooted and the consensus seems to be that once you get past page 300, you’re probably pushing it. This is a rare book in the fact that I wish it had gone on a bit longer – or to be precise, a bit slower. There is a lot of plot in this one and some events, especially in the first half of the story seem to happen very quickly. I could have spent a fair bit longer getting to know Chirke, his manservant Scathelocke and his criminal helper Crabtree a little better – Chirke especially has some interesting quirks but they are mentioned and then never revisited. He’s an interesting character in a horrendous situation and perhaps more could have been done with some extra pages. Of course, that may well not be the choice of the author. I don’t know how book contracts work, but I imagine that a series of novels would have a standard page count.
I’ll be frank here, and say that this is probably closer to a thriller than a mystery. You are a bit of a chump if you can’t spot who The Guardian of the Gates is, which basically leaves working out Isabella’s secret, most of which is only guessable. All credit again to Doherty though – there are a number of conspiracy theories as to what happened to Edward II and Isabella. I’m pretty sure there are tales that neither of them died when they were supposed to, so it’s impressive that he goes in a different direction for the secret. It’s worth bearing in mind that the author wrote his doctoral thesis on Isabella, so he probably knows what he’s talking about here, but it’s interesting that in the author’s note, no mention is made of the contents of the secret, so that bit might be completely made up. I’ll probably never know.
So, quite different from the series opener – a decent read but really could have done with some breathing room. If you like your mysteries fast paced, then this is might be the one for you.
NOTE: This is my first review in the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2012.