And so we come once again to that most inconsistent of series, The Canterbury Tales as told by Paul Doherty – the tales of mystery, murder and mayhem as told by the pilgrims to pass the evenings on the way to Canterbury that Chaucer somehow forgot to mention.
The Hangman’s Hymn is the Carpenter’s tale. It seems that young Simon Cotterill, a trained carpenter, unable to find work in Gloucester, was inducted into the local group of hangmen. But there are tales that being hanged is not necessarily the end. Simon’s predecessor, who was hanged for the murder of a tavern wench, still walks the streets of Gloucester. More dangerously, though, the hangmen are sent deep into the Forest of Dean to hang the Cotterill family – Agnes and her two daughters, a coven of witches. Once this is over, the men leave, only to find on returning that the bodies are gone. At first there are only cries in the night that follow them. Then the witches are sighted… and then the hangmen begin to die.
Have the witches truly returned from the grave? Are there dark powers at work? And is there an even deadlier game being played?
I’ve written before about my misgivings about this series. Due to the open nature of the storytelling, we’ve had a vampire (sorry, Strigoi) story, a historical conspiracy, a possible ghost story and two definite ghost stories, one excellent and one that really didn’t impress me. I think that, with the exception of A Haunt of Murder, this is possibly my least favourite of Paul Doherty’s series. And that’s mostly due to the fact that I basically want a decent mystery and I don’t really want a ghost story. So I came to The Hangman’s Hymn with some trepidation.
Why read it at all then? Well, at the moment, Doherty seems to be continuing two of his series – The Brother Athelstan series and this one. The Midnight Man has just been released – and will be reviewed very soon – and I wanted to have read all of the rest of the series before reading the new one. You see there are mild spoilers for previous books in these ones. The passages amongst the pilgrims tends to mention the links between them that were played as surprises in previous books – indeed, something that has been hinted at in An Ancient Evil, the first of the series, is spelled out very clearly here. None of them are massively spoilery but it’s nice to read them in order.
So, back to this one. First of all, it scared the pants off me in places. Much more so that Ghostly Murders. That one had a couple of good “Boo!” moments, but nothing else for me, but this one, whether with its descriptions of the hangman’s “art” or the creeping doom of the encroaching threat of the witches… much better.
Simon Cotterill’s journey from young innocent to efficient investigator is done very well and the remaining characters are all well drawn. When you’ve got a book where an awful lot of the characters are going to get killed, it takes a skilled hand to make you care about the cannon fodder, but Doherty does it very well indeed.
As for the mystery, it trundles along very nicely – and rest assured that this is a proper mystery. It’s properly clued, although I did think that the thing you need to work out – being a little vague there as the focus only becomes apparent about halfway through – was very guessable due to one aspect. But that didn’t stop this from being a hugely enjoyable read.
Doherty’s strength has always been his story-telling. And here, he tells a great story. Highly recommended. The best of the series (so far..?)
I think Paul Doherty’s strength is a combination of story-telling and a knack for coming up with intriguing premises, but, more often than not, misses that master’s touch to fully deliver on them – especially where impossible crimes are concerned. But they are excellent historical stories even if they aren’t always great detective stories.
Anyhow, I should return to him one of these days as the last one I read was well over six months ago.
It must be hard to marry two genres such that the story excels in both categories. I think Doherty comes closer than most, and, in the case of the Brother Athelstan books in particular, often succeeds admirably. It might well be that his books stand out more due to other, lesser, attempts (Cadfael, cough) but I take your point – there are cases where the mystery element is the part that suffers.
There seem to be two traps the writer needs to avoid – one, the very guessable villain, which is the case here I found, and two, the “one out of four too-similar characters” which has happened at times as well.
Having said that, with the exception of the early Corbett books and (don’t tell Patrick) Ghostly Murders, I don’t think there are any of his books that I wouldn’t recommend in a heartbeat for fans of historical mysteries.
I realize this reeks with the foul odor of self-promotion, but I thought you would like to know I reviewed The Spies of Sobeck today and have now done the entire Judge Amerotke series. Time for the next installment!
On the traps you mentioned, I agree with you on the first one but that only works if the clueing improves. How else are you going to figure out whodunit?
In fact, dear readers, TomCat has reviewed all of the Amerotke books – next on my hit-list due to the upcoming new one. I think I’ve got about a year, but I’d better get a shift on, just in case.
[…] to conclude, a strong contribution to the series – not up there with A Haunt of Murder or The Hangman’s Hymn, but an entertaining page-turner, even if the mystery itself didn’t quite grab me. Recommended […]
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