The Straw Men by Paul Doherty

The Straw MenJanuary 1381, London. A mere six months before the Great Uprising, better known as the Peasants’ Revolt, when Wat Tyler and his cohorts led a rebellion against the ruling classes, storming the Tower of London and burning the Savoy Palace, the seat of the Regent John of Gaunt to the ground. Tyler and his fellow rebel leaders, the Upright Men, have learned a secret that could bring Gaunt to his knees, but the rebels are dealt a deadly blow when the Roundhoop tavern is stormed by Gaunt’s men, ending in a slaughter.

But the Upright Men’s reach is long… very soon, as the Straw Men, Gaunt’s personal troupe of strolling players, are entertaining his honoured guests, two of them are attacked as if from nowhere and two severed heads appear miraculously on the stage. And this is just the beginning as the carnage escalates. Who is spying on who? Brother Athelstan and Sir John Cranston are charged to find the assassin – but they may be in the killer’s sights as well…

Since falling under Paul Doherty’s spell, I’ve become fascinated with the Middle Ages, and as such, I’ve read a bit about the Peasants’ Revolt. And I’ve watched in fascination as the tension has been cranked up in this series of books as the clock ticks down. Before, there have been incidents concerning the Great Community, the people who follow the Upright Men, but the upcoming rebellion takes centre stage here. The atmosphere of impending doom is soaked right through the book, and you know that when we get to June, it’s not going to be pretty. With some of Athelstan’s flock understandably right in the middle of the conspiracy, then not everyone is going to get out alive – indeed, in this book… oh, even hinting at it would be a spoiler for long-time readers, so I won’t say. But when it happens, it took me completely by surprise – a very well handled scene.

As for the mystery, as usual Doherty does not neglect and delivers a multi-layered whodunnit, with both spies (for both sides) and assassins to spot. And the killer is certainly a busy one with a typical Doherty body-count, including at least two locked rooms – fairly simple ones, but still pretty clever. And the clues are there to let the reader play along – I can say that with certainty as I spotted most of it, but I think I must have been on form. I didn’t think it was at all obvious, just that I understood a certain thing quite quickly.

And for long term readers, there are a couple of lovely things. Cranston’s boisterousness is turned right down. The man is not an idiot, he just plays the fool at times, and it makes perfect sense that given he can see what’s coming, now is not the time to make enemies of the wrong people. This is a much more cautious John Cranston and feels exactly like what he would do. And there’s something on page eleven that almost made me cry… It’s the very reason that I love a series of books. It would be next to meaningless to someone who hasn’t read the previous eleven (OK, ten, saving The House of Shadows for a rainy day) but for we readers who have followed the tale of Athelstan and his flock, it’s rather lovely.

Oh, and there’s a polar bear in it!

Quibbles? Only one, really, in that the book could have been longer. I wonder if there’s a page limit imposed by the publisher, but this is at times a helter-skelter of a read, and there are moments where I’d have liked a bit of down time…

Anyway, highly recommended, and let’s hope it’s not too long before the Great Uprising sees print…


      • OK, you convinced me. I might have preferred a paper copy, but I looked and not that easy to get a decent copy. We have been using the Kindle App on a Samsung tablet a few months, and just got a Kindle Paperwhite, so I just had The Nightingale Gallery delivered. Looking forward to reading it… in 2013.


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