October 1381, London. In the wake of the Great Revolt, the city is not enjoying the peace that it might have expected. Instead the ganglords of the city – the rifflers – are jockeying for position and their patrons in King Richard’s court are biding their time, ready to make their move. But the worst of these rifflers, Simon Makepeace, known as “the Flesher”, is about to have other concerns.
St Benet’s Church, deep in the Flesher’s territory, is found locked one morning – locked from the inside, naturally – and when the door is broken down, Parson Reynaud is found stabbed to death, along with one of the Duke of Arundel’s men. Bodies are found in the crypt, money has been stolen from a chest that only the Flesher had the key to and worst of all, the body of the Flesher’s recently deceased mother has been stolen from her coffin.
Brother Athelstan finds himself charged to find the truth but finds himself dealing with possibly the most evil man he has ever encountered. Is Makepeace somehow behind the murders – or is somebody even more dangerous at large?
The eighteenth outing for Brother Athelstan – he’s almost caught up to Hugh Corbett now – and things have taken a dark turn with the introduction of Makepeace. Paul Doherty has always been the master of bringing the past to life, and not skimping on the grim reality of the time – I always enjoy the passages as Athelstan walks through the city and looks around him at medieval life in all its glory – but with a central murderous character, the grimness comes to the fore. And it’s rather wonderful.
In fact, this is one of my favourite of the Brother Athelstan mysteries. The many disparate parts of the plot – I haven’t mentioned them all due to the lack of space, but there’s at least two other major strands to the tale – are like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. As the story progresses, Doherty slowly brings little pieces together until you get small parts of the big picture while still not getting the whole story until it’s time to find out. Usually, the author has a separate subplot or two, but here, everything comes together into a single tale.
And with the dark tone, there is a genuine feeling of peril for the characters – indeed, one series regular doesn’t make it to the end of the book – and one sequence, with Athelstan, Benedicta and some of the Flesher’s men had me on the edge of my seat.
It has to be said, I guessed the murderer, but missed the big picture. This is historical mystery writing at its best and, as you may have guessed, is Highly Recommended.
Many thanks to Severn House for the review copy. The Mansions Of Murder will be released in the UK on August 31st.