The poisoning of an Abbot while he was locked in his chambers. The poisoning of the Pharaoh Hatusu’s former nurse while locked in her chambers. The poisoning of Sir George Carey, an explorer in the service of the King, while, yup, locked in his chambers. The stabbing (yes, not poisoning) of a young man in a locked and guarded prison cell. The stabbing of Sir Nicholas Hopton in a locked tavern room. And the mysterious death of a knight mid-joust.
Paul Doherty has written many an impossible mystery novel over the past thirty or so years. But he has also written a number of impossible mysteries in the short story format – six, in fact. As I’m taking a very close look at Paul’s work at the moment, for reasons that I’ll explain another day, I thought I’d do quick reviews on these stories.
The Monk’s Tale – 1991 – First appeared in New Crimes 3, ed. Maxim Jakubowski
Billed on Goodreads as Athelstan #1.5 but it predates The Nightingale Gallery as it is set during the reign of Edward III. It gives some extra background to the little friar, as it, unlike his novels, is written in the first person. It’s an atmospheric little tale, with a question over whether it is an impossible crime. When you have a situation where only one person could have committed the murder and yet they are innocent (obviously), does that make it an impossible crime? The trick, or at least a very similar one, is repeated in another Doherty novel written around the same time, but it’s fairly clued and very entertaining.
The Confession Of Brother Athelstan – 1993 – The Mammoth Book of Historical Whodunnits Vol 1
Another first person tale from Athelstan, and the first to really spell out his feelings for the widow Benedicta. The idea of a murder mid-joust is a clever one. One knight falls from his saddle as the other discovers that his blunt lance has been replaced by a sharp one. A nice array of suspects and again, it’s a clued mystery, but the motive is revealed somewhat after the fact. It’s a good addition to one of my favourite mystery stories.
A Counter-Blast To Tobacco – 1998 – Past Poisons
This one is a bit of an oddity. It never clearly places when it is set, but I think it’s during the reign of James I. It’s an interesting tale, especially the ending of the piece and works well as a whodunit. The impossible crime element though is so rudimentary that it’s almost a cheat to advertise the tale as such. But again, there’s a lot to like here.
The Murder Of Innocence – 1995 – The Mammoth Book Of Historical Detectives
The best of the short stories, I think, with a genuinely surprising murderer and a deducible but clever locked room – Sir Nicholas Hopton is stabbed and robbed of his gold while inside an impenetrable room. It has all the hallmarks of Paul’s writing, with late-Elizabethan life springing to life. The idea of the compilation is the use of historical characters as sleuths – here, although it’s not explicit, Paul uses a young Moll Flanders. It’s a cracker and I wish Paul had chosen to revisit the character.
Or You Can Drink The Wine…? – 2002 – The Mammoth Book of Egyptian Mysteries
Judge Amerotke, one of Doherty’s series sleuths, investigates the poisoning of the Pharoah’s former nurse. There’s a really clever detail to the solution to how the poison ended up in her stomach, although the general shape of the method is rather guessable. However the real reward here is the detail of the almost alien day to day details of Ancient Egypt – in particular in the punishment of criminals.
The Knight’s Confession – 2002 – Original Source Unknown
A returning crusader heads for confession with a fantastic tale – that of a young lawyer taken to the deepest dungeon who was then stabbed while under guard in his locked cell. While the murderer is never really in question, the tale as a whole is a fascinating one, with a slow build-up and an effective finale. Not sure of the original source for this one, but it’s another that really shows off Doherty’s ability to create a vivid setting, even in a short story.
And that’s that – six short stories, of which five are well worth your time – not really sure about A Counter-Blast To Tobacco as the “how” is so obvious. There are also some novellas – The Peacock’s Cry and The King’s Writ – and a collection of ghost stories. If you know of any other mystery short stories, do let me know.
These used to be available as cheap ebooks, but not anymore, unfortunately. I’ve given the source, as the collections are mostly readily available, and if anyone can find the original source for The Knight’s Confession, I’ll add that in too.
Addendum: Id Quod Clarum… – 2000 – Murder Through The Ages
Well, as you might expect, 30 minutes after posting that, I came across another short story. This one wasn’t available as an ebook, which is why is crept under my radar. It’s set in Oxford, 1441, and features another impossible poisoning. Wine is passed around a lecturer and his students, and the lecturer drops dead, despite people drinking the wine both before and after him. It’s an interesting tale, using the academic setting well in both the build-up and the finale, with the solution presented as an exercise in logic. Rather good.