1558, and an ailing Mary Tudor sits on the throne of England. As her enemies – Catherine de Medici, Mary Queen of Scots, her sister Elizabeth – begin to circle, rumours persist that Mary is being poisoned. Pope Paul IV dispatches Nicholas Segalla, the man who does not die, to the English Court to find the truth, but what he discovers is a dark conspiracy.
Who are the “Four Evangelists”, plotters against the Queen of England? What is the significance of the bible verse, Mark 15:34, appended to threatening letters to Mary? As the body count at court, and in the streets of London, begins to rise, Segalla finds himself pitted against a deadly adversary – or is there perhaps more than one hand at work against him?
Back to an old, old favourite of the blog – Paul Doherty, probably the first “favourite” author that I discovered due to the blog. A long time ago, I was looking for a decent historical mystery writer, as opposed to “historical romance with a whiff of mystery”, and Sergio recommended trying Paul’s work out.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, fans of classic mysteries are missing a whole raft of books – over 100 at the moment – by overlooking Paul’s work. A closed cast of suspects, an interesting sleuth, usually a locked room or two… the second volume to Bob Adey’s Locked Room Murders will feature many entries for Paul’s work. I know this because I wrote them. Some people will pass because they like their Golden Age mysteries set in the Golden Age, but I do implore you to give them a try.
This one features Nicholas Segalla, a short-lived sleuth who spans the ages. The conceit is that he is the mythical immortal man, who cannot die but has been involved in some of histories “real” mysteries, relating those stories to modern day historian Ann Dukthas (the pseudonym that Paul used for initial publication). It enables the writer to explore an historical mystery – in this case, was Mary poisoned or did she die of natural causes – in a less academic way than he has in other books. These aren’t the only titles where he does this – the early Matthew Jenkyn books looked at Richard II and Joan of Arc, and some standalones – Dove Amongst The Hawks, The Masked Man and The Fate Of Princes – take the same approach, but this is the only series that takes this as its premise.
I honestly don’t know if this plot behind the murders is Paul’s genuine theory as to what happened in Mary’s final days, or whether he has just constructed an intriguing mystery around the events. Most of the characters are real historical characters and while the conspiracy is perhaps a tad more unbelievable than some of Paul’s other theories, it’s not so far out there as to be considered silly.
And at the core of the tale, we have someone (or someones) going around poisoning people and, for a bit of a change, sometimes setting fire to people. And the mystery, a fairly clued one at that, completely flummoxed me. I was convinced I knew who the guilty party was, but Paul hid it exceptionally well and had me looking in the wrong direction.
The story, needless to say, contains plenty of the history of the time, but novices to late Tudor history won’t be flummoxed – everything you need to know is given to you, without the author ever descending into lecturing the reader.
This is probably the best of the Segalla books – the series is long since been put out to pasture – but there’s no need to read them in order. And I really recommend that you do read this one.
Oh, and here’s a bit of trivia – not only is this the first of two Paul Doherty books this month, but it’s also the first of two books concerning Mary Tudor. Stay tuned…
Availability: You can get it as an ebook for a few quid.