A re-read – The House Of Shadows by Paul Doherty

The late autumn of 1380 and all Brother Athelstan wanted to do was referee his parishioners vie for the best roles in the Christmas Mystery Play. If only things were that simple…

In the Night In Jerusalem, an insalubrious tavern in Southwark, it is the night of the Great Ratting, a contest to see whose animal can kill the most rats. While this delightful distraction takes place, an innocent is knifed to death in a case of alleged mistaken identity and two young prostitutes, twin sisters, are murdered in the nearby barn.

The Judas Man, a bounty hunter, the Miserichord, a master thief, and the Knights of the Golden Falcon, a party of former crusaders, have all gathered at the tavern for reasons that are unclear. Are they linked to the death of Guinevere, another prostitute, twenty years earlier, and the theft of the Lombard treasure? Has someone discovered the treasure’s hiding place? And, if so, how will beginning a trail of death and destruction lead to untold riches? And can Brother Athelstan find the truth before the death count hits double figures?

I decided to treat myself with a re-read – it is Christmas after all – so I selected what I thought was a Christmassy Paul Doherty title for another look. The fact that I couldn’t remember the solution helped as well.

You can also add in the fact that recently, my forays into historical fiction have been rarer and rarer, based in part on diminishing returns. With the exceptions of Doherty, Jecks, Tyler and Tremayne, I’ve been less than thrilled with my reads in the genre, which is a shame. So I thought I’d better check that my tastes haven’t changed.

They haven’t – this is such a cut above most of the competition, because it is, first and foremost, a mystery novel. It even has two locked room murders – admittedly not very complex ones and far from the focus of the plot – but Doherty is writing to entertain the reader here, not drown them in historical detail. That detail is there, no question about it, but is enhances the tale, rather than replace it.

Take, for example, the crusading Knights. We get some detailed flashbacks to their crusading days – after all, you know what flashes before your eyes just before… – and the fact that you can tell what’s coming makes it all the more powerful, as it reveals that the Knights in question are far from perfect.

The characters are well-drawn, from the leads down the suspects, and the plot rattles along at a cracking pace, its complexity being a strength while not confusing the reader.

All in all, while not remotely Christmassy – we never return to the Mystery Play plot – this is a great example of how historical mysteries should be done. An excellent read.

3 comments

  1. So good to find a fellow Doherty fan! I got pulled in by the Hugh Corbett series, but love Brother Athelstan as well. Have you also read his work as Michael Clynes or C.L. Grace (which are very good as well)?

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    • If you take a look at the bibliographies tab on my page, you’ll find that I’ve reviewed a few of Paul’s books on the past. Basically all of them in fact, including Clynes, Grace, Dukthas and Apostolou. Massive fan of his work, a crime writer who embraces the puzzle and adds such beautiful historical colour to his tales – and a lovely man as well, given who he dedicated the recent Dark Serpent to…

      Liked by 1 person

      • I should have looked there first. Quite a body of work, from both he and you! I definitely need to do some re-reads. I recently found a copy of Isabella and the Strange Death of Edward II (one of his non-fiction works) and will be be reading it in the coming weeks.

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