The Nightingale Gallery (1991) by Paul Doherty – a re-read

Brother Athelstan is serving latest part of his penance at St Erconwald’s parish in London. He abandoned the priesthood to fight for the King in France, a decision that destroyed his life, sending him back to his first calling. Apart from serving as parish priest in the deprived area, his other duty is to serve as assistant to the coroner, Sir John Cranston, an overbearing drunk who holds his own dark secrets.

The murder of Sir John Springall, in the shadow of the death of the old King, Edward III, brings Athelstan and Cranston together to find the truth. The story was that Sir John was poisoned by his manservant who then committed suicide – no one else could have approached the room, as no one can walk along the Nightingale gallery without making the specially built floor “sing”. But when more deaths occur, it is clear that a devious killer is at work. A killer who can apparently float on air and pass through a locked door…

Another re-read for me – I mentioned last review about the difficulty at the moment for reading and reviewing – this is the first Brother Athelstan mystery from Paul Doherty which has, coincidentally, just been re-released along with the rest of the first seven titles in the series on ebook by Canelo, a publisher with excellent taste as they’ve also re-released the first of the Michael Jecks’ Knights Templar mysteries. They even re-released this on my birthday – so how could I ignore it? It’s a book I have fond memories of so I thought I’d revisit it. So did the memory cheat?

In a way – it’s even better than I remembered. It’s a lovely locked room mystery with a simple but effective method and a beautiful clue. One of those clues that you will not notice until it is pointed out to you but then you just can’t believe you missed it. Such clues in mysteries are few and far between and when they come along… ah, that’s the sweet stuff.

But there’s much more to this. It’s a strong introduction to Athelstan and Cranston with their relationship still new. Athelstan is very unsettled with his placement, both in the community and with Cranston, and Cranston is using drink to hide his recent pain from himself and everybody else, but making it hard for anyone to take him seriously, Athelstan included. Seeing the beginnings of this relationship develop, given that I know where it’s going – shows that the author put a lot of thought into these characters. There is also the start of Athelstan’s relationship with his parishioners and in particular the widow Benedicta (who seems a lot flirtier that I remembered).

The historical detail, both in the setting and in some of the intrigue behind the crime – the country is in a kind of turmoil, with John of Gaunt regent to his nephew, the child-king Richard II, while coveting the throne himself – and in the picture painted of the London of the time is evocative and truly fascinating. This is an exceptional mystery novel, one of the finest that I’ve read – a proper mystery that makes use of its setting, and I’m really glad that I decided to re-read it. And now I’m tempted to re-read more.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – if you turn a blind eye to this because it’s set in “olden times” then you are missing a top-notch classic-style mystery. In fact, you’re missing nineteen of them…

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