December 1377, and the Tower of London, the so-called House of the Red Slayer, stands shrouded in snow and ice. Sir Ralph Whitton, the Constable of the Tower, has relocated his living quarters to an isolated room in the North Bastion. Whitton is in fear of his life – a threat relating to his past crimes as a crusader has arrived – so a room that can only be accessed by two trusted guards who hold the only key to the room, or by crossing a frozen moat and scaling the sheer tower wall would seem to be the best way to stay safe.
When Whitton is found with his throat cut while locked inside his chamber, Brother Athelstan and Coroner Sir John Cranston find the killer has more than one person on his list. How was another crusader lured to his death by the ringing of the alarm bell, when there were no footprints in the snow near it? How did the killer enter Sir Ralph’s room without waking him? Has a long-dead crusader actually returned to seek their revenge? When all of the suspects have cast-iron alibis, it seems that a bloodthirsty ghost might be closer to the truth than anyone would want to believe…
I tweeted yesterday that I was going to re-review one of the closest things to a classic mystery that I’ve encountered from a current author. And this is that book. But before we go on, let’s take a look at that term – a classic mystery. There’s a lot of talk about books emulating the Golden Age, but there’s much more variety in the books written by the Detection Club and their ilk between the wars than the casual reader might imagine – not everyone was a writer of classic whodunits. But that is the subset of the genre that I appreciate the most, and that is the sort of thing that this blog has always been hunting for.
“Fans of Agatha Christie would love this” or similar phrases decorate the blurbs of many modern-day whodunits, especially those set between the wars. And yet so many of those have little in common with the classic whodunit than the setting and the fact that the murderer is revealed in the final chapter. It’s not just the fact that the murderer generally isn’t clued, but more often than not, in my reading at least, the killer is caught in the act of trying to kill someone, using the sleuth, and then takes the time to tell the hero exactly what happened. I wonder – does the casual reader treat Christie as little more than a guessing game, rather than a puzzle to be solved? Is that why they are happy to put these modern novels in the same grouping as Dame Agatha herself?
This title isn’t flagged as one for “Fans of Agatha Christie” – another indication that “Fans of Agatha Christie” don’t look past the setting – but it’s a lot closer than most. We have an engaging sleuth – Brother Athelstan, the priest atoning for his past sins – his sidekick, the seemingly fatuous Sir John Cranston, a closed setting – the Tower of London, and a closed circle of suspects. Parts of the crime seem to make no sense until the big picture is revealed and there is at least one solid clue that the reader will probably completely miss but if you spot it, you’ll probably work out whodunit and, most importantly, feel clever that you did so.
There’s more to it than that. I’ve spoken before about Paul’s use of his historical knowledge in both the plot and the background detail. Little things like a beggar freezing to death because the beadles forgot to release him from the stocks overnight, or some characters’ flashbacks to their times fighting in the Middle East. It’s not all window-dressing, either, as one tale of a warning issued by enemies of the day – decapitation, followed by inserting… well, let’s say a certain part of the gentleman’s anatomy into the mouth, and then sending said head (and part) to the victim’s allies – is certainly relevant to the plot. And there’s an excellent use of Chekhov’s Big Angry Bear (like Chekhov’s Gun, but with a Big Angry Bear) – the reader is just waiting for the Big Angry Bear to get free and then, lo and behold…
A long time ago, my fellow blogger Sergio recommended this to me when I was searching for a decent historical mystery, and it remains one of my favourite books in one of my favourite series – in fact, I think I enjoyed it even more the second time around. Canelo Books recently re-released the first seven of the Brother Athelstan series – this is Book Two – and they are currently my go-to reads when I need a pick-me-up, hence the re-review. This is a superb “proper mystery” and I urge you dear reader, if your instinct is basically, “sounds good, but history – yuk”, give it a go anyway. You won’t regret it.