Hymn To Murder (2020) by Paul Doherty

In 1303, the Lacrima Christi was stolen from Westminster Abbey and disappeared, despite a number of the perpetrators being quickly caught. It reappeared in the possession of the Pope, embedded in his crown, but disappears from the headpiece immediately prior to his coronation. And then in 1312, Simon Malmaison, a former colleague of Sir Hugh Corbett, receives a communique offering the location of the priceless jewel. Investigators are sent to Malmaison Manor in Devon to gauge the veracity of the message – only for Lord Simon and one of the investigators to be murdered, shot by close-range crossbow bolts, locked inside Lord Simon’s chamber.

When Sir Hugh Corbett arrives, he finds the manor and the nearby town of Felstead riddled with plots and, well, murder. The Sagittarius leads his band of Scarecrows across the moors, a local monastery houses monks who were involved in the 1303 theft, local ships are being wrecked on the coast and a local group of merchants has disappeared without trace. Oh, and there are a couple of leopards on the loose too… As the death count rises, both inside Malmaison Manor and without, Sir Hugh finds himself up against a ruthless enemy. But Sir Hugh has secrets of his own…

Now that’s more like it. After a disappointing “classic” novel, it’s good to read something modern that takes the best aspects of the Golden Age of detection and presents them in their own way to give a truly satisfying read. This will come as no surprise to fans of Paul Doherty, of course, but once again, I appeal to those of you who don’t look at historical fiction to give Paul’s work a try.

For those who would like to know, there are three locked rooms here – all three shot by crossbow bolts inside rooms sealed from the outside – with the first being particularly simple and clever. It’s an idea that people may have seen before, but I’ll be honest, I missed it.

It’s an engrossing book, as Paul uses the isolation of Dartmoor to its full extent, with at least one criminal gang roaming unchallenged, looting and pillaging at will, and everyone concealing at least one dark secret. There is a quite stunning body-count in this tale, and there are times that the reader of little faith would be asking if there was any way that Paul could really tie everything up together neatly. Obviously, he does, and while I think the identity of the murderer won’t come as a massive surprise, especially given how few people are still standing by the end of the story, the simple complexity (it’s complex but easy to follow) of the tale makes the overall who-did-what-to-whom very satisfying. And Hugh Corbett’s final solution to the devastated region is both shocking and also appropriate for the time…

And before the extremely picky point it out, yes, this is the third Sagittarius that Sir Hugh has dealt with, after Satan’s Fire and Nightshade, but it’s an obvious name for an archer, a fact that is commented on by Sir Hugh himself…

Hymn To Murder is the twenty-first Hugh Corbett mystery and is another strong entry into a strong series. As you know, Paul was my first obsession on the blog, and he is still an essential read for me – as he should be for every fan of mysteries.

3 comments

  1. Puzzle Doctor – thanks for the review, which now has me ready to try Paul Doherty. I found an affordable copy of The House of the Red Slayer based on the strength of your recent re-read and am tempted to order Hymn to Murder as well.

    For a novice to this author, what would be your top 5 that aligns best to the GAD style, locked room puzzles, etc.? I see you did a Doherty top 5 for your 300th post in 2012, but has that list changed?

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    • A top five… well, my favourite of this impossible crimes is the locked room from A Murder In Thebes. There’s a good no-footprints in A Song Of The Dark Angel… to be honest, I’d have to sit down and have a good think, but that list is a good place to start.

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      • As the resident locked room fanboy, I second the recommendation for A Murder in Thebes, which is easily his best and most ingenious (multiple) impossible crime novel, but disagree with The Song of a Dark Angel. The Mysterium would be my recommendation because it actually read like it could have been written by John Dickson Carr or Paul Halter. The Demon Archer is an under appreciated non-impossibility and The Assassin in the Green Wood has Sir Hugh crossing paths with that legendary outlaw, Robin Hood!

        If you have a special interest in impossible crimes, Doherty exploited the historical setting in The Spies of Sobeck to deliver one of his cheekiest solutions to date. You’ll either want to strangle him or shake his hands, but either way, you’ll probably get fooled by that locked room-trick.

        You surely opened a whole new world to me with your fanboying all over Doherty and Flynn. So, of course, Hymn to Murder will be flung on my big (locked room) pile.

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