London, 1378, and Sir John Cranston, Coroner of London, has been tricked by the Regent John Of Gaunt. Cranston has to provide the solution to a series of mysterious deaths, men who died alone whilst locked inside a bed chamber – if he fails, then he will be indebted to the Regent, a situation that Gaunt is bound to take advantage of. He turns to his associate, Brother Athelstan, for help, but Athelstan has concerns of his own.
A woman’s body has been unearthed in his church, a body that some claim to be that of a saint – a claim exacerbated when it miraculously heals a man. Athelstan is also asked to return to Blackfriars, the place that exiled him to St Erconwalds. A conference has been convened to discuss potentially heretical religious theories – but when friars and visitors alike begin to die in bizarre accidents, it seems that someone wants to end the discussions once and for all…
Another re-read, another Paul Doherty re-read. Consider it my version of eating a whole tub of ice cream and watching a box set of my favourite TV series. It’s comfort reading – I know what I’m going to get, I’m going to read a book about characters who I care about and, after a few duff reads – see my most recent review – that’s sometimes what I need. The fact that Canelo have re-released the first seven Brother Athelstan books for a pittance on ebook with handsome new covers gives me a bit of an excuse as well. And when you’ve crammed those books tomorrow, the next seven (including the up-to-know expensive ones from Severn House from Bloodstone to The Book Of Fires) are out on Monday 26th October, for a couple of quid each on ebook. Bargain!
I’ll say it again – these are the medieval mysteries that should be the benchmark, not Brother Sodding Cadfael. They are so detailed, with strong characters, multiple murderers and proper mysteries, usually of the locked room variety.
That said, this isn’t the best one. It’s probably the weakest of the first seven, to be honest. It’s still good, but…
There is a lot of good stuff with regards Athelstan and his relationship with the widow (or is she?) Benedicta, and Cranston’s relationship with his wife. It also closes, to an extent, the plot of Athelstan’s penance for his youthful errors, namely his exile to Southwark.
The problem is, there are three strands of plot going on and they have nothing to do with each other. It’s a bit like reading three novellas that have been sliced up and bound together into a whole novel. If you read the blurb, you’d think the story of the wager is the prime plot. It isn’t, it’s the present day murders, and it’s by far the most interesting, partly because the development of the wager consists of Athelstan having a think and getting an insight when someone puts their makeup on – and no, it’s not poisoned makeup. The murders at Blackfriars are the most interesting, but even then, there isn’t much in the way of clueing going on.
But it’s still an entertaining, relaxing read. And at the moment, that’s exactly what I need. Especially after reading… well, that’s a review for another day.