1312, and King Edward II has left London as he seeks to protect his favourite Gaveston. Sir Hugh Corbett, Keeper of the King’s Seal, is trying to navigate the chaos left behind in London, as he investigates the death of one of his most loyal clerks.
Ralph Manning was hunting for his missing fiancée, who disappeared without trace from the Convent of St Suplice, when he was found locked inside his chambers, poisoned, but there was no trace of the poison in the room. As Sir Hugh investigates the death of his friend, he finds that St Suplice has had its fair share of deaths too – a nun was found stabbed alone in a boat in the middle of an ice-cold millpond, and a second plummets to her death down the stairs in a locked tower.
What connects the convent to the Queen of the Night, run by the sinister Mother Midnight? As the threats to Corbett mount up, he will need all of his skill simply to survive, let alone unmask and punish a ruthless murderer. Or should that be murderers…
Twenty-two books (and a couple of novellas) and Sir Hugh is still going strong. If you recall, the break in the series between The Mysterium and Dark Serpent was mirrored in the plots by a jump in time as Corbett returned to serving the crown with Edward II on the throne rather than his father. This was a darker time for England due to Edward II being generally useless, and Corbett’s attitude seems to have mirrored this darkness, as he seems to be becoming more ruthless and resigned to the villainy surrounding him. This ruthlessness makes for a mesmerising character. As the King’s Justice, he has the authority to pronounce guilt and execute criminals on the spot. His use of these powers in the scene towards the end aboard a boat is utterly chilling.
Paul Doherty has also been playing around with the format of his stories as well. In this book, the reader may well suss out the impossible poisoning quite quickly – can’t remember when, but I’ve definitely seen the method before, quite possibly by Paul himself – but so does Corbett and in fact that part of the story ends before the halfway mark. Paul has never tied the whole story around the impossibility with many other strands weaving with the howdunit elements. The overall mysteries – and there are plenty of them – as well as the threats to Corbett’s life, be it from assassins, other clerks or Mother Midnight herself, mean that the reader is never left bored. This is not the sort of mystery where chapters are dedicated to the sleuth having long and detailed conversations with the suspects – barely a chapter goes by without someone getting killed, either mysteriously or in self-defence.
One thing to add is the introduction of a new character, Megotta, a young woman caught up in Manning’s plans. While her story is a traumatic one (Paul wisely shies away from the details in this case), her character’s arc is a gripping one and I do hope that we see more of her in the future.
Needless to say, I loved this book – couldn’t put it down, in fact. There are very few modern authors who I don’t think twice before forking out to buy their latest in hardback – in fact you could probably count them on the fingers of one finger. Paul Doherty’s work never disappoints and this is no exception to the rule.