The Hanging Tree (2022) by Paul Doherty

The Crown’s treasury could not have been more secure. The silver and gold were locked and guarded within a secure tower, with elaborate traps and defences. The guards – two shifts of five clerks – alternated in a strict routine, the only time the vault was ever accessed being the changeover. Yet someone apparently walked in, murdered the five clerks on duty and walked out with more coin than they could possibly carry. And in the nave of St Erconwald’s, the parish church of Brother Athelstan, Clement the Key Master, the man who fashioned the intricate locks to the tower, lies dead…

Athelstan and Sir John Cranston, the City Coroner, are tasked to investigate, but find themselves stymied by the political machinations taking place alongside the crime. But meanwhile, the city’s hangmen are living in fear as, to date, six of them have been murdered. Notes on their bodies lay the blame at the Upright Men, the power behind the recent Peasants’ Revolt. Is another uprising on the way? Or is something more sinister taking place…

Usually, I try and time my reviews of new releases to go live on the release date – and I tend not to do that by not reading the review copies until close to the release date. In this crappy old year, though, when I got my hands on an e-copy of the latest case for one of my favourite sleuths, Brother Athelstan, I couldn’t wait to read it, and now, having staved off writing the review for a few weeks, I decided it was time to post this. Yes, I suppose I could delay publication – of the review, not the book, obviously – but I thought I’d share the joy. Yes, it’s another great mystery from the master of the historical locked room.

The central idea behind the theft, from one of the most secure locked rooms that I’ve ever seen, is delightfully simple, but I didn’t spot it. I did spot what was going on with the hangman murders – there weren’t really many options with that strand – but the main story was delightful, a well-crafted blend of shenanigans from the regent, John of Gaunt, the Italian money-lenders and at least one murderous wildcard in the pack. At the centre of it all is Brother Athelstan, thoughtful, troubled and very much a man of his time – it might surprise some readers for a man of God to be so acceptant of the death penalty, for example, but there is a certain blood and thunder that rises in the friar in the face of evil. The supporting cast have something of a lesser role in this one, but all of a regular reader’s favourite characters make an appearance, but not in such a way to confuse new readers.

There are a lot of mystery novels out there that are basically fine, but nothing special. It feels like I’ve read a lot of them lately, so it’s an absolute joy to be able to revisit Athelstan’s London. Later in the year, Hugh Corbett will be back in another adventure too… I’m counting the days already.

The Hanging Tree is released by Severn House in hardback and ebook on May 1st from Severn House. Many thanks for the e-review copy.

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