The Devil’s Domain (1998) by Paul Doherty – a re-read

Summer, 1380, and a fragile peace holds between England and France, but it would take little to tip the balance towards war once more. In Hawksmere Manor near Clerkenwell, five Frenchmen, captured from the warships St Sulpice and St Denis, are held for ransom by John of Gaunt. Fearful for their lives, the five men are extremely careful to only eat and drink what every other man eats and drinks. So how did one of them die in agony, having somehow consumed poison?

Brother Athelstan and Sir John Cranston the coroner are summoned by Gaunt to investigate. It seems that one of the Frenchmen was a traitor who betrayed the ships to the English Navy, but there are many questions to answer. Would the traitor really kill his fellow countrymen? Is someone trying to kill the traitor? Who exactly was the traitor anyway? But as people die both inside and outside Hawksmere, it soon becomes clear to Athelstan that things are far more complicated than they first appear…

Yes, it’s another re-read. I haven’t read Paul’s work in an age and with a review copy sitting on my Kindle of Dark Queen Wary, his latest, that I’ve been putting off reading until nearer the release date, I needed to scratch the itch, so I went back to my absolute favourite of his work, the Brother Athelstan series.

I had vague memories of this one – I remembered how the poisoning was done – but that was about all. It was in my mind as a lesser entry in the series, but on re-reading, that seems awfully harsh. It’s a great evocation of the period, making the political situation part of the plot without the need for dating-by-name-dropping – “Wow, I hope young Richard II doesn’t grow up to be a bit of a vain nutjob”, etc – that I could easily accuse at least one book that I read recently of. The London of the fourteenth century just drips off the page, but you might want to clean up those drips as fourteenth century London would make an awful stain on the carpet.

The characters – Athelstan, Cranston, Gaunt (who gets a bit more page time than usual) and the parishioners – get room to breathe, with the introduction in this book of Godbless, the new graveyard tender of St Erconwald’s and Thaddeus the goat, both of whom play a critical role in the tale (OK, Godbless more so that Thaddeus who is, after all, a goat.) I love Athelstan, not just a pious monk, sorry, friar, but a man who follows his vocation, and is not afraid to stand up for his principles, even to the scheming Regent, John of Gaunt.

And the mystery… well, unlike some historical crime novels, this is a proper mystery. There’s an impossible crime or two – although when it needs an author’s note to reassure the reader that yes, the murder weapon does exist, it probably means you won’t work it out – and an absolutely beautiful moment when one soon-to-be-dead sailor is lured to his death. The reader thinks he will somehow drop dead of poison but instead… no, I’ll leave that for you to enjoy.

In case you haven’t guessed, I loved this, even when I could remember howdunnit. Athelstan is absolutely one of my favourite fictional sleuths and it was so good to dive back into his world. It’s hard to describe visiting his London, full of murder, plotting and general foulness – the Devil’s Domain if you like – as comfort reading, but that’s exactly what it is. And if you haven’t read any of Athelstan’s adventures, you are missing out… And a lot of the early ones are dead cheap on ebook. Just saying…

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