(creator: Paul Doherty/Harding)
|Brother Athelstan was "past my twenty-eighth summer" in 1376, when we first meet him. His parents had owned a prosperous farm in Sussex, but he was intended for the religious life, and was educated in the novitiate at Blackfriars and at Exeter Hall in Oxford. But he abandoned the novitiate and persuaded his brother to accompany him to join a party of soldiers on their way to win honour and glory (and booty) in France. But "Our dreams soon died. No chivalrous knights, no majestic armies moving according to rules, but horrible deeds, towns gutted and burnt, women and children slain."
Then his brother was killed "and I had aged a hundred years". His parents never recovered from the shock, and Athelstan rejoined his Order. It became part of his penance that he was sent to the deprived parish of St Erconwald's in Southwark in London, where he also had to act as secretarius (assistant) to the coroner, the fat and bibulous (but fierce fighter) Sir John Cranston.
He may be a man "of short stature" ("Few adults," he says, "are smaller than me"), but he is intelligent, observant and very down-to-earth, as when he has to examine a corpse "from neck to crotch". But to him "If there's a problem, logically there must be a solution", and finding it was his great passion. And he is invariably determined to find it. He likes to spend time up on the roof of his church tower observing the stars through a huge telescope, but otherwise has little time for recreation. But this "small, dark-faced Dominican friar .... with his soulful eyes and searching looks" can make a formidable opponent. Sir John thought of him as "his little ferret of a friar who was always so certain, so sure that he lived in the truth."
He lives a rather lonely life, accompanied, as he is, just by his one-eyed black cat Bonaventure, so it is not surprising that he is attracted to Benedicta, "the widow who attended every morning Mass ... Sometimes he would catch Benedicta looking at him, her lovely face pale as ivory, her dark eyes smiling. 'No sin!' Athelstan muttered. 'No sin! Christ himself had his women friends.' .... Deep in his soul he loved this widow, but never once would he dare tell her".
He remembers his old novice master's warning : "A priest's life has three great terrors. The first are the lusts of the flesh! ... Yet these will pass. Then comes the second terror, the sheer soul-destroying loneliness of a priest: no wife, no children, never the clasp of small warm bodies and clinging arms around your neck. But that too will pass. The third terror is more dreadful." The old priest's eyes brimmed with tears, as he whispered, "There's a belief that each person is born destined to love another. Now sometimes we priests are lucky - in our early pilgrimage we never meet this person. But if you do, then you truly will experience the horrors of the dark night of the soul. Can you imagine, Athelsatan, to meet, to love, but be bound by God's law never to express it?" This is written with such feeling that the reader is left wondering if this was one of the reasons why the author himself gave up studying for the priesthood.
Paul C Doherty (1946 - ) has used the names of Paul Harding and Paul Doherty, as well as those of C L Grace, Michael Clynes, Vanessa Alexander, Ann Dukthas, and Anna Apostolou, but now uses only his real name. He was born in Middlesbrough in England and studied for the Catholic priesthood at Durham for three years before giving it up. He went on to earn a 1st class degree in History at Liverpool University, then obtained his doctorate at Oxford for a thesis on Edward II and Queen Isabella. He became Headmaster of Trinity Catholic School, a large comprehensive in North-East London. He lives with his American wife and family (all 7 of his children attended his own school) near Epping Forest.
He is the prolific author of some hundred books, mostly historical fiction but including some non-fiction titles. His Sorrowful Mysteries of Brother Athelstan books are the only ones to feature a clerical detective.
The Nightingale Gallery (1991)
This is a fast-moving rumbustious story, enlivened by graphic descriptions of the squalor of London life: "Cranston asked him a question and Athelstan was about to reply when the stench from the poultry stalls suddenly made him gag: that terrible odour of stale flesh, rotting giblets and dried blood. .... At the Rose tavern on a corner of an alleyway they stopped to let a ward constable push by, leading a group of night felons, hands tied behind their backs, halters round their necks." And there are always the corpses hanging from gibbets.
The drunken Sir John, ever burping, belching and farting, can be shrewd too and come out with relevant comments, even when almost laid out. "The wine does not affect me as much as you think," he tells an interviewee, "and, spinning on his heel, Cranston lurched with as much dignity as he could muster through the door, Athelstan following behind .... He waddled as sure as a duck to water towards the welcoming, half-open door of an ale-house across Cheapside. Athelstan stopped and looked up at the starlit sky. 'Oh. good God!' he groaned. 'Surely not more refreshment, Sir John?' "
Despite appearances, Sir John is no fool. "I trust your judgment, Athelstan. Something's wrong, though God knows what!" He also confides in him, "I have been writing a treatise, have been for yours, on the maintenance of the king's peace in London". This is something he really cares about.
Sir John and Athelstan get on surprisingly well. "Nothing," Athelstan tells him, "as Heraclitis says, is what it appears to be. Or, as Plato writes, we live in a world of dreams, the realities are beyond us."
Yet the two men have a real respect for each other. Sir John had talked about Athelstan's brother's death and "for the first time ever someone had not laid the blame at his door". Indeed Sir John had told him that "With your guilt and deep sense of justice" he was particularly well suited to the task of safeguarding the lives of London's victims. "If your order produced more men like you, Athelstan, and fewer preachers and theologians, London would be a safer place". The two them make a strong, if unlikely, team.
Athelstan seems very ready to forget Sir John's superior rank and take over the questioning from him, and he is always prepared to stand up for himself: "Let me remind you, Sir John." he says, "that I am a clerk, a priest, and not your messenger boy, your little lap dog!" To him, Sir John is "a large burden, a veritable sin of the flesh, with balding head, shrewd brown eyes, and a face as red as a bloody rag. Sir John Cranston, lord of the great, fat stomach, master of the sturdy legs and an arse so huge that Athelstan secretly called it 'Horsecrusher'."
Yet Sir John has the courage and skill to fight off two would-be assassins. He is quite a character. As is Athelstan, who never neglects his church work and, eventually, accepts that Southwark is the right place for him to be. And, as he tells Sir John, "I always think that working with you will lessen my spell in Purgatory when I die."
It all makes a lively and entertaining story. Recommended.
The House of the Red Slayer (1992)
Dominican friar Brother Athlestan and Sir John Cranston, the fat wine-loving coroner of the City of London, set about investigating the mysteries, only to discover that it was to be only the first of a series of macabre killings which had their roots in a terrible act of betrayal committed many years before. Athelstan has a problem of his own too: the weird disappearance of newly buried corpses from his own churchyard.
Athelstan loved his church work (and would have liked to have loved one of his parishioners, the widow Benedicta). "It was his other office, as clerk to Sir John Cranston the coroner, which depressed him", all those "planned murders, coolly calculated by souls steeped in the black night of mortal sin". It is the interaction of the two men that adds much to the book's appeal, as when Cranston interviews the dead man's relatives and retainers, including two hospitaller knights: "Sir John had no inhibitions but threw back his cloak, stretched out his log-like legs and revelled in the warmth from the fire. The posset he drained in one gulp, held out his cup to be refilled and slurped noisily from it, smacking his lips and staring round as if all his companions were close bosom friends. Athelstan muttered a silent prayer that the good Lord would keep Cranston both sober and awake .... The two knights stared in utter disbelief.
Athelstan feels a responsibility for him: "Sir John," he murmured, "take care with the wine. You have drunk enough and are tired."
The squalid London background (with characters like Watkin the dung collector, and such events as the plotting of a peasants' revolt) is vividly portrayed, although my paperback copy of the book was not helped by a particularly badly-printed map of old London on which many of the names were illegible. But the story holds the interest.
Murder Most Holy (1992)
Realizing that his reputation and wealth now rest upon the solving of this mystery, Cranston seeks the help of his faithful secretarius, Brother Athelstan. However Athelstan has problems of his own. At St Erconwald's, during renovation of the sanctuary, a skeleton has been unearthed under the altar. Religious hysteria seems likely to ensue when a man is miraculously healed whilst leaning in prayer against the skeleton's coffin. Athelstan watches helplessly as the church begins to attract not only well-meaning pilgrims but religious hucksters and swindlers from all over London's underworld.
Meanwhile, there are sinister influences at work at the great chapter of Dominican Friars being held at Blackfriars. One friar has died in mysterious circumstances, and another has disappeared. Sir John Cranston and Athelstan are again called in to investigate.
Sir John, who had "a big belly, a big mouth and a big heart" is now the proud father of two infant twins: "No one could doubt they were Cranston's sons: red-faced, bawling, bald-headed, burping and farting" - just like him. But Athelstan did not welcome his summons: "Oh, bugger!" he whispered under his breath. He now had three mysteries to investigate, all at the same time. But one of them, the solving of the riddle, seems to get pushed into the background - strange really, as this is the one that threatens to impoverish Sir John.
There are interesting descriptions of the Great Chapter meeting where one of the monks, young Brother Henry, has to defend his thesis that "Too much emphasis has been laid on the fact that Christ became man to save us from our sins. But if the venerable Aquinas is correct in his study of the Divine Nature, God is the Summum Bonum, the Supreme Good. How, therefore, can the Supreme Good, the Divine Beauty be motivated by sin? Moreover, if God is omnnipotent, why couldn't he save us from our sins by a simple decree?" Even the two inquisitors cannot argue that this is heresy, but an old monk, is prompted by this to check something in the library - and this leads to his violent death.
The description of London is again nothing if not vivid: "A man stood naked up to his chin in a barrel of horse piss. The crude notice pinned to the wood proclaimed him to be a brewer who'd adulterated his drink. The biggest crowd, however, had stopped to watch an aged harridan, her ragged skirts tied up above her head, whilst a bailiff beat her drooping grey-coloured buttocks with a wand as a punioshment for ill-treating some children. A crowd had gathered round, shouting cat-calls and throwing offal and other refuse at the hapless blindfolded woman."
In such a setting, even Sir John's language ("By Queen Mab's buttocks!" or "By Satan's balls!") sounds convincing. When his wife, the Lady Maude (the only person in the world he fears), admonishes him, "Sir John, your language!", he replies "My Lady, my most humble apologies!" He grinned wickedly. "I can't stand buggers who swear!"
As Lady Maude tells Athelstan: "He drinks too much. But it's the burden of high office ..."
Following three mysteries at once lessens the excitement level and the solutions, when they come, seem a little too glib. The wager one, also solved, of course, by Athelstan, seems particularly contrived. But the characters of Athelstan and Sir John maintain the interest.
The Anger of God (1993)
Gaunt is involved in winning over the great merchant princes of the capital when his plans are plunged into chaos by a series of bloody and mysterious murders. In desperation, Gaunt turns to coroner Sir John Cranston and his ally Brother Athelstan. Sir John does not think much of the merchant princes: "They are," he tells Athelstan, "a group of foul, wrinkled, double-speaking, painted turds!" But they are dangerous too, as is Gaunt: "God knows what that subtle prince is up to." And Sir John is also much concerned with the sudden death (could it too be murder?) of an old friend. And there is also a problem of disappearing traitor's heads from the spikes on the Tower of London.
After a complicated prologue, the story moves on at quite a brisk pace. There is a lot going on (everything from a chilling exorcism to an attempt to murder Sir John), and Athelstan and Sir John continue to make a highly effective team, but, if you have read the previous books, it all starts to feel just a little too familiar, as when Sir John constantly calls Athelstan monk instead of friar. He does this to get a reaction from Athelstan, but by now it is getting too repititive. But the background, as always, is well described, and the characters still seem real.
By Murder's Bright Light (1994)
But more serious trouble follows when an English flotilla of warships, with God's Bright Light in its number, drops anchor in the Thames. During the first night the entire watch of thee men aboard the ship disappears without trace. A series of murderous and strange incidents leads to Sir John and Brother Athelstan being summoned to resolve the mysteries on board the ill-omened warship. In particular, they are concerned to search out the truth behind the death of Sir Henry Ospring, who was viciously stabbed to death in a local tavern. Their investgations uncover scandal, sexual misbehaviour, murder and even treason - then they find hemselves right in the thick of a bloody battle with the French raiders.
Sir John, the portly wine-loving coroner of the City of London, is his usual ebullient entertaining self, whether he is declaring a toad a ward of court, swearing such oaths as "Devil's bollocks" and "Satan's tits", or fighting for his life. But he "was known for his bluntness and lack of tolerance for fools as well as for his scrupulous honesty", and, underneath all his bravado, he is at heart a kindly man. No wonder that Brother Athelstan, despite his forebodings, enjoys his company.
There are some good comic moments as when a bully boy demands of Sir John "Who are you, you big fat turd?", then, to his cost, discovers the answer. Or when an old woman asks Athelstan to say a Mass for her dead husband who, she tells him, "died sixteen years ago today. The Mass is for the repose of his soul. Oh yes, Father, and in thanksgiving."
There are also exciting action sequences as when the French pirate boats attack, "and the night air was shattered by screams and yells .... Athelstan felt himself pulled back by Cranston and stared at the archers (who were defending their boat from the Frenchmen). They were hand-picked master bowmen; they fired one arrow whilst keeping another between their teeth. Athelstan guessed each one must be shooting at least three a minute. They worked in a silent, cold way. Now and again a French arbalaster replied and an archer fell screaming to the deck. He was pulled away and another took his place, ... Athelstan hurried to those who had been wounded. The first, a youth of about sixteen, was already coughing up blood, his eyes glazing over. Athelstan sketched the sign of the cross over his face and trusted that Christ would understand."
Sir John, of course, is in the heart of the battle and, when the ship is boarded, "hit the Frenchmen like a charging bull". Then, victory won, "the friar winced as the archers, using their misericord daggers, cut the throats of the enemy wounded and unceremoniously tossed their corpses into the river". Sir John "watched as a French prisoner. a noose tied round his neck, was pushed over the side to die a slow, choking death".
Other descriptions of life at the time are equally down-to-earth, as when an English pirate explains, "When we took ships, Sir John, we were always in a hurry. We boarded them, despatched the crew, grabbed the plunder and left. Roffel (the captain) always scrutinised every corpse for valuables, particularly rings. If they didn't come off fast enough, he hacked the fingers off. He thought it was a joke. He used to give the rings, fingers still in them, to Bernicia his doxy."
There is a chilling description of the corpses dragged ashore for plunder by "The Fisher of Men" and the "gargoyles" who help him fish bodies out of the Thames. One of these helpers looks very odd indeed: "Athelstan gazed at him in a mixture of shock, revulsion and compassion. Either he had been born disfigured or he was the victim of some terrible disease. He was very thin. Although only a boy, he was completely bald. But what caught everyone's horrified attention was his face. It was the face of a fish - with scaly skin, a small, flat nose, a cod-like mouth, and eyes so far apart they seemed to be on either side of his head." But the key word here is compassion. Both Athelstan and Sir John really seem to care about such victims.
There is a lot of quiet humour too. When Athelstan unfolds his final plan for unearthing the villain, Cranston at first roared with laughter. "Bollocks and tits!" he scoffed.
Then when Sir John, who had agreed to appear as Satan in Athelstan's mystery play, gets his face jammed in the mask, Athelstan has to tell him, "There's nothing for it. We'll have to stop off at Basil the blacksmith's and see what he can do!" So he "gently took Sir John's hand and led him out of the church. Even as his parishioners (who supposed Sir John was a real demon) scattered, Athelstan knew he would be entering the legends of Southwark as the friar who captured a demon and took it to a blacksmith to send it back to hell."
It all makes quite an interesting story, and, as usual, is strong on period flavour, as evinced by many of the local names that include Pike the ditcher, Hengist and Horsa, dung-collectors, Mousehead, Perline Brasenose, Moleskin and Picknose. And there is the fearsome masked Harrower of the Dead, who is said to conceal a dreadfully deformed face and who is paid to look for corpses in the street every night. He "collects them in his red painted cart; with his black handbell he prowls the streets like Death itself. For every corpse he receives twopence, For those who've suffered violence, the city fathers pay him sixpence." And there's "Tab the tinker, Manyeer the hangman, Mugwort the bell clerk" as well as Ranulf the rat-catcher, and even a missing ape called Cranston, so called because, as a soldier explains to an indignant Sir John, "he was bigger and fatter than the rest". It comes as no surprise that the street where the whores congregate should be called Cock Lane.
The sights, sounds and smells of medieval London certainly come to life, and there is interesting information too about the low life of the time, as when Cranston and Athelstan have to visit Dame Mathilda's Kirtle's house, an up-market brothel. The visit is all strictly in the name of duty, of course. There is a "door-handle of yellow brass carved in the shape of a young, sensuous girl holding a pitcher of water. Athelstan gazes speechlessly at this, then at the end of the bell rope where the weights were carved in the shape of a man's penis. Cranston, huffing and puffing, not knowing whether to be embarrassed or laugh, pulled at the rope then moved his hand quickly away. Thank God the Lady Maude (his wife) can't see me here, he thought."
While waiting in the sumptious parlour for the madam to appear, Cranston asks Athelstan, "Have you ever been with a maid?"
Then, when the madam appears, she turned out to be "a tall, severe lady, dressed in a white veil and grey dress ... Her hair was grey, her face thin and haughty, her eyes sharp and watchful .... Athelstan felt like pinching himself: she walked and talked like some venerable mother superior." She greets Cranston: "You must be Sir John Cranston, the fattest, loudest and most bibulous of coroners!" She held her hand out and Cranston kissed it.
It is this sense of fun, even in the most adverse circumstances, that makes the book an enjoyable read, and Cranston emerges as a really entertaining character, more interesting than Athelstan, although it is Athelstan who writes everything down then has to puzzle it all out. Recommended, particularly for anyone who wants a period story that is much more lively and entertaining than all those tales of anxious medieval nuns, reviewed elsewhere on this site.
The Assassin's Riddle (1996)
The basic plot is less interesting than that of some of the others in the series, although the picture of London with its frequent executions is still a graphic one: Robert Burdon, the little gatehouse keeper at the Tower of London, is described as "busy combing the hair of three severed heads laid out on the table, before placing them on pikes which would jut out over the river. 'I like things to be neat and tidy,' he shouted as Athelstan passed."
There are also some arresting new characters, such as the so-called Vicar of Hell, a defrocked priest who has taken to a life of crime but, according to his prostitute friend, still "has a heart of gold", and the Sanctus Man, a crook specialising in the fabrication/sale of relics who is able to explain to Athelstan how a figure of the crucified Christ has been made to shed blood, allowing Athelstan's parishioners to cash in on the "miracle".
But it is difficult to feel too interested in the fate of the four clerks, and the whole business of the riddles is hardly convincing. Some of the events are proving rather repititious too - there's another visit to a brothel and even the phrase "God bless you and all that's in your breeches" gets repeated. And there's yet another description of what it means to be executed for treason: "The executioner will wait until you are half dead, then cut you down from the gallows, slice your body from neck to crotch and pull out your heart and entrails so you see them before your eyes close. Afterwards, he'll cut you up like a butcher does collops of meat. Your head will be over London Bridge, Your quarters? Well, heaven knows where they will go. One to Temple Bar, perhaps the rest to the ports, Dover and Southampton, all nicely pickled in a bucket."
Athestan is well aware that, as a a brother friar tells him, the Regent John of Gaunt "fears you. He fears that you know the truth but, above all, he fears the way you are loved and respected here in Souhwark. Summer's dying, autumn is coming and the harvest is due. Outside in the shires, the peasants meet and plot. Gaunt fears an uprising. Armies marching on London. He does not want some friar whipping up the mobs of Southwark!"
The Devil's Domain (1998)
Set in the summer of 1380, it makes a lively and eventful, if violent, story, that is at its best when the hearty Sir John is in full flood, as when a goat, called Judas, is trundled into his court. It turns out that he has been left it in an old widow's will. Its name is Judas. When Sir John, not knowing what on earth to do with it, demands to see the actual will, "the goat trotted forward; it seized the parchment and chewed it so quickly, the men could only stare in stupefaction .... Sir John fumbled for the miraculous wineskin where it hung on a special hook beneath the table. He opened the stopper and took a deep swig. The goat watched fascinated and took a step forward. 'Don't you dare!' Sir John warned. 'Don't you ever come near this!' The goat, looking rather aggrieved, stopped but he continued eating the parchment." Then Sir John 's "huge face broke into a grin" as he remembered Brother Athelstan: "Friars are supposed to love bloody animals, aren't they?"
There is a good moment too when the French Envoy, fearful that he might be poisoned, arrogantly demands that Sir John tastes his wine for him. "'Certainly!' Sir John grabbed the goblet, drained it in one gulp and thrust it back".
It is never really explained why Athelstan had never got to Oxford after being ordered there by John of Gaunt at the end of the previous book, but we are told that rumours "claimed Athelstan had got as far as Cripplegate before Prior Anselm had intervened and sent a message ordering the Dominican back to his parish. Athelstan had never said anything." Even Sir John could not discover why, as, when he had asked him, "Athelstan had just shaken his head and smiled".
The rough and teeming London background is, as usual, convincingly described, as is the threat posed to the authorities by the "Great Community of the Realm" which is planning a peasant uprising. Athelstan is opposed to their violent methods, but cannot help feeling some sympathy for their cause, for "When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?". But, used though he is to the low life around him, even he is appalled by the woman Vulpina, an ex-whore who has become a disreputable dispenser of magic potions and 'Queen of the Poisoners'. "He was used to the rapscallions and rogues of Southwark, people like Pig's Arse and Godbless who stole and thieved because they had to. Vulpina, however, enjoyed the evil she distilled, revelling in the chaos and sorrow it caused."
Athelstan is happy to serve the poor parish of St Erconwald's, even when he finds himself having to celebrate a special Mass for the newly formed Guild of Rat-catchers, led by his local rat-catcher Ranulf who had talked him into it. It "was a great success. The rat-catchers with their ferrets, small dogs, cages, treaps, mallets and spikes, nets and leather sacks were all piled together in the sanctuary. The ceremony was one of the liveliest Athelstan had ever conducted. One dog howled throughout the entire ceremony as if singing its own divine chant .... Two ferrets escaped and were pursued by a dog into the cemetery. One was caught but Ranulf came back, just as Athelstan finished the consecration, shaking his head and announcing in a loud whisper that 'the little bastard had gone for good'.
At the end of the Mass Athelstan preached a homily on all God's creatures being a delight in His sight. Ranulf stuck his hand up.
Athelstan has little time to escape to his church tower where he likes, in the words of one of his tougher parishioners, to spend time "watching his bloody stars". "The more he stared at the stars, the more he became aware of the power of God and the sheer beauty of this Creation. If only he could discover more. If only he could test the theories. Did the planets sing while they turned? Why did some stars gleam brighter than others? What stopped them falling to earth?" Or "was Creation the reflection of God, nothing to do with the affairs of Man?"
But for Athelstan it is time to get back to his close encounters with violent death, and his determination to help Sir John track down Mercurius, a formidable English traitor, now spying (and murdering) for the French. Luckily, Sir John is able to prove that he is still more than capable of defending himself. Indeed he goes on to order one of his attackers to be strung up by his neck. The man, "choking and coughing, was hoisted into the air, legs kicking.
The Field of Blood (1999)
There are some memorable descriptions of life at the time, including places like Newgate Prison, "the very antechamber of hell, a warren of passageways, pits, filthy chambers and damp dungeons" and of weird sects like The Four Gospels: "Such religious groups were now springing up all over the kingdom and beyond the Narrow Seas: The Illuminated, The Brides of Christ, The Flowers of Heaven, The Pillars of Jacob, The Tower of Angels. All filled with fanciful ideas that the end of time was nigh and that Christ would come again to mete out justice and establish a new Jerusalem."
The leader of The Four Gospels explains to Athelstan and Sir John that he is responding to a vision that St Michael the Archangel would soon "come up the Thames in a golden barge". The three women with him (the other Gospels) are his wives.
The emphasis in this book is on Athelstan rather than Sir John. One of his favourite prayers was "Oh Lord, please look after me today as I would look after You, if Athelstan was God and God was Athelstan." He explains that he prays often as "prayer sharpens the mind and hones the wit." But it is a pity that we see less than usual of the entertaining and boisterous Sir John. Even Sir John, though, unusually finding himself trying to defend an accused person, rather than prosecute one, gets to look "heavy-eyed, haggard-faced".
There is a great deal of interviewing and thinking, but less exciting action than in the earlier books, and after a time interest begins to pall. And such incidents as having Athelstan and Sir John "totally unaware of the shadowy figure, trailing far behind, watching their every step" seem too familiar from previous books. Even a search for lost treasure lacks much excitement. Not one of the better stories in the series.
The House of Shadows (2003)
As Brother Athelstan and Sir John Cranston get to grips with what is going on, mysterious characters that emerge include the Misericord, a cunning and clever thief, the Judas Man, a bounty hunter who tracks down wanted men, and the Knights of the Golden Falcon who gather at the tavern Night in Jerusalem to celebrate their annual reunion. And it becomes increasingly obvious that there must be a connection with a great robbery of Lombard treasure that had taken place twenty years before.
This makes a strong, violent and interesting story, with vivid descriptions of such events as the Great Ratting when drunken customers watch dogs or ferrets let loose to attack hordes of captured rats. The winner is the one who can catch most rats in a given time. "In the garish light it looked like some antechamber of hell. The underworld was there; the taverner knew each and every one of them: the pimps and the pickpockets, the quacks, the dice-codgers, house-breakers, bully boys and roaring lads. Where they went, prostitutes of every age and description followed, their hair dyed, faces painted, garbed in cheap finery and smelling richly of the perfumes they used to cover their ill-washed bodies."
Among the crowd were many of Athelstan's parishioners, including not only Ranulf the Rat-catcher (whose ferret turned out to be the champion of the contest) but Pike the ditcher, Basil the blacksmith, Crispin the carpenter, Mudwort the bell clerk, Mauger the hangman, Moleskin the boatman, Bladdersniff the bailiff and finally, in all her glory, her blonde hair falling around her face like a halo, Cecily the courtesan, one hand resting on Huddle the painter ..." This was the painter whose realistic, if extremely colourful, depictions of Biblical scenes on the church wall were used by Athestan to tell the Bible story, although he wished that the more doubtful female characters, such as Jezebel, were not always given the face of Pike's wife.
Athelstan who also "always translated the Latin (of the Mass) for the benefit of his parishioners" knew just what they were like, but valued them none the less. Sir John had an equally close relationship with the inhabitants of "needle-thin, filthy streets under the jutting storeys of houses which leaned so far out they blocked the sky" and from which "now and again a piece of refuse was thrown - thankfully it always missed - followed by a curse or shout.
But Sir John, tough and bully-boy though he seems, can have pity on some of the wretches brought before him, such as a petty trader guilty of evecheping, "selling goods after the market horn had sounded and the day's trading had finished. However, he looked so pathetic and hungry that Cranston gave him sixpence, offered him a swig from the miraculous wine skin and dismissed the case."
Eventually Athelstan, with the aid of long lists he has compiled to help him assemble all the evidence, is able to work out what has happened and so is able to sort everything and everyone out. Except, of course, for the apparently friendly but always sinister John of Gaunt who always seems to be there in the background. The author claims that "the character of John of Gaunt is, I believe, accurately depicted in this novel. A man of great cunning, Gaunt was regent of the kingdom during the 1380s." I expect the author got this right, as he did with the period setting. Recommended, even though the pace slackens a bit towards the end.
The story gets off to a confusing start with an unnecessary prologue, but it perks up when the boisterous yet kindly Sir John Cranston. the Lord High Coroner of London, penetrates the seamy side of London life with its “night-walkers and dark-hawks, soil-caked and dirt marked, who slept on straw pallets stretched out over tamped-down mud. The coin-fakers and cross-biters, the cozeners, the mumpers, the scolders and sneaksmen in their motley garish rags, pointed hoods and scuffed boots were on the prowl .... Mouse-ears with his twitching nose and stuck-out ears, Frost-face, his skin badly gnawed by the pox, Rats-tooth and Spindle-shanks, could all be glimpsed amongst the mad and the bad, the moon-men and the moon-cursers. At the mouth of alleyways clustered even more, the beggars who ate mouldy bread filled with barley straw and drank watered ale and wine so muddy it made them wry-mouthed."
However, the lengthy ruminations (with long lists of "items" to consider) and questionings of Brother Athelstan grow increasingly tedious and the plot is not really strong enough to hold the interest throughout. There is a general lack of suspense or excitement so it is difficult to feel at all involved.
On the other hand, as always, the historical background is convincingly described, as when a convicted river pirate, who had murdered a lay brother, is brought before the Abbey monks, “dressed in a black tunic, feet bare, hands bound, his face hidden by a mask …. As the monks chanted, Prior Alexander left his stall and thrust a crucifix into the prisoner's bound hands. Other brothers wheeled a coffin just inside the rude screen whilst the almoner brought a tray carrying a flagon of wine and a platter of bread, cheese and salted bacon." The prisoner was “undoubtedly condemned to hang on the morrow though not before his soul was shriven and his belly filled with food."
But even the climax is mostly talk, and Athelstan himself seems less of a sympathetic character than usual when, trying to bully a confession from his suspect, he threatens: "In the end you'll suffer the full penalty for treason. You'll be drawn on a hurdle from the Tower to the Elms at Smithfield. You'll be half hanged, disembowelled and castrated. You will die the enemy of both church and realm. You'll never be allowed to enjoy the fruits of your foul act."
The Straw Men (2012)
Once again life in the murky past is brought vividly to life, as we enter the world of "greasy, grimed rogues, the cogging naves, the courtesy men, the nighthawks, the nugging maids, the cheaters, shifters, cross-biters, the naps and the foists, the knights of the dusk and the squires of the sewers, the rifflers and the rutters". It is in describing all this that the author excels. The tortuous plot is rather less interesting, although plenty happens, including attacks on both Athelstan and Sir John, an armed assault on the Tower, and a meeting with a mysterious woman prisoner. In the end, Athelstan wins through - of course.
Candle Flame (2014)
It is another remarkably detailed account of life at the time, but, despite all the killings and vivid descriptions of executions, there are too many very long-winded conjectures and explanations, so it struggles to hold the interest. The emphasis is very much on Athelstan rather than on the more lively Sir John Cranston, and he can get very tedious, especially when he writes everything down, or has a lengthy, if one-sided, conversation with his cat, repeating what we already know. Even his final unmasking of the criminals is unnecessarily long-winded. Such a detailed explanation of everything presupposes the reader's close involvement - but I, at least, was overwhelmed by all the detail and left wishing for short chapters, instead of 5 long parts, to provide some relief.
The Upright Men are still plotting revolution, and the book ends with Athelstan's pronouncment that "The time of great tribulation will soon be upon us." It's been a long wait.
The Book of Fires (2014)
In the dead man's possession was a copy of the mysterious Book of Fires, containing the secret formula of a devastating weapon, the so-called Greek Fire. The manuscript has since disappeared and Gaunt is desperate for it not to fall into the hands of the Upright Men, who are busy plotting the Great Revolt.
As with so many of the books in the series, this gets off to an interesting start, this time with an apparent miracle that takes place in Athelstan's own church, much to his distrust: "He mentally beat his breast. He preached about a Risen Christ. How all things were possible with God including a miracle. So why did he have these doubts?"
However, despite some dramatic moments when victims get engulfed in flames, Athelstan's lengthy conversations and speculations soon start to get tedious. Surrounded as he often is by filth and sludge, he wished he could "escape back to the calm serenity of the cloisters, some hall at Oxford or Cambridge, or even a village parish deep in the countryside." But no, there is still page after page of detailed explanation to come.
The Herald Of Hell (2015)
But did the clerk really kill himself? Athelstan is unconvinced. In the dead man's possession was a manuscript containing a great secret which he had been striving to decipher. Could it have anything to do with the priceless but long missing Cross of Lothar? If he could only unlock the cipher and interpret the messages being carried to the so-called Herald of Hell, Athelstan would be one step closer to catching the killer. But can he crack the code before the Great Revolt begins?
The brothel background is convincingly described as is life in the streets: "Rubbish heaps, so slimy they glistened, excluded rotten smells, a haven for the fast, slinking rats almost as big as the long-haired cats which watched from the shadows. Dogs on chains, ribs showing through their mangy hides, howled and threw themselves from their foul kennels. Flies moved in thick black clouds like a hold of demons above the refuse which lay ankle-deep, swilling in the filthy water seeping from cracked rain tubs. Figures moved, flitting shadows through the murk. Voices echoed eerily. Here and there a lantern-horn, lit by candles reeking of tallow fat, glowed through the gloom."
I particularly liked Radegund the Relics Seller with his "holy satchel" full of such religious artefacts as "a scrap of Jesus's napkin, nails pared from the Virgin Mary, hair from St Joseph's beard, a feather from Gabriel's wing, straw from the manger, a loaf from the Last Supper, Salome's bracelet, or even dung from the donkey in the stable at Bethelem!" And then there was the "wee mannikin" who was Custos of the Bridge and Keeper of the Heads, proud member of the Fraternity of the Shearing Knife, the Worshipful Guild of Executioners and Hangmen: "On shelves against the wall were ranged rows of recently severed heads, each washed in brine and tarred at the neck. A truly macabre scene, their glassy eyes staring blindly from beneath half-closed lids; blood-crusted mnouths gaping as if about to speak." There is also a particularly vivid description of a hanging.
But interesting though parts of it are, the plot is too drawn out. There is altogether too much talk and conjecture (including page after page explaining exactly how the murder had been committed) and too much unnecessary detail to hold the interest throughout. The book is again divided into long sections, but with no breakdown into shorter chapters. This does not make it any easier to read.
The Great Revolt (2016)
This is the 16th novel in the series and the last one I shall be reviewing as the truth is they are all very much the same. As always, much space is devoted to lengthy considerations of what may have happened, particularly in regard to the fate of the imprisoned Edward II who may or, in the author's view, may not have been murdered. Doherty has written a whole non-fiction book on the subject, and cannot resist the temptation to go on exploring it in depth, even setting Athelstan to look into it. In the end, after page after page of detailed explanation, it all starts to get rather boring.
However, the book also has all the strengths of previous instalments, giving a vivid picture of low life at the time, with particularly grim descriptions of bloody executions and of Cranston cutting off Wat Tyler's head, although the author admits to exercising poetic licence in ascribing Tyler's defeat to Cranston's personal intervention! Athelstan himself can be violent too: when one of the rebels jabbed a spear at him, Athelstan "quickly stepped aside, bringing the mace cracking down against his oppenent's hair-encrusted skull". He does not emerge as an entirely admirable character.
The series remains a considerable achievement and is still to be recommended to anyone with an interest in the time - but, as far as I am concerned, all good things must come to an end. But for those who want more, further Athelstan books were to follow ...
|Paul Doherty used the pen-name Paul Harding for the first books in the series.|
|This is the 10th book in the series with two different covers. I prefer the more medieval-looking one below.|
|Return to CONTENTS LIST|