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Locked Room Reviews:
Bloodstone by Paul Doherty
A Medieval Locked Room Tale!
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Two of my favourite mystery sub-genres have long been the historical mystery and the locked room mystery, so it is always a pleasure to encounter a new read that feeds both of my passions. I have read many of Doherty’s novels over the years, including all of the early episodes of The Sorrowful Mysteries of Brother Athelstan up to #10, published in 2003, but I somehow lost track of the series in the eight long years that separated The House of Shadows (2003) from Bloodstone published in 2011. However, it was well worth the wait. This is one of Doherty’s better locked room plots and the historical side is handled with the expertise and finesse that is always displayed by this master of the historical mystery genre.
It is December of 1390, in the middle of Advent. This novel opens almost immediately after Cranston and Athelstan’s previous adventure in “House of Shadows”. It is a tempestuous era. The Hundred Years’ War grinds on and England teeters on the edge of a peasant rebellion, resulting from John of Gaunt’s over taxation to pay for this endless conflict. This revolt is being led by the Great Community of the Realm and the Upright Men, who often use the church as their pulpit, creating further tension between the crown and the clergy.
Amidst all this strife, six old soldiers of the Wyvern Company, a renegade group of English master archers who fought at the battle of Poitiers in 1356, have been pensioned off at the wealthy abbey of St Fulcher-on-Thames, after leaving the service of The Black Prince, and later his brother, The Duke of Lancaster, John of Gaunt. They are still suffering the dark horrors of war, but are relatively comfortable in their retirement, thanks to their fortunate acquisition of a massive ruby coveted by Gaunt, the Regent, who is governing for the young Richard II. However, this ruby, known as The Bloodstone or the ‘Passio Christ’, is also a sacred relic reputed to have been miraculously formed by the blood of Christ. The gem had once been the prized relic of St Fulcher’s sister Benedictine Abbey, St Callisto near Poitiers, until it was liberated by The Wyvern Company in the confusion following the English victory. The Wyvern claim it as legitimate plunder of war, found in an abandoned cart, while the French monks accuse them of sacrilege for stealing the famous relic from their sanctuary and threaten excommunication. Fortunately, for The Wyvern, the greedy Gaunt is on the side of his former soldiers. After negotiations between church and state, it has been agreed by all that the Bloodstone will be held by a neutral third party, Sir Robert Kilverby, a wealthy merchant of Cheapside, during the lives of the six old soldiers who claimed it as a spoil of war. As part of this settlement, St. Fulcrum’s has now become the grudging retirement home of the few remaining archers, with the crown recompensing the order for their loss, and the bloodstone set to revert to the state after the last of the Wyvern are laid in their graves.
However, such grievances run deep. The new French Sub-Prior at St Fulcher’s, Richer, whose uncle had been the Abbott of Calliste, has been busy whispering dire threats of hell into Kilverby’s ear, and pressuring the Wyvern to confess.This tension finally reaches a peak, rather prematurely, in the prologue of this novel, when Sir Robert Kilverby is murdered inside the locked and bolted chancery of his London mansion, and the same night, on the Advent feast of St Damasus Pope, one of the Wyvern, Gilbert Hanep, is brutally slain while on a lonely midnight visit to the grave of a recently deceased member of the Wyvern Company, William Chalk.
It would be far too coincidental for these crimes to not be related, but what is the connection? Fortunately, murders in London, in 1380, are subject to the daunting investigations of the rather crass, but foxy, Sir John Cranston, Royal Coroner of London, who is brilliantly aided by his best detective, Brother Athelstan, the friar of the tiny rural church of St. Erconwald in Southwark, then just on the outskirts of London.
Cranston and Athelstan begin their investigation at the Cheapside mansion of Sir Robert Kilverby. Their first order of business is to determine whether the Bloodstone has been stolen, and when they finally remove the keys from a chain around the poisoned Sir Robert’s neck, and open a triple locked casket, their fears prove justified. The sacred relic has impossibly vanished from a locked and bolted counting house which has only one stout door and no window large enough to admit a thief. The murder proves to be just as mysterious, when Athelstan and Cranston fail to find any source of poison inside this secure room, as all the evidence suggests that Kilverby was alive for several hours after he retired, which makes it impossible for him to have ingested poisoned before he entered. It also seems clear that some member of the household must be involved, providing Athelstan with a short list of suspects which includes Sir Robert’s beloved daughter, Alesia; her husband, Edmund; Kilverby’s shrewish second wife, Lady Helen; and her ‘kinsman’ Adam Lestral; as well as Kilverby’s long trusted assistant, Crispin. However, it is also noted that Kilverby met with Prior Alexander and Sub-Prior Richer from St Fulcram’s in that chamber the previous afternoon – the last time The Bloodstone had been seen – and the monks had left a suspect gift of sweetmeats!
When the investigation into Kilverby’s murder stalls, they move on to the abbey to investigate the murder of the old soldier in the cemetery. However, before they even arrive, the murderer strikes once again; this time fatally stabbing Ailward Hyde, another of the Wyvern men, near the abbey’s river landing. It is clear that this killer was an extremely powerful man, as the well armed Hanep was beheaded with a single blow from a large sword. Hyde’s murder proves to be even more suspicious, when Brother Athelstan discovers evidence that two men may have been involved, but there is still no obvious culprit. The old soldiers loudly blame the monks, especially Richer, while the Abbott and his men suggest that it was most likely a quarrel between these old soldiers who have led extremely violent lives as the king’s archers and assassins on the French battlefields. With no good leads, Cranston soon returns to London, leaving Brother Athelstan at the abbey to continue the investigation of this double murder. (An unusual separation of this crime fighting duo!) However, the killer is far from done with the Wyvern men, and Athelstan barely escapes with his life after a crossbow bolt is fired through his window. This proves to be one of the most complex cases investigated by Cranston and the friar, with too many moving parts that don’t quite fit, leaving Brother Athelstan in the dark as a vicious killer roams free – until he finally clears up a few minor points and puzzles out a dark riddle.
There can be no real doubt that this an excellent piece of historical mystery fiction, though Doherty’s magical ride through the filthy poverty stricken landscape is a little too over padded with his entrancing vision of life in the late 14th century. Still, it moves quite well and keeps the reader’s interest held for most of the journey, only slowing to a bit of a crawl for awhile near the middle. By far, the best parts of this story are the too short passages where Brother Athelstan interacts with his rather odd congregation, mainly at the beginning and when Cranston barges them in to the Abbey to visit with their much missed friar – just after his brush with death. This provides an enchanting human touch to the mystery, which is well worth noting:
“The sheer magnificence of the abbey church soon reduced such chatter to ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ of admiration. Huddle immediately disappeared to study the wall paintings whilst Tab lovingly caressed the polished carved oak. Ranulf the rat-catcher had brought his prize ferrets Ferox and Audax in their cage; he wandered off sniffing the air and poking into corners. Ranulf’s tarred pointed hood, his nose sharp above yellow jutting teeth, made the rat-catcher look even more like the rodents he hunted. Athelstan kept a sharp eye on Watkin, Pike, Moleskin and the rest, whose fingers positively itched at being surrounded by such wealth. He glimpsed Benedicta, who had donned her best cloak and hood of dark murrey lined with squirrel fur. Athelstan smelt her delicate perfume, a fragrance she once laughingly described as the best of Castile, a rare soap her husband had bought on his travels. Athelstan tried not to look into those dark eyes dancing with delight at seeing him again. One hand grasping his arm, Benedicta described how Cranston had appeared in the parish like God Almighty, organizing Moleskin and his St Andrew’s Guild of Bargemen to take them along the river to St Fulcher’s. They had all decided to go. Athelstan glanced around. He noticed with a twinge of bemused sadness how his little flock had also insisted on bringing the parish hand bell as well as the small coffer holding the Blood Book, the parish records and other important memoranda, not to mention the casket carrying the keys to the church, tabernacle, sacristy and parish chest. They apparently trusted no one! Benedicta quietly assured him all was well even as she studied him closely, flicking the dust from his robe and gently touching the slight cuts and bruises on his hands and face. Cranston joined him; his bonhomie faded as he too scrutinized the little friar from head to toe.”
It is almost needless to note that Doherty’s history is apparently flawless, depicting the too often cruel and savage life of Athelstan’s London in fascinating detail, and starkly contrasting it with the lavish wealth of church, state and merchants. I briefly thought I caught him out when he referred to the fashion of beaver hats, only to discover that a Eurasian species of beaver had been very popular at that time, before it was nearly hunted to extinction and later replaced by the North American variety. I was also fascinated by the story of the Great Community of the Realm and the Upright Men, and the brewing peasant revolt, also known as Wat Tyler’s Rebellion or the Great Rising, which took place across large parts of England a year later in 1381. Doherty provides a fascinating background to this revolt which was so clearly forged by the seemingly endless strife caused by The Hundred Years’ War, which had begun back in 1337, nearly a half century earlier, and was not destined to be finally concluded for another seventy years, until 1453. This was a critical period in English history; a time when our modern world was first beginning to emerge from the dark ages, and it is humbling to discover just how close Europe came to falling back into chaos. I think this is part of what makes the Brother Athelstan mysteries so compelling. In many ways, Athelstan demonstrates a delicate balance between the modern logical detective and the harsh persecutions of the early medieval period. He has one foot firmly planted in the age of reason, determined to conquer superstition and apply unbiased logic, while the other foot is still solidly set in an age of faith, which is unwilling to abandon the repressive structures of church and state which have gradually dragged the land out of centuries of darkness and despair. Doherty deserves full marks for illuminating this too often ignored period of struggle.
Finally, this one is actually fairly easy to rate! As a magical history tour it is superb. These eccentric and sympathetic characters, set against such a rich historical background, are quite simply irresistible. As a straight mystery, it is not Doherty’s best, but quite good enough for a quiet night by the fire. Unfortunately, the locked room mystery employs a rather hoary old trick, but this device is handled quite well and all our locked room plots can’t be original! Overall, this is clearly no five star masterpiece, nor is it a run of the mill historical mystery spruced up with a with a locked room twist. This mystery is quite able to hold its own, though all the period charm certainly helps to raise it up to a very solid four stars!
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