A while ago, I was searching without much success for a genuine historical mystery. A number of books, such as The Nine Giants, Death In The Setting Sun or anything that I’ve read by Ellis Peters were evocative of the ages that they were set in, but the mystery was lacking – either the killer was obvious or the mystery was only a minor aspect of the plot. The only success I had was in finding The Death Maze, which did a pretty good job of marrying the two strands. Well, I’m pleased to say that I’ve found another one – Nightshade by Paul Doherty.
In 1304, Lord Scrope, a manor lord in Essex, is doing a pretty good job of being hated by anyone who knows him. Whether it’s the Templars, who want a stolen treasure returned, or friends of the local religious brethren, who he’s recently massacred, or King Edward I himself who wants a treasure returned to him as well, he’s no-one’s favourite person. When a masked huntsman, The Sagittarius, starts shooting townsfolk at random with his longbow, things really start to kick off. Oh, and it’s got a locked room murder as well. It’s a good thing that the King has sent Hugh Corbett, Keeper of the Secret Seal (whatever that means) to investigate.
This is a proper mystery. It’s reasonably clued and contains surprises along the way – for example, I was quite surprised at the identity of the locked room victim – and there’s a very unhealthy bodycount. I’ve read nasty serial-killer schlock with less victims in it than this. There must be at least 12 murders, not including the two dogs (aaah) and even then, most of them are committed for a sane reason. The characters are well drawn and despite getting some point of view sections from most of the cast, this is done without removing suspicion from anyone. While the identity of the Sagittarius is reasonably guessable, the extent of the involvement of the other characters contained at least one genuine shock – the locked room is clever, although not too original, but there is something clever that may make you overlook the obvious.
Paul Doherty has written over 50 historical mysteries in a number of different series, whilst also being headmaster of a London school. He must be an amazing time-manager, as, being a teacher myself, I know how much time that takes as well. Take my word for it, this is a well-written, well-plotted murder mystery and I have every intention of hunting down more. There’s a fascinating Author’s Note at the end detailing how Doherty has taken real historical events and woven a story around them.
One thing though – this is probably just me, but it’s very distracting having a character named Master Claypole. For UK readers of a certain age, it’s very hard not to imagine the rather unpleasant mayor of the town not wearing full motely and talking to Little Timothy all of the time.
Oh, and thanks to Sergio at Tipping My Fedora for the tip. Couldn’t find the book he recommended (The House of the Red Slayer) but this one fitted the bill nicely.