Edward I is in dire need of funds and arranges a meeting with the leaders of the church at St Paul’s Cathedral in order to negotiate new taxation. Before the meeting can begin, Walter De Montfort, the Dean of St Paul’s dies during mass, poisoned in the act of passing the communion chalice. But no poison is found in the chalice. What unseen hand has struck the bishop down? How did he die? And will anyone else suffer the same fate? And how does it all connect to the war-crimes committed by Edward when he sacked Berwick in 1298?
This is the fourth excursion for Hugh Corbett, now elevated to Keeper of the Secret Seal, namely Edward’s spymaster. After the tour of Scotland in Crown in Darkness and multiple trips to France in Spy in Chancery, he gets to stay in London this time, a London in the depth of winter. Corbett has cheered up a bit now, as, after meeting Maeve in the previous book, they are now betrothed, although she is stuck in Wales due to the weather.
Due to the one location, the action is more concentrated this time – it’s set over a much shorter time period than the first three books in the series (if you ignore the epilogue, anyway) – and there is more of sense of urgency, which greatly benefits the narrative. As before, the late thirteenth century is vividly brought to life by Paul Doherty’s writing and this feels much more like a traditional detective novel.
It’s probably worth noting that all of the Corbett books so far (the earliest of Doherty’s work that I have read) are all based on historical events – not just in the background, but in the primary plot. In this case, Walter De Montfort really did drop dead for unknown reasons. In some ways, though, this does hamper the plotting a little. Compare, for example, to The Nightingale Gallery, where the historical happenings are in the background, and the murder in question is entirely made up. That book benefits from the lack of tying itself to fact, allowing the author free rein with his imagination, and I would say that is part of what made is a much superior book than these four. Similarly the later Corpse Candle and Nightshade have the same structure – Doherty uses ideas from history for the plot, but is much less constrained by having those ideas further from the central action. It will be interesting to see when this change of approach occurs in the Hugh Corbett series – it might well be with the next book The Prince of Darkness, as there was a three year gap between writing this one and that one.
Back to this one, and it’s a short book – my copy is 157 pages long, so it doesn’t outstay its welcome. Probably a good job too, as the solution is rather underwhelming. In fact I’m reluctant to class it as an “Impossible Crime” due to the prosaic solution. Due to the nature of the story, Doherty needs a realistic answer, but it’s so obvious that you might overlook it, on the grounds that surely it wouldn’t have taken Corbett that long to work it out. Rather than faff about wondering about the impossibility of the situation, if he’d considered the obvious method, then he’d have been home in time for tea.
Bonus points do go to the historical aspects and the refusal to spell everything out. One character in the book is an anchorite, namely someone who has chosen for religious reasons to spend their entire lives bricked up in a small cell next to the Cathedral with a small window into the church. You can work this out from the descriptions, but Doherty chooses not to spell it out to you. So now I’ve learned something new! And so have you. Congratulations.
So a quick read, but again, this isn’t Doherty at the top of his game – in fact, none of the Corbett books so far represent his best work. It will be interesting to see how things change with the next one, given that he wrote both The Nightingale Gallery and The White Rose Murders in the interim, both of which are excellent.