The summer of 1523, and London is ravaged by sickness. As Roger Shallot expands his career into the dubious medicine business, King Henry VIII retires to Windsor, only to begin receiving threatening demands. Letters have been received questioning Henry’s right to the throne and threatening an uprising, unless large quantities of gold are sent in return. The issue is that the letters have been sent from the Tower of London itself, signed with the royal seal of Edward V himself – one of the supposedly dead Princes in the Tower.
Benjamin Daunbey and Shallot are sent to investigate the threats, along with the brutal murders of some of the Tower’s hangmen. But the truth of the matter may date back longer – is it possible that Edward V somehow survived and has returned to claim the throne?
This is the fifth of the six Roger Shallot mysteries set early in the reign of Henry VIII. Written by Paul Doherty, under the pseudonym Michael Clynes, I’m pleased to see that the series is coming out in ebook form from the end of November, along with most of the rest of Doherty’s back catalogue. But is this one of the first that you should go for?
The evocation of the historical age is as detailed as ever, enhanced by the first person point of view. In some ways, this can be a bit of a problem, as Shallot at times is never too focussed on the mystery at hand. Most of the books in the series have a reasonably lengthy prologue involving Shallot getting into deeper and deeper trouble, leading to need to redeem himself by helping Benjamin find a murderer. There’s no change here – but later on, when a similarly lengthy distraction occurs with regard to the hunting of Shallot by King Henry himself – and the unexplained appearance of a mythological figure – you do find yourself wishing the mystery was a little more to the forefront of the novel.
The mystery itself is an intriguing one. Edward’s royal seals would have been destroyed, so how are they being used to authenticate his messages? How is someone sending letters with the seal both inside and outside the Tower, despite the Tower being effectively sealed due to the sickness in the city? How have the hangmen been killed in the most gruesome ways, despite there being no other signs of violence? And how are the crimes connected?
The plot, when it is the focus, rolls along well, and there is no denying this is an enjoyable, absorbing read. The bonus of the mystery of the Princes in the Tower (and for the less historically minded, there is the possibility that Edward could be alive at the age of sixty-ish) and the insight into Henry’s paranoia concerning his right to rule enliven the narrative further.
At the end of the day, everything dovetails together nicely and the villain of the piece is pretty well hidden – although the clues pointing towards the individual are a little tangential. Needless to say, with so many threads going on here, some of them are going to be less well resolved than others – the rationale behind the “locked Tower of London” mystery relies on a trick that is generally disapproved of, but Doherty does add a new spin on it. And at the end of the day, the fate of the Princes is probably the least successful aspect of the book, partly as it’s so… ordinary. But the important parts are done very well indeed. Recommended.