The Nightingale Gallery by Paul Harding aka Paul Doherty

Edward III has died, leaving the throne in the hands of his ten-year old son Richard, as watched over by Edward’s brother, John of Gaunt. But Gaunt has secrets, a fact that Sir Thomas Springall knows only too well. Before he can use these secrets to his advantage, he is found dead, apparently poisoned by his servant Brampton who then hangs himself. An open and shut case.

Enter Brother Athelstan, a friar with his own dark past, scribe to Sir John Cranston, Coroner of London. Both Athelstan and Cranston smell a rat – but the only person who could have delivered the poison was Brampton. Springall’s room lies in the Nightingale Gallery, so named as the floorboards have peculiar acoustics – they sing when anyone walks on them – and the boards did not sing that day. If Brampton didn’t poison him, how on earth could anyone else have done?

This is the first of the so-called Sorrowful Mysteries of Brother Athelstan. Athelstan has been sent to Southwark as penance for past sins, which are revealed as the book progresses, to serve as the priest of St Erconwald’s and also as scribe to Cranston, an apparent drunken idiot. As the bond between the pair grows stronger and secrets are revealed about both of them, the investigation also progresses, although not before a number of other characters fall victim to the shadowy killer.

This is one of the best mysteries that I’ve read for a while. It’s fairly clued (and not obscure clues as is more and more common these days) and the impossible murder is very well done – there’s enough there to work it out, but I bet you won’t. What impressed me more is that we have the traditional small cast of potential murderers, all of which are well-drawn distinct characters, and only one of them makes sense by the end of the book. There’s no sense here of picking one of the characters at random for the murderer.

The background detail, as is usual for Doherty, is stunning, and medieval London, be it the halls of the Regent or the nastiest back street, is mesmerising – and it makes you feel glad that you’re only reading about it rather than being there. The characters leap off the page, and as an introduction to Athelstan, and, as the book progresses, his congregation, it sets the scene well for the later books. In Satan in St Mary’s, the first Hugh Corbett book, the plot suffered a bit for the need to set up character. This is certainly not the case here.

This one is unreservedly recommended. A fairly clued, clever, superbly written mystery. Good luck finding a copy…


I was lucky enough to find a copy for a fiver on eBay. If  there isn’t an affordable one where you look, then keep looking. If you like historical mysteries, you’ll love this one. (Don’t forget to search for both names – there are versions available from both Harding and Doherty).

UPDATE: As of November 2011, The Nightingale Gallery is available as an ebook from Amazon. Click here for the UK and here for the US.


  1. Heavens! Another enticing review? Is it just me or is my wallet getting lighter?
    But in all seriousness, I loved “The Devil’s Domain” despite weaknesses in the mystery angle. Hearing you praise this as you have makes me want to reacquaint myself with the good Brother.🙂


    • It does seem that the Brother Athelstan books hit the ground running. This is a neat little mystery – although it uses a variation on a method from another Doherty that I’ve read, it’s significantly different. Like the best Carr’s, when the explanation comes, you see that the villain gives themselves away a number of times – but you don’t notice until you’re told it in hindsight. Thought this one was very good indeed.


  2. Your praise for this book is indeed enticing and fraught with temptation, but I will not allow my focus to be strayed from the Judge Amerotke series. This time the allurement of the historical impossible crime yarn will smash itself on an unshaken determination not to buckle at the words locked, room and mystery! And I already bought The Mask of Ra and The Assassins of Isis this week. So I can affort to delude myself at the moment.🙂


  3. […] The Nightingale Gallery by Paul Doherty – how many times can I plug this? Out of print in this country, it vanished from the Kindle store for a while and then re-appeared. Less than £2 for one of my favourite mysteries of recent years. The next three books, The House of the Red Slayer, Murder Most Holy and The Anger of God are also available. There are also a lot of early Simon Brett novels available from the same publisher, also for a pittance, including Cast, In Order of Disappearance. […]


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