The Prince of Darkness by Paul Doherty

It’s 1301 and Edward I is again beset by problems. Philip IV of France is plotting to re-take Gascony and sees an opportunity to do so by discrediting Prince Edward, the heir to the throne. Edward is betrothed to Philip’s daughter Isabella by a peace treaty ratified by the Pope, but when his ex-mistress is found dead in the convent to which she has been banished, the potential scandal threatens to cancel this. Edward’s close relationship to Gaveston, his new favourite, is also causing tongues to wag. Hugh Corbett is sent by the King to deal with the situation, but with his nemesis de Craon snooping around on Philip’s behalf and the death count starting to rise, can he possible find the murderer and prevent the scandal? And is it even possible to do both?

OK, let’s be honest, the first four Hugh Corbett books were fine, but not much more than that. To be fair, they were the first four books that Paul Doherty wrote. Then, for whatever reason, he took a three year break from the series, during which he began the excellent Brother Athelstan series, with The Nightingale Gallery and the Roger Shallot series, with The White Rose Murders, both of which were a quantum leap in terms of quality. So I had high hopes for this one, as hopefully Doherty would continue this run of excellent form into his main series.

For this one, Doherty abandoned the theme of the first four books by adding much more of his own interpretation to the historical events. Gaveston (the titular Prince of Darkness) was real – indeed he will make a later appearance in the excellent The Cup of Ghosts, the first book in the Mathilde of Westminster series. What Doherty has done is craft a series of fictitious events – and an excellent mystery – leading up to Gaveston’s exile. By crafting his own series of events – even Eleanor, Prince Edward’s mistress is made up – he has given himself much more of a free reign in the plotting which constrained the first four books and this book positively sparkles.

The plot is multi-layered – many plots are being spun, with both de Craon and Gaveston spinning their webs, a descendant of the de Montforts stalking the King, a previous mysterious death of a young couple in the nearby forest and pretty much everyone lying about something. There’s a sequence of real terror as someone sets loose some savage war-dogs on Corbett and Ranulf and the mystery itself is a cracker. The solution is more of a “only one thing makes sense” but this is properly clued – hurrah – and the many plots dovetail nicely for a very satisfying ending.

A real delight and it seems almost a shame that I’m going to taking a break from Doherty for a short while. But it’s great to end this week on a high. So, dear reader, thank you for allowing me this indulgence of this week, and please seek out one of Paul Doherty’s many excellent series.

Oh, a final thought – this one yet again spoils Satan in St Mary’s and also names the killer in The Angel of Death – but, to be honest, I think you’d be better off starting with this one. It’s an absolute cracker.

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15 comments

  1. Judging from your critiques, Paul Doherty bounded himself too much to historical accuracy in his first outings. Admittedly, an attempt at accurately depicting the time and place that functions as the backdrop for a story is one of the most important elements of a historical novel, but you can balance fact with fiction – which he seems to have not fully understood when penning the first couple of Hugh Corbett mysteries.

    Your review has once again fanned the fires of addiction, but I will probably look at the Brother Athelstan series after finishing the Judge Amerotke books. I have a review of the The Slayers of Seth up on my blog, which means that I only have three more books and a short story to go.

    By the way, are you familiar with Robert van Gulik’s historical mysteries with Judge Dee as central characters? I recommend checking out The Chinese Gold Murders, in which the magistrate takes up his first post in a small town where his predecessor was murdered in a locked room, the dead refuse to slumber peacefully in their graves, the court is infested with poltergeists and the villages are plagued by an apparent mythical creature (a were tiger). It’s everything we love about John Dickson Carr and Paul Doherty rolled into one novel.

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  2. Never heard of Gulik, but I’ll look into it. Change that – just ordered what seems to be the only copy in the UK. I’m not an addict, not really. Thanks for the recommendation.

    As for Doherty, as I’ve only got 36 unread books on the shelf (and three more on the way – as I said, not an addict, but only paid more than £4 for two of them – I love Abebooks), I’m going to go across all of the series rather than straight up one. The only reason I did four Corbetts recently was that there are so many of them and the first four are quite short.

    Still, I’m making an effort to ration them, if only for my readers’ sanity. As I’ve also got a load of Ellery Queens to get through, I guess the rest of Dr Doherty’s catalogue will last me for a while yet…

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  3. Robert van Gulik was a fairly important name in the field who helped popularizing the historical detective story during the 1950/60s, and as an authority on Chinese history and culture he knew what he was talking about – and wrapped this knowledge up in fascinating, highly imaginative stories. He also illustrated the stories himself. I hope that with recommending Van Gulik, I have put a similar curse… uhm… returned the favor you’ve done for me with Paul Doherty! 😉

    I also recommend: The Red Pavilion (a series of locked room murders in the titular building), Judge Dee at Work (a collection of short stories), The Chinese Lake Murders (an eerie story of murder with apparently supernatural elements lurking in the background) and the very late, but nonetheless excellent, Necklace and Calabash.

    Your absolutely not addicted. You earned that book after a week laboriously reviewing Paul Doherty novels.

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  4. Labouriously… no, that’s definitely not the right adjective for reading Dr Doherty. Possibly applicable to the current book I’m reading though. Coming hopefully soon to a blog near here…

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  5. Take a tip from me, Doc, and never mention Kelley Roos in front of TomCat, or you will be hounded until you order “The Frightened Stiff”… and that’s only the beginning! 😉

    Anyhow, this sounds like a very fun read, and I suppose I have unfairly neglected Sir Hugh thus far…

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