Brother Athelstan has three problems to deal with. A skeleton has been found under the flagstones in his parish church – which promptly demonstrates miraculous healing properties. Sir John Cranston has accepted a 1000 crown wager to solve the case of the locked room that has been scaring people to death. And in Blackfriars, where a religious debate is underway, monks are dying left, right and centre.
This is the third in the series of Sorrowful Mysteries, set early in the reign of Richard II, when the child king is being “looked after” by the regent John of Gaunt, father of the future deposer of Richard, Henry Bolingbroke. Athelstan is serving his penance for past mistakes by being the scribe to (and brains behind) Cranston, the coroner of London. Add to the three mysteries the political intrigues of the Royal Court and the less-than-political needs of Athelstan’s parishioners and you’ve got a lot going on in this book. The first two books in this series, The Nightingale Gallery and The House of the Red Slayer, were absolutely fantastic – can the run continue?
Mostly, yes. I’ve one little reservation that I’ll come to in a bit, but the many, many good things first. The book never stops moving with new developments in at least one of the three mysteries in every chapter. Compare to some of the 500+ page tomes out there where nothing happens for pages and pages. The characterisation, from the somewhat tortured Athelstan, the often-drunk Cranston and his family, to Athelstan’s parishioners is first rate. Having read the series in order, the new developments for some of those characters, especially a very funny scene with young Crim’s confession, adds a little extra for the loyal reader. The nascent plotting of Richard against Gaunt hints at troubles to come and, needless to say, the descriptions of 14th century London are as evocative as ever.
The three mysteries all have something going for them. The locked room story – which is posed as a problem rather than necessarily actually happens – has echoes of a classic locked room mystery – although it helps a lot that this isn’t the central plot as it does feel more like a logic puzzle than an actual incident – the solution makes sense but doesn’t seem too practical as a murder weapon, so the fact that the presentation removes the need for a motive also helps.
The skeleton in the church is nicely done as well, although the impossible healing aspect does need a little suspension of disbelief. The story surrounding the bones, both in what actually happened and also what the appearance of an apparent relic does to the parishioners is very well done and more than makes up for the mild “cheat”.
The central mystery is rather clever – set around the medieval equivalent of a doctoral viva – with a presenting student, two examiners and the addition of two members of the Inquisition to make sure there’s no heresy involved. The murdered monks, however, seem, on the face of it, to have very little to do with the actual meeting. The motive is rather clever and rather satisfying. There’s also a little impossibility involving disappearing from a locked room but that one’s pretty easy to solve and, due to its simple solution, Athelstan spots it pretty quickly. I do hate it when an easy aspect of a mystery is either not spotted by a master sleuth or spotted but not divulged to his/her colleagues – see virtually every Merrival mystery.
My mild reservation is that the three stories have little in common – similar to the later The Field of Blood. To be fair, though, Doherty does a very good job of keeping the three ticking over and handles the revelations in the right order, starting with the most solvable and ending with the least solvable and most serious crime.
Clues… well, it’s another of the “only one solution makes sense” but it’s very satisfying all the same. It’s not at the same very high level of the preceding two books, but it’s an excellent read and recommended.