1380, London. A candle, an arrowhead and a message – “Remember”. This is all the warning the members of the Knights of the Swan receive before being brutally murdered. Summoned to London from Shropshire to sit in Parliament to discuss the Regent’s latest request for money to fight the French, the men are being killed one by one. But what is making them stay in London? And what secret from their past has come back to haunt them?
Obviously, it’s a job for Sir John Cranston, the city coroner, and Brother Athelstan, his scribe. But Athelstan, as ever, has other things on his plate – cats are disappearing from the streets of London and his churchyard is being stalked by a demon.
This is the sixth of The Sorrowful Mysteries of Brother Athelstan. The first five are outstanding – can this possibly be six out of six?
Before we get to that, because if you’re a long-time reader, you can guess what I’m going to say anyway, I thought I’d share a story.
If you recall, the point of this blog has always been, primarily, to get over my reader’s block. And it has worked. With the exception of, I think, two books over the last sixteen months, I’ve read everything that I’ve started, good (mostly) or bad (occasionally). A number of books that I know I would have put down early in the past I persevered with and found some absolute gems that I might have overlooked.
And then, suddenly, it was back. I started four separate books – one by a multiple winner of the Agatha award, two by two of my favourite authors and one that I felt that I had to read for completion’s sake. And I couldn’t get into any of them. I persevered with the last one for about 1/3 of the book – and I will get back to this soon – but for whatever reason, I could not settle into the reading rhythm. Seeing my obvious discomfort, my wise and wonderful better half suggested putting down the book I was struggling through and starting something that I knew I would read. Hence The House of Crows, from my favourite series by Paul Doherty.
One sentence – that’s all it took. One sentence.
The man is a master story-teller and The House of Crows really is Doherty at the top of his game. The characters and the setting are vibrantly brought to life and the historical background – an England ruled by a regent whose time is running out, as his ward, Richard II is approaching his sixteenth birthday, and an uprising being plotted that may change the face of London – gives the story some real tension.
And the plot… No locked rooms here, although there are some mild impossibilities – for example, how could the killer sneak a beheading axe past the guards into the Parliament building – but a first rate mystery, with a clever resolution. I’m not convinced that it would fool every hardened armchair detectives – I worked it out – but it’s fairly clued. There are echoes of Christie in the mystery, which I think is what led me to the killer, but, unlike the others that I’ve read recently that may have tried to do the same thing, this is an effective emulation, down to the complexity of the mystery.
Also, Doherty does a good job of tying in at least one of the subplots – the demon one – into the main story. The missing cats element could have stood out from the rest of the plot, but it’s a nice diversion and even that is clued.
So, the reader’s block is gone again, thanks to Dr Doherty. I can’t recommend this one highly enough. Possibly the best of the Brother Athelstan mysteries to date. Outstanding.