Finally, the last of my holiday reading and it’s another from my favourite series of historical mysteries, those featuring Brother Athelstan and Sir John Cranston, coroner of London, in the early years of the reign of Richard II.
There is finally something resembling peace between England and France, but a French ship has been seized in the English Channel, caught attacking an English merchant. Hostages are taken and kept safe in the estate of Hawksmere while delicate ransom negotiations take place. As you might expect, the hostages start dying, poisoned one by one but with no possible source of the poison. Is the French masterspy Mercurius involved? And if he is, who exactly is he?
Athelstand and Cranston are assigned an aide by Gaunt, Sir Maurice Maltravers. But Maltravers is lovesick, pining for the daughter of a tyrannical merchant, and Athelstan is charged with resolving this situation as well. And in the background, the rebellion of the Great Community is getting closer…
A return to form after the slight dip of The Assassin’s Riddle. It’s a good intriguing mystery, and the impossible poisoning is clever – it requires some knowledge of something butthe existence of that thing is guessable, so Doherty isn’t cheating here at all.
Also, the five French hostages are well-drawn, so my usual criticism doesn’t hold here at all. Indeed, the sense of doom hanging over the imprisoned men is palpable and really helps to draw you into the book.
It’s good to see some movement in the story of the Great Community (i.e. the Peasants’ Revolt, as we know it) – what is odd is that, having read the most recent book in the series, the revolt still hasn’t happened – I’m guessing that, as the next Athelstan book is apparently set in the Tower of London, the excrement is going to hit the fan in that one.
To summarise, this is a great, fast-moving read, with convincing characters, an evocative historical background and an intriguing plot, full of surprising developments. Oh, and a red-herring that had me looking in completely the wrong direction. Recommended.