“I bet you’ll be getting lots of helpful suggestions about historical mysteries, so I’ll keep it to just one that might appeal. Have you read any of those by Paul Doherty?”
That’s how it all started. A simple request from me regarding suggestions for historical mysteries led to this response from Sergio (from Tipping My Fedora). 83 reviews out of 106 novels later and I think I agree with his recommendation. I never have a definitive answer to the “Who’s Your Favourite Author?” question, but if pushed for a Top Five, Paul Doherty is one of the names which will always be included. So I thought, in celebration of the return of Hugh Corbett in Dark Serpent, I’d take a look at one aspect of Paul’s work that is often overlooked.
I’m constantly trying to encourage you, dear reader, to sample the delights of the historical mystery. Whether it’s the Knights Templar novels of Michael Jecks, the Sister Fidelma tales of Peter Tremayne or one of the many series from Paul himself, you are usually guaranteed a cracking read and a puzzling mystery. But the thing that Paul invariably includes that may appeal to the historical nay-sayers is the impossible crime – more often than not, his novels include at least one such occurrence.
Where Paul tends to differ from, I think it’s fair to say, most of the locked room purveyors out there is that the locked room is never the sole element of the plot. Take, to pick a book at random, A Murder In Thebes. It’s set around the sack of Thebes by Alexander the Great. The city is conquered by the end of the first chapter, but the book contains three central problems. The impossible element consists of the murder (or was it?) of one of Alexander’s generals who, despite having a solidly locked door and a massive angry guard dog, was still thrown to his death from his tower window. There’s a beautifully elegant solution to the problem, but that’s not the only problem in the story. There’s a treasure – the Crown of Oedipus – to be retrieved from a room full of lethal traps and more Macedonian soldiers are dying, with their skulls crushed (apparently) by a massive club wielded by the “Ghost of Oedipus”. This has an impossible whiff about it too – how could the killer get so close to his victims without them raising the alarm while carrying such a heavy weapon? Certainly more than just the central premise going on – Paul’s characters tend not to hang around having overlong conversations about irrelevances…
Paul is an expert in making novel impossible situations. Take The Nightingale Gallery. While the victim of a poisoning isn’t in a locked room, the room is at the end of the titular gallery, so named that the floorboards sing out when anybody walks on them, and the boards did not sing… Or The House Of Crows, where victims are killed with a beheading axe that has somehow been brought into the Parliament building. Or The Mask Of Ra, where the Pharaoh Tuthmosis is bitten by a rock viper, yet walks a long distance before dying, despite the fact he should have dropped dead instantly. Or Satan’s Fire, where people are mysteriously bursting into flames. Or…
The other thing that’s worth pointing out is that Paul tends to stick to simple solutions – not that they’re obvious, but nothing of Wire Cage proportions. The exceptions that I recall tend to be in the Amerotke tales – there are some complex ones there – but these are the exceptions. If someone’s been poisoned in a locked room, then there’s an obvious (and usually practical) way that it happened.
So, all of you who yearn for a locked room mystery or an impossible crime – why not take a step into the past and try one? The aforementioned A Murder In Thebes is a good place to start. Note that not every book by Paul has an impossible crime in it, but most of them do – if you want to check, then a website not a million miles from here can point you in the right direction, but the Brother Athelstan books usually have them (along with at least one impossible healing, another variation). Why not take a look?
Next time on the blog – I finally get round to telling you what I think about the latest Hugh Corbett outing, Dark Serpent, and I might even tell you the second reason why I’m so excited about it. The first one’s obvious – I love the Hugh Corbett series and it’s been six or so years – but the second reason… that’s for next time.