The Impossible Crimes of Paul Doherty

“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?”

Dark SerpentThat’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.

The Anger of GodI’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.

a-murder-in-thebes.jpgWhere 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 Book Of Shadowssolution 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…

The Nightingale GalleryPaul 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 Mask of RaPharaoh 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 inimmortal-mask.jpg 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.

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7 comments

  1. Impossible crime? Bleurgh, can’t stand ’em 😉

    I really enjoyed The Nightingale Gallery, but haven;t got back to Doherty since. I’ll get Murder in Thebes and put it in near the top of my TBR as I keep saying I want to try him again but have yet to actually do anything about it…many thanks!

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  2. Thank you for the celebration of Paul’s work. I really started getting into historical mysteries a few years ago and had done a bit of research in order to find some new authors to read. I came across Paul Doherty’s name and I have to admit, I was initially wary because he was so prolific. Of course this was unfair but I wondered if he was one of those writers who churns out several books of year with little regard for quality. I believe it was my stumbling across one of your reviews that convinced me to give him a chance. I’ve now read about eight or nine of his books and have twenty more on my “to read” pile, so I’ve been more than convinced by his writing! One thing that he’s superb at is atmosphere: his books really evoke the time periods but also the feel of a given location. The Crown in Darkness, for instance, is just dripping with atmosphere, with the windswept bleakness of 13th Century Scotland grabbing the reader from the first page. It’s a book filled with pitch black nights and storm-swept clifftops, and I loved every minute of it. I could have chosen any of his books, but I intentionally selected that one as an example because it doesn’t seem to be considered one of Doherty’s better ones. But even in a “weaker” book, his writing really shines.

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  3. ” 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.”

    Ditto for me except that Doherty would be replaced by Halter ! 🙂

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  4. I’ve really like The House of the Red Slayer (more than The Nightingale Gallery – but this one was good too) and Satan in St. Mary’s. I’ve lot more of his novels (paper or kindle), the ones that didn’t convince me was the Mathilde de Westminster story (The Darkening Glass).

    Unfortunately his “rome” serie is not translated by now in french :-(. Hope it will be in the future, the new books by Steven Saylor are translated after a long break and that’s a good news :-).

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