London 1381, and the Great Revolt is over. But that hardly means that the capital is a haven of tranquillity. The King is ruthlessly enforcing the peace and the remnants of the Upright Men and the Earthworms plot both survival and revenge. But determined to give thanks that his parish survived the uprising mostly unscathed, Brother Athelstan is determined to take his flock on a pilgrimage to Canterbury.
But there is a dark shadow cast over his endeavours. Called to investigate the murder of three people, he discovers that one of them was a clerk to the Regent, John Of Gaunt, but while investigating, he finds himself threatened by a masked figure calling himself Azrael. As more people fall to the assassin, Athelstan is determined to go ahead with the pilgrimage. But is Azrael following the caravan of the faithful? Or is he actually part of it?
Book sixteen of one of my favourite series, and it’s a gripping read. The ever-present spectre of Azrael seems to rattle Athelstan more than some of his other adversaries and as the tale progresses (with only one subplot this time) the tension seems to mount up. There’s no impossibility in the opening crimes, apart from why the victims seemed not to defend themselves from being garrotted, but later on, there’s a locked room murder and another garrotting in a boat that would have capsized if anyone struggled. Truth be told though, the impossible crime element here isn’t anywhere near as clever as some of Paul’s other work and the boat is a bit of a cheat, really. But no significant time is spent dwelling on that aspect of the crimes, so it’s a little easier to forgive.
As usual, the Paul Doherty travel guide to fourteenth century London does everything to convince you not to go there for your holidays, with the streets coming to life vibrantly with all manner of ne’er-do-wells. I could read his descriptive sections for hours on end, full as they are of fascinating titbits of medieval life. However, Paul, if you’re reading this, thanks a bunch for putting the image of sparrow-mumbling into my head. Seriously, don’t look it up. Yuk.
As the book goes on, it becomes more and more gripping with every page. I doubt many readers will be fooled by the murderer – the misdirection is a little heavy-handed, although credit to the author for not leaving it long before the critical clue is revealed before showing us the killer – it’s one of those clues that if you get it, you KNOW who the murderer is for certain. But there is still at least one twist still to come. It’s a complex tale at the end of the day (the who, how and why takes two chapters to explain) and perhaps the complexity of the tale when it’s revealed lets things down a little. And the explanation of why they didn’t struggle was a little too similar to something else that Paul wrote recently. But again, it’s a minor point.
So it’s another strong entry in a very strong series and I can’t deny I was carrying my Kindle around to snatch the odd chapter or two at any free moment. It’s been a while since I did that… So needless to say, while it’s not the best in the series, it is still Highly Recommended.
Many thanks to Severn House for the review copy.