Many many moons ago, when I was wee little kid (comparatively speaking, as in I was about 20 years old) I was wondering through the shelves of the local British Council library for something interesting to read. I picked up a murder mystery set in 13th century England; I recollect I really enjoyed it. I recollect that the main protagonists were a Priest and a Knight and that is all I had to go on, for I do not recall the character’s name, I do not recall the series name and worst, I do not recall the author’s name! Cut to the present, I am browsing NetGalley for a a good historical fiction to read during the holidays and I come across a Brother Athelstan’s mystery set in 1300’s England called The Mansions of Murders by Paul Doherty and considering the genre, I immediately request for it, and as I start reading, I suddenly find, what I had been looking for since last 15 years!!
The novel is set in 1381 England, John of Gaunt is the Regent and with young Richard II as the King; the Great Revolt has been completely crushed and the Lords of the land, like Beaumont, Arundel and John of Gaunt rule with an iron fist. London is completely under the sway of underworld gangs, the riflers who ran the law around the slums of Thames, who were in turn used by Lords, in keeping control of London. The most powerful of these gangs are the Sycamores, led by Simon Makepeace aka, The Flesher. They are vilest, cruelest, and the most influential gang of London, running a host of businesses, from taverns to murder for hire to prostitution. They manage a Mansion of Murder, as is commonly known; a former Church now owned by The Flesher, with high walls and brutal dogs, let loose on people who become a problem for the former. In this background, where no one dares to raise their voice against The Flesher, a crime is committed against him – his mother’s who had recently died and whose body was kept in the Church for mourning, prior to the burial, is snatched away with demand for ransom. Furthermore, Parson Reynaud of the same Church and Daventry, Arundel’s go between, are both found murdered inside the church! Meanwhile, Fat Margo, the embalmer in Brother Athelstan’s parish, dies, bequeathing all her possessions to the Parish. However, Brother Athelstan soon discovers, that the possession includes the unexpected but well preserved body of Margo’s husband and son, who were believed to have died in a battle 18 years ago. Thus, Brother Athelstan and Sir Jack Cranston, the Lord High Corner for London, try to solve for two unrelated mysteries, and find truths, closer home!
As I read through the novel, I remembered why I wanted to find this series again – simply because it is such a good thriller. 14th century London comes alive in Mr. Doherty’s hands, with its slums, and gangs and dirt. You can feel the stink, the sweat and the ugliness of London as it rises, very different from its current modern avatar! The history is impeccably researched and all details and nuances of 14th century, wonderfully crafted in the main narrative of the novel. The characters are all well rounded and without getting into too much off background, the motivations and actions of all, both primary and secondary easily understood and come across as extremely plausible. The plot moves along smoothly, though sometimes, Brother Athelstan’s mediations seems to slow down the narrative a bit, it does not really hamper the overall flow. The end was, while not wholly surprising was presented in a very innovative manner and tied in all the lose ends, extremely well! The only thing, which left me a bit bemused was the title of the novel, as the actual Mansion, has very little to do with the actual mystery and seems in hindsight, a bit sensational, which may take away, the actual good solid storytelling of the book! To end, this is a very enjoyable, thoroughly gripping book, well written and a good read for all Historical Fiction cum Murder Mystery aficionados!
Thanks to Severn House and NetGalley for providing a copy of this book for review.