The Mansions of Murder by Paul Doherty
Published by Severn House Digital
Length: 240 pages
Release Date: 31 August 2017 (hardcover), 1 December, 2017 (e-book)
Author Goodreads Profile and Website
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I would like to thank Severn House Digital and NetGalley for a copy of this book for an honest review.
Synopsis via Goodreads: October, 1381. Brother Athelstan is summoned to the church of St Benet’s in Queenhithe to investigate the murder of a priest. Parson Reynaud has been found stabbed to death inside his own locked church. Other disturbing discoveries include an empty coffin and a ransacked money chest. Who would commit murder inside a holy church? Who would spirit away a corpse the night before the funeral – and who would be brave enough to steal treasure belonging to the most feared gangleader in London?
Meanwhile, the death of one of Athelstan’s parishioners reveals a shocking secret. Could there be a connection to the murdered priest of St Benet’s? Athelstan’s investigations will lure him into the dark and dangerous world of the gangmaster known as The Flesher, whose influence has a frighteningly long reach …
This was my first Paul Doherty novel and I can confidently say that it will not be my last. Before reading The Mansions of Murder I had not given much thought to the historical mystery genre, I am ashamed to admit. But now, having finished Doherty’s eighteenth instalment in his Sorrowful Mysteries of Brother Athelstan series I am excited to delve deeper into both Doherty’s prolific bibliography as well as other titles within the genre.
The Mansions of Murder is gripping from the first page, spinning an exciting and intricate web of deceit and murder that left me guessing until the final pages. The stars of the book, Brother Athelstan, a Dominican friar at St Erconwald’s in Southwark and coroner Sir John Cranston, find themselves solving a peculiar double homicide and the strange case of a missing corpse. The story takes them throughout the London area of Queenhithe where they meet a colourful cast of characters who help to lead the pair towards solving the book’s numerous dark mysteries.
Doherty aggressively pulls the reader into the twisting and grotesque medieval streets of Queenhithe, highlighting the sacrilege and horrors of the damned community. Not for the faint of heart, Doherty’s London is one of the grimmest I have ever read. Each location visited by Athelstan and Cranston was described in great detail, often spanning multiple paragraphs and even pages. While this is a writing style I do enjoy, I could see it being a bit of a hindrance for someone who is looking for the plot to move forward more quickly.
But it is because of these details that Doherty’s novel shone. I studied medieval art history for my Master’s degree and I appreciate that the author chose not to romanticise the medieval period and instead highlighted the less appealing and more problematic aspects of a medieval society. This book is anything but an aesthetically pleasing tour of a time period often interpreted through fairytales of heroic knights and mythical creatures. Doherty’s London is harsh and real, and exactly what makes The Mansions of Murder so gripping and memorable.
The mystery itself was well plotted. A number of times I was certain I knew the perpetrator only to second guess myself a few pages later. Doherty gives substantial backstory, highlighting characters who are both important to the story as well as a few red herrings. The author constructed an intelligent and plausible murder mystery that had me convinced that nearly any of the characters could be guilty of the various brutal crimes.
My only critique is that the characters of Athelston and Cranston were enjoyable but a tad flat. Throughout the book, I felt little emotional connection to them. Because of the nature of the narrative, I was more focused on the plot than the wellbeing of the protagonists. But while reflecting on The Mansions of Murder, I found that without strong character development from the main characters the book felt a bit empty. I assume that their character development evolves continuously throughout the series, or perhaps this element of storytelling is simply absent in order to focus more on solving gruesome medieval crimes. Either way, I still very much enjoyed this book but I did miss the chance of getting to know Athelston and Cranston a bit better (more reason to read other books in the series, I suppose!). Having said that, The Mansions of Murder can definitely be read as a standalone without having read other entries in the series as it does read like an episode in a long series of similar stories.
Criticism aside, I must applaud Doherty’s portrayal of the medieval period and his knowledge of both city planning and church decor. I am incredibly impressed by the way he brought 1381 London to life in such an unapologetically brutal way and how his murder mystery kept me guessing until the bitter end. I’d recommend The Mansions of Murder to anyone in search of a story set in Medieval London as well as anyone seeking a murder mystery that steps away from the popular Victorian London trope. I’m very happy to give The Mansions of Murder four shining stars and I look forward to picking up more of Doherty’s books in the future.