Thursday, August 7, 2014

Paul Doherty : Murder Most Holy, 1992

Paul Doherty

Paul Doherty is one of the most important and known  writers of historical mysteries today. 
Born in 1946 at Middlesbrough , father of seven sons, catholic, he is "Headmaster to Trinity Catholic High School, Woodford Green, Essex.  The school has been described as one of the leading comprehensives in the U.K. and has been awarded “Outstanding” in four consecutive OFSTED inspections. Doherty "after A-levels, he went to Ushaw College in Durham for three years to study for the Catholic priesthood. In 1967, he was admitted to Liverpool University where he gained a First Class Honours Degree in History and won a state scholarship to Exeter College, Oxford" ( notices from ).
In 2011 he was awarded an OBE.
Today we will analyze a novel from series of Brother Athelstan: Murder Most Holy , 1992 (the novel was firmed as Paul Harding).

In the convent of Blackfriars happen obscure machinations; it is developing a Chapter Inside the Dominican Order to discuss the matter concerning the theological statements of Henry of Winchester, but while the two inquisitors viewing the cards to give an answer on the fact that they contain or not heresy, Bruno and Alcuin two brothers are brutally murdered.
Athelstan is convened to “Internal Chapter” by the Prior of the Monastery, Father Alselm, to investigate the death of Bruno and the disappearance of Alcuin, who has not been seen out of the church, but he could do it, only that all of his personal effects were in his cell. Athelstan doesn’t wish to be caught in the quarrels and intrigues in the interior of the Dominicans, which is in effect a black sheep, as a novice he escaped with his younger brother to fight in France, only to feel responsible for his death on the battlefield , and for the heartbreak of his parents: for this he was sent for punishment to manage an ailing parish of miserable people, only to become attached to his parishioners, including a hunter of mice, a swineherd, one soldering, a prostitute, a rich widow, a painter, a dreamer, forming the parish Council. But he must do it. He Would not want because there are two other problems that see him as the protagonist.

The first concerns Sir John Cranston, coroner of the City of London, appointed by His Excellency John of Gaunt, fourth son of Edward III and uncle and protector of the young Richard II: Sir John has fallen into the trap set by the protector of the sovereign, who wants Sir John more attached to him, and not rather too independent as it is currently.
For this, he forces him to accept a bet of the Lord of Cremona, Gian Galeazzo, a guest at court: Sir John must solve a quiz concerning a problem of locked room: in a room without no one could enter, without being entered poisoned food or drink, with the door, locked from the inside and the windows tightly closed, in a number of different times, four people died, even one was found dead with fear and with nails stuck in the wood of the window jambs. The second mange is also treacherous: in fact, during the reconstruction works of the floor of the poor church of St. Erconwald, to which heads the parish of Brother Athelstan, the masons, digging beneath the altar, they found a skeleton clutching a cross. The parishioners immediately cry out to find prodigious think they have found the bones of a martyr woman; and would seem to give reason a miracle that happens soon: a rich parishioner, a merchant, who had contracted a nasty infection on his arm, shows that it is completely healed, in the general disbelief of the doctor who had visited him, who says the infection could heal after several weeks and not so soon.
Just arrived at his monastery of origin, Athelstan begins to investigate. He is listed as secretary to Sir John and then with a subordinate position compared to the big man, but in reality he carries out investigations while Sir John thinks eating and drinking. Athelstan soon becomes clear that the focus of the mystery is Chapter interior: in fact a little later, Brother Roger, a poor fool welcomed into the community, which has seen at church something which he didn’t realize, is found hanged, but in reality he was strangled. Why? Athelstan is confident that it relates to the mystery of the disappearance of Alcuin, who watched the body of Brother Bruno, descended into the crypt just before he falls. Athelstan suspect that Bruno died in place of Alcuin and that the latter was killed and imagine where his body  might have gone to finish: he re-opens the tomb under the church and gets hoisted the coffin of Father Bruno: when they open the coffin, a pestilential stench spreads in the church and all the members, even those who had criticized the exhumation, astonished, note that in the coffin there are two corpses, among which by Alcuin, strangled.
A little time after Brother Callixtus is found murdered  in the Library: he was looking for something but fell and broke his skull: in reality someone hit him with the sharp edge of a large candelabra in silver, as Athelstan and Sir John will discharge through the use of a primitive magnifying glass. And Athelstan for to the skin of his teeth escaped an assassination attempt on his injury.
Athelstan identify the murderess thanks to a torn book of German abbess Hildegarde lived a century and a half ago, a book that Callixtus was looking for when he was surprised by his murderer. He will solve also the Locked Room. And finally the mystery of the skeleton, thanks to his friend Sir John that he will Fitzwolfe, the former pastor of St. Erconwald, an excommunicated priest, devoted to black magic and all the affairs unclean, who fled from his church years before bringing behind the book parish, where they had been transcribed all interventions, including building, carried out in church before his arrival. It’s from this source that Athelstan wants to go back to carpenter who put in place the slabs of stone, under one of which was found the skeleton suspicion. He will discover that the miracle happened also to a pious man and benefactor of his community, is a bluff, skillfully constructed with a trick from strolling the streets.
Doherty put the stories of Athelstan and Sir John during the protectorate of John of Gaunt  at the last decade of the fourteenth century and precisely in a limited time, months, ie, in the limit a few years: this gives us a set of facts which do not differ much to the overall policy framework, taking place during the childhood of Richard II; only in some of the later novels, we begin to see that there were riots in England and the political confusion. Generally, however, they differ from each other, perhaps only for the events that happen to Athelstan and Sir John.
However, they are described or mentioned political events real or invented, Doherty has the gift of being able to describe so with passion and authenticity the everyday life of London at that time, to make the player, the very moment reads the book, he can dive and feel the protagonist, can walk on the wings of imagination in those streets, to see him piles of manure, mice, shrews with the language imprisoned in the gag, the "flagellants" whipping themselves intoning the Miserere, those guilty of adulteration of food dipped in barrels full of horse urine, visit the fairs where traders thirst extol their products and makeshift stalls selling fragrant meat pies, where the inns taverns are crumbling or salt at which the aroma of roast or of wine spilled from barrels hovers, where barges ply the Thames carrying merchandise, soldiers and smugglers. This is especially true for a feature that Doherty has unlike the majority of those who write historical novels: he has penetrated well into the folds of history, is an expert on British history, is a professional historian who has made ​​a fortune writing mysteries; het is not a crime novelist who has invented a historical dimension! The difference is not trivial. This is evident in the vast majority of novels "so-called" historians who don’t describe the reality of every day, as well as the familiar Doherty, and for this invent, or they sets their novels in policy frameworks well known. It 's true that some crime writers have managed to recreate historical dimensions and fascinating in every respect (for example Carr), but they are a minority well clearly established.
When Doherty speaks about a definite historical fact, you can be sure that he dissects in such a way that even the most naive that he understands the history of that particular time, it is well fallen. I remember how years ago, during an examination of medieval institutions, I mentioned at the time of James I quote the things I had just read in a novel by Doherty, Shallot series, arousing the interest of the teacher who he asked me where I had read those things and who was the writer: Doherty did not know, but when he read his biographical notes Besides, he has the gift of being able to tell, write wonderfully well, so that captivates the reader, despite the stylistic limits: for example, in all his novels, there is never a story that goes on throughout the novel from the beginning at the end, and from which perhaps depend other events, at which there is a main plot and subplots that are dependent on the main, but there are more plots - of which perhaps one is more important than others, because it has a higher page development - sometimes chained together, sometimes not, as a collection of stories related to each other only by the characters fixed (Athelstan, Sir John and John of Gaunt) and those accessories (the parishioners of St. Econwald to Athelstan, Maude and the two little ones to Sir John). As part of the stories in each novel, there is always the description of an Impossible Crime or a Locked Room, which affects the plot or main or secondary. In the novel analyzed today, there are four, two are placed in the main narrative (the disappearance of Alcuin from the church and his assassination); and two in the accessory (the Chamber that kills, the miracle that is not such but that based on the evidence, all true, it should be): the murder of Alcuin is very similar to the one narrated in Satan at St. Mary’s (Doherty's novel debut in the series of Hugh Corbett): a murder in church, the murderer that should not be there, yet there is hidden where there is the shadow, maybe wearing black robes, gloves and hoods blacks, that is by resorting to a real trick illusion; the Alcuin body disappearance is clearly derived from that present in The Greek Coffin Mystery by Ellery Queen; the room that kills is the oldest and most famous examples of  locked room (here I would say that the gimmick narrated derives directly from that from The Grey Room by Eden Phillpotts, although different agent killer, but the middle is the same ); finally, the miracle that it is not, it is still a trick of illusion.
The success of the series of Athelstan is perhaps due to the unusual couples (couples in Mystery are always memorable: S. Holmes and Watson, Poirot and Hastings, Philo Vance and Markham, Father Brown and Flambeau, Henry Merrivale and Humphrey Masters, E.Queen and R.Queen, Alan Twist and Archibald Hurst, etc. ..) in which who should be the Watson of the situation, ends up being the real detective, and who should be it (Sir John), he is not. Moreover, the pair is described with irony: this is the real secret to the success of the series. The detective is not a hero, but an anti-hero: Athelstan shuns the success that gives in to his companion in adventure, and does everything because others think of him as a character alternative: a dreamer who loves to get lost looking at the stars, so as Sir John while lingering at drinking of Burgundy, Claret, mead and beer, often pretending to doze off (do not fall asleep when all of a sudden really) because others think about him as a drunk and do not care of what they say in his presence . They are two cute characters and good-hearted, gruff but tender. In addition Athelstan and the reality of his parish, his duty and his clothing rectory, his divine offices, the theological dogmas, in my opinion reflect the Catholic faith of Doherty and his past as a novitiate.
One more thing I would like to observe a curiosity to me, but I could be wrong, the story of the debate about a theological truth, carried out by a Chapter interior, with the presence of the inquisitors; the presence of a book that is the cause of some deaths (and there is even the middle); the deaths of brothers that take place in a monastery, are all situations that Doherty could be drawn from The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, suitably modifying them according to his taste and his creativity.
Umberto Eco is a sign that for Doherty must have had a weight and a very broad resonance everywhere, even in England, probably also thanks to the film by Jean-Jacques Annaud and the interpretation by Sean Connery.

Pietro De Palma


  1. how did the other two men die? i rly need to know

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