It has been a long time since I have read a historical mystery, put off perhaps by an overdose of less than brilliant ones. So today is something of a change for the blog, a change precipitated by me winning a competition ran by the Puzzle Doctor (who writes the In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel blog). The Puzzle Doctor is a massive fan of historical mysteries and Doherty is one of his favourites, which definitely encouraged me, after all it couldn’t have come more highly recommended could it? You can read his own thoughts on the book here. The Treason of Ghosts (2000) is my first experience of Paul Doherty as a writer and it is the 12th book in the Hugh Corbett series. Corbett is a royal clerk and keeper of the King’s secret seal, who is often required to solve perplexing crimes, aided by his assistant Ranulf-atte-Newgate, the principal Clerk in the Chancery.
The book begins with a death, and a rather gruesome one at that. Sunday mass is abruptly interrupted when a villager leads the congregation to a severed head in the mill pond, a head which belonged to Molkyn Miller. Soon afterwards another murder occurs, this time that of a farmer Thorkle. Yet these are not the only mysterious deaths which are taking place as once more women are being attacked and killed. All of which causes the inhabitants of Melford to think back to events five years previously when Lord Roger Chapeleys was hung for murdering a series of women, most notably the Widow Walmer. To the end he protested his innocence and with this return of violence he may well have been speaking the truth. Added to which both Molkyn and Thorkle were a part of the jury which condemned Chapeley. It is these events which Corbett is plunged into and he is quickly suspicious of those involved in the arresting and condemning of Chapeley. Not least because they keep on dying in unpleasant ways. Though it soon becomes apparent that there may be more than one killer on the loose. A sinister tale which gives a new meaning to the phrase of the skeleton in the closet and it is certainly a story where you don’t want to be out after dark.
Firstly I felt the book opened very well with a scene which sets up some of the main characters, as well as commencing the sinister atmosphere. It also concisely highlights the class hierarchy and the structure of the community the mystery is set in. One thing that definitely came across is the greater sense of surveillance over moral purity, in comparison to modern times and the issue of the medieval mind set did come to me throughout the story. At times the attitudes may seem quite alien such as their perception on death, which in medieval artwork is an actual figure both fascinating and terrifying. At other times though there are aspects which seem more familiar such as the reluctance of teenagers to disclose details about their romantic dalliances to their parents. In regards to Doherty’s inclusion of historical detail I think he got the balance right, neither including so much that you become bored nor including so little that the reader has no sense of the time the book is set in.
Corbett is an interesting character to follow and is quite a change from the golden age detectives that I am used to. He is much rougher and sharper around the edges, having no qualms about questioning people in the church crypt. Corbett and his helpers and their relationship also reminded me of Robert Van Gulik’s detective Judge Dee and his attendants, as Ranulf is called onto for physical prowess at times and although there is a sense of a hierarchy, there is also a feeling of comradery. Moreover, Ranulf amongst others are sent on independent tasks and required to obtain information from the local populace, in between quaffing a great deal of ale. Ranulf also makes a point reminiscent of one of Holmes’. It is said that he ‘dislikes the countryside. He claims it’s more dangerous than the alleyways of London’ and as the book progresses it certainly seems like he might be on to something. I also found it interesting how Corbett gives a lot of time and attention to the characters who are marginalised in society, such as the village fool or the poacher’s wife, not decrying their testimony or information because they are from a lower class and he treats them with respect.
All in all this was a good read, with a mystery which has a number of strands to it and quite a healthy (or should I say unhealthy) amount of dead bodies, which come from a variety of different murder methods – one of which definitely has some golden age counterparts. There is not necessarily a lot of physical evidence (until the end in a rather gruesome way) and that there is cannot always be trusted. I wasn’t able to pick out the guilty myself but Corbett does refer back to earlier parts of the story where he gathered important pieces of information.