『犬のみぞ知る ＤＯＧ ＫＮＯＷＳ』
"It takes a long time to gain trust, but just a second to lose it"
I think that the first historical mysteries I've read were the Roma Sub Rosa novels by Steven Saylor. They were recommended to me by my Greek/Latin teacher and I really did find them amusing. Sure, Saylor's writing style seems to swing between good and not-so-good at times and the detective plots miss the grandeur of the Great Classics, but they were really fun for those interested in the Roman Empire. The adventures of Gordianus the Finder were full of little (and big) references to the grand empire and I absolutely loved Roman Blood, the first novel, for its detailed plot concerning the Sextus Roscius Patricide case, the first big case Cicero handled as a laywer. I liked that Cicero a bit more than the Cicero I had to read and translate for my exams.
The historical mysteries by Paul Doherty seem to have been a popular topic of mystery bloggers the last few months. Which is why I picked up one of his books I happened to find at a second hand bookstore. Yes, I said I wasn't going to buy books this month, but hey, I was forced to spend a couple of hours waiting for some documents to be returned to me, so I thought I might as well spend my time reading under the sun in the park. The book was also signed, I discovered later. I assume that it's Doherty's signature. Not sure though.
The Devil's Domain is an entry in The Sorrowful Mysteries of Brother Athelstan series by Doherty. The time: the late fourteenth century! The place: England! The titular Brother Athelstan is a Dominican friar in St Erconwald’s in Southwark and the secretarius of Sir John Cranston, the King's Coroner. Together they fight crime! This time, the dynamic duo are forced to solve a case of international importance. Five French sailors have been caught at sea and are held captive in Hawkmere Manor, awaiting their release when the ransom money from their families arrives. Their host/warden is Sir Walter, who does not bother to hide that he really dislikes French men. But still, he is responsible for his prisoners and according to the international treaties, he is supposed to treat these hostages (relatively) well. And then one day one of his prisoners is found dead, poisoned in his cell. But how was the man poisoned? There are no signs of injection on the body, the man had only eaten and drunk foodstuffs his fellow-prisoners had also eaten/drunk, his prison room was locked and nobody could have entered through the barred window. And as killing of hostages is considered rather rude and it might also endanger an English-French treaty in-the-make, Sir Cranston and brother Athelstan have to work fast to protect England's face.
I have to admit that I know next to nothing of English history. Ancient Rome, Greek, Egypt I have covered. Depending on the period, I'm also comfortable with Chinese and Japanese history. I really have no idea of medieval England, except for the standard images. In fact, the only thing I knew that came even remotely close to the setting of The Devil's Domain was... Discworld. Yes, that was the closest thing I have in my arsenal of random knowledge. But I have to admit: Doherty writes in a pleasant style and he manages to describe the place and period in a way that never feels overwhelming, yet informative enough to avoid falling into the trap of just describing a Generic Medieval England. I could hardly pretend to have become an English history expert by reading this book, but it was certainly educative.
With historical mysteries, the same as with books set in another culture than your own, there is always the problem of how to position the factors of time/culture in your book and what to expect from the reader. Address the topic too lightly and you risk the danger of writing about a Generic Time/Period that is little more than a stereotype. Address the topic too detailed and you risk the danger of being too overwhelming. Footnotes/explanatory notes don't even help that much, as few notes just don't help, while many notes have the tendency to pull the reader out of the actual narrative.
I was less enthusiastic about the impossible poisoning story though. There are some other sub-plots in the story by the way, which were entertaining and tied up nicely with the main story in a Judge Dee-style, but the main puzzle, the poisoning of the prisoners (yes, plural!) in Hawkmere Manor was less satisfying. The set-up is certainly good: Hawkmere Manor forms an excellent (and gloomy) background to the horrifying fact of prisoners not being safe in their cell. But I don't think the solution lives up the set-up. Throughout the story, allusions are made that the poisoning was not possible unless circumstance X is true. Then Sir Cranston and Athelstan have some adventures and at the end of the story, it is revealed that *gasp* circumstance X is true. Not because of an ingeneous trick the murderer came up with or something like that. It is just true. It almost feels like saying that only a ghost could have commited the murder, only to reveal that ghosts exist. It is a whole lot less ridiculous than that and it is only part of the bigger picture, but still, the solution to the puzzle is just not as satisfying as when an actual trick has been used. In fact, there are variations on this solution that actually rely on a trick instead on invoking circumstance X, which are a lot more fun to read (the one that comes up in my mind is one of the short stories in Conan).
I already said that Discworld was pretty much my only point of reference and if we're talking about an impossible poisoning story in Discworld, then we're talking about Feet of Clay, part of the City Watch subseries. And yes, I kept comparing The Devil's Domain with Feet of Clay in my mind as I was reading the first, that was just something that couldn't be avoided. And Feet of Clay is definitely the better impossible poisoning story of the two. It has an awesome trick, smart hinting and it's funnier too. The Devil's Domain is good on a narrative/writing level, but the solution to the main problem is just not nearly as satisfying as that of Feet of Clay.
I might sound very negative, but I did like Paul Doherty's writing style and the setting, so I might try another book in the future (another Brother Athelstan or maybe another series). This is one of those instances where I think I just happened to have picked out the wrong book and that the writer deserves a second chance.