Satan in St Mary’s

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Author: PC Doherty

Finished on: 9 April 2017

Where did I get this book: A freebie (or rather a buy twelve, get one free) from Peak Volumes

A couple of Christmases ago my daughter and I bought second hand books for friends and family as their presents. We made drawstring bags to put them in, and ordered ribbons that said ‘Second hand books given with first hand love’ (sentimentality on a grand scale is fine at Christmas, okay?) And set off to our beloved Peak Volumes to buy loads and loads of books…

I took my enormous pile to the desk, where many precarious towers of books are always stacked. I spotted this perched on the top of one such tower. “Oooo… that looks brilliant!” I said. I wasn’t fishing; as you know I have far, far too many books to read. But the lovely Tim, who owns Peak Volumes, looked at the massive pile I was about to buy and popped this on the top. “Take it,” he said.

My sister, however, took one look and said it was “a poor man’s Ellis Peters.” Now I’ve never read any of the famous Brother Cadfael mysteries, despite most of my family being mad about them, so I can’t really comment. But it does look fairly similar, I’ll grant you that.

Despite its setting in 1284, this is essentially a classic locked room mystery story. Our hero, Hugh Corbett, is an intriguing figure, a brooding widower and clerk to the King. He is commissioned to investigate the hanging, possibly suicidal, of goldsmith Laurence Duket inside a locked church.

The medieval setting is fascinating, and Doherty includes lots of lovely grim details. The section where Corbett recruits young convict Ranulf atte Newgate to assist with his enquiries is a high point, and their relationship is genuinely interesting.

But the trouble with this book is that our sleuth is, quite frankly, rubbish. He has no commitment to getting the job done; he is easily distracted by a lady who is so obviously a sinister femme fatale figure, that I don’t even feel bad putting that as a spoiler in this review. We just can’t take him seriously.

The best sleuths, Holmes, Marple, Wimsey, take us with them as they solve the crime, but they’re always one or two steps in front. Corbett is languishing so far behind us in terms of understanding, that is it renders the whole business ridiculous.

Without respect for our sleuth, the whole thing becomes a bit disappointing as it limps, rather than proceeds with purpose, towards a denouement. It is also a short book that feels a lot longer than it is, which is never a good sign.

Apparently there are 17 Hugh Corbett mysteries in total. Maybe he improves as he goes along, and this, his first foray into the world of crime solving, is just a realistic reflection of a novice honing his craft. Maybe.

I’m more inclined to give some Peters a go, see if she really is the rich lady’s PC Doherty.

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