England, early 14th century
'It was murder, wasn't it?' Ranulf asked sitting down on a stool.
'Murder, and a cunning one,' Corbett agreed. 'But proving it and discovering the assassin will be difficult. We are going to have to poke with a long, sharp stick. In many ways Abbot Stephen was a strange man. Oh, he was holy enough and learned but self-contained and mysterious; a knight-banneret who decided to become a priest. A soldier who decided to hunt demons.'
'Demons!' Ranulf exclaimed.
Corbett smiled thinly. 'Yes, Ranulf, our late Abbot was an officially appointed exorcist. Abbot Stephen would be called to assist with people who claimed to be possessed, and houses that were reputedly haunted.'
'Sprites and goblins!' Ranulf scoffed. 'A legion of devils wander Whitefriars and Southwark, but they are all flesh and blood. The wickedness they perpetrate would shame any self-respecting demon. You don't believe in that nonsense, do you?'
Corbett pursed his lips. Ranulf stared in disbelief. Chanson, delighted, stood rooted to the spot. He loved nothing better, as he'd often whispered to Ranulf, than sombre tales about witches, warlocks and sorcerers.
'Surely, Sir Hugh, it's arrant nonsense!'
'Yes and no,' Corbett replied slowly.
Another murder in a monastery – this time within a sealed chamber in the Fenland Abbey of St Martin's-in-the-Marsh.
The Abbot, a friend of the King's (he used to be a warrior and once saved the King's life), has been stabbed in his own chamber with his own dagger, yet there seems to be no way anyone could have obtained access to him.
The monks are about to organise a cover-up, insisting that some outsider, some outlaw, must have broken in and killed the Abbot, but the King (Edward I) is having none of it. He promptly sends Sir Hugh with his henchman Ranulf to make enquiries.
They soon discover that the aristocratic widow who owns all the adjoining lands was on very bad terms with Abbot Stephen, refusing to communicate with him directly and arguing fiercely – through the Prior – about a disputed boundary. But is there more to it than this? It turns out that they knew each other – well – when they were young.
Meanwhile, inside the monastery, two more suspects lurk: Taverner, a "cunning man" (a confidence trickster, living on his wits) who claimed to be possessed and whom the Abbot had been planning to exorcise; and an arch-deacon from London, an "old friend" of the Abbot's, who had ostensibly come to witness the exorcism.
Then another monk is murdered …
I like Hugh Corbett. And I especially like Ranulf, his side-kick, the "Clerk of the Green Wax" – listen to his prayer as he rides into mortal danger: "Oh Lord, look after Ranulf-atte-Newgate, as Ranulf-atte-Newgate would look after you, if he was God and you were Ranulf-atte-Newgate."
There is, it must be said, some careless editing, which is very unusual in Headline books (and especially in Paul Docherty's books!). For example, on p20, Ranulf asks, 'Did you ever meet Abbot Stephen?' 'On a few occasions,' Corbett replies; on p129, we are informed that "he [Corbett] had never met Abbot Stephen".
But these are details.
What matters to me, always, is that the story grips. It is not a book to read in bed before you sleep. As with all Paul Docherty's medieval novels, you won't. You won't even yawn. In fact, three hours later you'll be getting up, book in hand to make a cup of tea.