The Crown in Darkness


P. C. Doherty


Mystery / Thriller


Date Reviewed:

June 1, 2022

he Crown in Darkness is the second book in the Hugh Corbett series featuring a medieval clerk who acts as a detective/spy for the court of Edward I. This novel begins with Chancellor Burnell calling Corbett into his office and informing him that he will promptly (the journey takes seven weeks!) travel to Scotland and investigate the untimely death of Alexander III, the king of Scotland who perished without leaving an heir. Obviously, who sits on the throne is a matter of concern to the English, so Burnell wants information on what did happen (was the death truly an accident?) and find out any insight about who might seize the throne.

Corbett does not want the assignment. Scotland is a hostile and dangerous place, they have no love of the English. A nosy clerk coming, asking questions, is the last thing the Scottish want in their midst. At least there is one friendly face at Edinburgh - John Benstede, the amiable English ambassador to the Scottish court. Everyone else that Corbett encounters is a threat.

The novel is based upon an actual historical event: in 1298, King Alexander III really did perish when he wildly rode his horse along a steep mountain track at night in the midst of a raging storm. His horse fell (or was pushed?), and both king and horse died upon the rocks below. Corbett wishes to question the two squires that rode out that night with the king - though he finds that he cannot talk with Seton, because that squire has recently died. The other squire, Ercledoun was unable to keep pace with the king on horseback, and so was not riding with him when the fatal plunge occurred.

One thing I like about this mystery is that Corbett writes down a list of all the details about this investigation that bother him. Many mystery novels try to keep suspense by not revealing what the detective is thinking. But Corbett has as itemized list of all the facts that don't quite make sense to him. Why did the king impulsively ride out to visit Queen Yolande, who hated him? The king could easily have sated his lust with many willing female courtiers. Who delivered a message to Kinghorn instructing them to have King Alexander's favorite horse waiting for him at the far side of the Firth of Forth, when it appeared that the King's decision to ride to Kinghorn was a spur-of-the-moment sudden decision? The biggest question Corbett asks is "Cui Bono?" - who benefits? Of all the factions vying for the throne, who would commit regicide to advance their cause? (Corbett is convinced that the King was murdered - he rode out to the point where the king's horse fell from the mountain track and discovered a few threads of rope - a clue that an assassin might have stretched ropes across the trail in the night, tripping the horse and sending the king to his death.

Corbett faces many dangerous figures. Robert Bruce, a big violent man, is the head of a powerful clan that surely will make a move to grab the vacant throne. Queen Yoldande, the French princess married to King Alexander III, has nothing but scorn for an English clerk. The Scottish bishop, Wishart, is an ancient withered man, but with keen eyes and intellect, he passionately works to guard the Scottish throne from any perceived enemies. James Selkirk is a violent Scottish knight who makes no attempt to disguise his hostility toward Corbett. But most dangerous of all is the French ambassador, their chief spy, de Craon. De Craon is obviously in Scotland to advance the French interests - King Philip IV dreams of building an empire to rival Charlemagne's, and have a French queen produce the next king of Scotland would be a coup.

Corbett is in constant danger. At a banquet, during a tumult, someone takes advantage of the commotion to hurl a dagger at Corbett's throat - he barely escapes by the sheerest luck. Clearly someone does not want him poking around in Scottish affairs. At several points, Corbett escapes violent assault. At other times, there is no actual attack, but a sense of malice, the feeling that he is being marked and tracked, follows Corbett during his investigations and questions. After reading book 1 in this series, and now this story, Corbett must have the nine lives of a cat in that he is always escaping death by a whisker.

The book is just 184 pages in the hard-back edition that I read, so it is a quick read. Doherty doesn't get diverted with subplots or long info dumps about Scottish history. The story proceeds in a brisk pace to an interesting conclusion. I will hope to read the next book in this series. (I have already read book III, so will have to jump ahead to Angel of Death, book IV in the series.