Satan in St. Mary's


P. C. Doherty


Mystery / Thriller


Date Reviewed:

April 30, 2022

atan in St. Mary's is the first book in a long series of mysteries featuring Hugh Corbett, a clerk working in the court of King Edward I in 13th century England. The Hugh Corbett series is up to 22 novels, the latest of which, Mother Midnight, came out in 2021. So Mr. Doherty is still producing more mysteries. I don't know if his recent books are good, but I thought that his first novel was a pretty good mystery, and I anticipate looking for the next book in the series. (Doherty, a historian, is remarkably prolific. His Wikipedia page lists literally dozens of books that he has authored. I have read a couple of his medieval mysteries, but I see he has also written mysteries set in ancient Egypt, and that sounds intriguing to me.)

The protagonist of this series is Hugh Corbett, a middle-aged clerk safely toiling in the royal court on routine documents and transcribing, its a decent job that allows Corbett to lead a comfortable life. But then Corbett is instructed by Chancellor Burnell to investigate the suicide of Lawrence Duket, a goldsmith who murdered the creepy Ralph Crepyn and then fled to the church St. Mary Le Bow and claimed sanctuary. Three guards stood watch outside St. Mary's, after looking into the church to ensure Duket was safe. The guards ensured that no one could violate the rules of sanctuary and take revenge for the death of Crepyn. Yet in the morning, Duket is found hanging from a bell-rope tied to a metal bracket. Since no one could have entered the church, it is a clear cut case of suicide, right? Corbett is puzzled why the Chancellor wishes to have him probe Duket's demise. Corbett investigates, and determines that Duket was murdered, though he cannot imagine how the crime was committed, his interviews of the guardsmen leave him convinced that they are telling the truth that no one entered or exited St. Mary's le Bow that night.

The dead moneylender Crepyn was known to frequent an inn called The Mitre, so Corbett dutifully trods there to question the tavern's proprietors. Corbett is stunned to discover that The Mitre is owned by the diminutive but stunningly beautiful Alice atte Bowe. Not only is Alice beautiful, she is also smart. She gives Corbett a flute, which he plays well. Corbett, who had recently lost his wife and son to the plague, finds himself smitten by the attractive Alice, and idles away the days with frequent visits to The Mitre.

A frustrated Chancellor Burnell calls Corbett in for a progress report. Corbett is puzzled - why does the suicide (which he knows was actually a murder) of the goldsmith Duket attract the attention of the Chancellor? Burnell reveals that Crepyn was thought to be part of a rebellious, satan-worshipping movement called the Pentacle that desires to end the reign of King Edward I. These satan worshippers were supporters of Simon de Montfort, a baron who perished in the battle of Evesham in 1258. Montfort maybe dead, but his followers are still plotting to overthrow the royal rule - there are treacherous threats to the kingdom. It is crucial the Corbett unmask these traitors, and foil any plots against the king himself. With renewed purpose, Corbett plunges into the investigation.

Clearly, someone does not like where Corbett's questions are leading. The clerk narrowly escapes an assassination attempt. Realizing that he is vulnerable, Corbett engages the services of a young thief named Ranulf. The rough justice of medieval England had Ranulf scheduled to hang, but Corbett gains a pardon for the young man - while making it clear that if Ranulf fails to obey Corbett's instructions, he will quickly be returned to the hangman. The streetwise Ranulf guides Corbett through the dangerous streets of London.

Doherty does a terrific job of creating a sense of menace and lurking danger. Corbett's life is threatened multiple times in this book, and at other times there is the uneasy feeling of unseen watchers tracking his moves. Violence erupts in several places. Corbett served as a soldier in King Edward's army when he was younger, so he is familiar with weapons and fighting. The mores of medieval England are certainly not same as the prudish Victorian era - both Corbett and Ranulf are interested in the fairer sex.

Doherty's style is fast paced, with a quickly advancing plot. Although there is plenty of comments about the filth, violence and misery of 13th century London, the story doesn't get bogged down in lengthy description. The hardcover edition that I read is just 184 pages long. The only reason I didn't award this book five stars is because it seemed to me that Corbett missed some obvious clues. The next book in the series is The Crown of Darkness, I will have see if it is in the Seattle library system.