"Many secrets of art and nature are thought by the unlearned to be magical."- Roger Bacon (c. 1214-1292)
The Magician's Death (2004) is Paul Doherty's fourteenth mystery novel in his flagship series about Sir Hugh Corbett, Keeper of the Secret Seal of Edward I of England, who finds himself at the heart of a conspiratorial intrigue of the royal courts of both England and France. One that centers on an encoded manuscript by the enigmatic Franciscan friar and philosopher, Roger Bacon.
The "beloved cousin" and internal rival of Edward of England, Philip IV of France, maneuvered the English monarch into signing the Treaty of Paris, which he accomplished by putting a great amount of international pressure on the English – backed by the powerful papacy. Philip IV wants to absorb the wine-rich province of Gascony in south-west France, still under English rule, into "the Capetian patrimony" and see his unborn grandson crowned as King of England at Westminster. One of the promises Edward had to make in the treaty is that his eldest son, the Prince of Wales, would marry Philip's sole daughter.
So, one day, the grandson of Philip of France would be wearing "the crown of the Confessor," his daughter will be Queen of England and "her second son will be Duke of Gascony." As to be expected, Edward is not very happy with the situation he found himself in and this is the point where fiction takes it over from history.
All of a sudden, Edward began to cultivate an interest in the work of the late Roger Bacon, whose writing told about such magical wonders as "machines" which can “go to the bottom of the sea” or “fly through the air,” carts that can travel without being pulled by oxen and “a black powder” that can create a thunder-like explosion – among many other visions of the future. But one of Friar Roger's most ambitious work is a codes manuscript he wrote in captivity, Secretus Secretorum (Secret of Secrets), in which he revealed, in great detail, all his secret knowledge. The original manuscript went to Paris, while the only copy stayed in England.
So the opening of the book sees two of Corbett's agents, William Bolingbroke and Walter Ufford, attempting to steal the manuscript and smuggle it out of France, but there's a hitch in the plan and one of them dies – other one escaping by the skin of his teeth. As a result, Philip wants a meeting between delegations of both kingdoms to discuss the matter of Friar Roger's manuscript.
Philip requests that, with "the hardship of winter," the conclave takes place in a secure location on the south coast of England. The place chosen is a cold, grim and lonely stronghold, Corfe Castle, which is believed to be "the work of giants" and the surrounding, crescent-shaped forest is believed to be a home for sprites, spirits and the ghosts of the dead. On the open, south-side of the castle is the iron grey sea.
A desolate, but private, place. However, when Sir Hugh Corbett arrives with his retinue, which includes his right-hand man, Ranulf of Newgate, they find a hot-spot of trouble.
The castle has become the hunting grounds of a serial killer: a number of maids have been found, in-and outside the castle walls, with "a crossbow bolt through the heart." And the death-toll keeps rising! A band of outlaws and scavengers, who live in the forest, swear they were not the ones hunting the woman, but they did make vague references to "the horror hanging in the woods." There are also Flemish pirates, a whole swarm of them, packed in herring ships and cogs of war raiding coastal villages in the vicinity of the castle. So that's definitely a problem.
Finally, there's the French envoy: headed by Corbett's arch-rival, Seigneur Amaury de Craon, Keeper of the Secrets of His Most Royal Highness, who's accompanied by several magistri from the University of Paris, but they have the tendency to meet with an unfortunate and sticky end – usually within the confines of a sealed room. One of them has a deadly seizure in his locked bedroom, while another seems to have broken his neck when stumbling down a staircase between two locked doors. A third one is found, with a cracked skull, behind the closed door of a tower room.
So, the plot of The Magician's Death has enough going for itself and Doherty, as to be expected from such a natural storyteller, knows how to spin a yarn, but, in terms of a detective story, this was one of his weakest efforts. Doherty is usually very consistent in quality, with a smattering of genuinely excellent mystery novels, which (thus far) had only one true disappointment among them, The Assassins of Isis (2004). But this one is not far behind when it comes to being a complete and utter letdown. Coincidentally, they were both published in the same year.
The sub-plot about the serial killings of the maids was a pretty petty affair and basically filler material to pad out the novel, which was resolved and ditched well before the ending. I suppose this plot-thread served its purpose in giving the castle an even more sinister atmosphere, but, in the end, I did not care for it. The locked room murders were, mainly, underwhelming. There is, however, one interesting aspect about them that tied in with an earlier event from the story and provided, somewhat, of a clue (one of the few), but also disqualified the second killing as a locked room. The third came closer to being a proper impossible crime and resembled a medieval version of a certain John Dickson Carr novel, but was never played to full-effect. So, as a locked room fanboy, I was not exactly impressed.
And the marauding pirates were just there to provide the story with some last-minute action by raiding the castle. Robert van Gulik showed in "The Night of the Tiger," from The Monkey of the Tiger (1965), how a place under siege can be an excellent plot-enhancement for a historical detective story, but here it was more of an afterthought. One that was given a link to the main plot-thread, but its sole purpose was to provide some thriller-ish excitement towards the end.
The main plot-thread, concerning the court intrigue, the undecipherable manuscript and the murders of the university scholars, ends equally unsatisfying: the identity of the murderer and the sudden interest in Bacon's work are revealed, but they're not spectacular. And since none of the secrets are deciphered, the ending has a whiff of the unresolved hanging around it.
So, yeah, I hoped this would turn out to be a better detective story, especially after my previous lukewarm reviews of Donald Bayne Hobart's work, but you can blame "Puzzle Doctor" for my selection of The Magician's Death – who called it "outstanding" and "one of Doherty's finest." Obviously, it wasn't.
Hopefully, the next recommendation on my TBR-list, a translated impossible crime novel (of course!), lives up to the hype. In the meantime, allow me to redirect your attention my 2016 best-of list for a whole pile of mystery novels I did enjoy this year.
I'll also try to watch and review the new TV-special of Jonathan Creek one of these days. So stay tuned and, once again, I wish you all the best for 2017. See you all on the other side!