8/6/18

The House of Death (2001) by Paul Doherty

Back in 2016, I reviewed Paul Doherty's splendid A Murder in Thebes (1998), originally published as by "Anna Apostolou," which is one of only two titles in a short-lived series that began with A Murder in Macedon (1997) and are set during the rise of Alexander the Great, but Doherty rebooted the series in the early 2000s – penning three additional titles that are collectively known as the Telamon Triology. I'll be looking at these three historical mysteries this month.

There is, however, one difference this time around: I'm not going to read The House of Death (2001), The Godless Man (2002) and The Gates of Hell (2003) back-to-back, but spread them out all over August. My reason for this is that the first entry in this reboot showed that this series probably doesn't lend itself to binge reading. So I'll be interspersing my reading of the Telamon Triology with some mystery novels that have recently been added to the big pile.

This triology (sort of) continues where the previous, two-part series ended and the events from those earlier novels play a not insignificant role in the shadows of The House of Death.

Only difference between the two series is that the detective-characters from the first two novels, Miriam and Simeon Bartimaeus, were replaced by a physician, Telamon, who is a childhood friend of Alexander and they spend their early days together in the Groves of Mieza – where they were both tutored by no less a figure than the Greek philosopher, Aristotle. Telamon is a completely fictional characters, but one who was modeled on an actual historical figure, Philip the Doctor, who's associated with Alexander.

The House of Death takes place in the Spring of 334 BC and Alexander the Great has amassed his troops at Sestos, poised to cross the Hellespont, which is the crossroads between Greece and Asia, where he plans to take the sprawling Persian Empire of the King of Kings, Darius III. And march "to the edge of the world" to "win the vindication of the gods."

However, Darius III and Lord Mithra are already plotting the downfall of the Macedonian upstart. General Memnon of Rhodes, a Greek renegade, has been attracted by the Persians to fight Alexander III of Macedon, because they reasoned that "it takes a wolf to fight a wolf," but the Persians also have dangerous spy in the Macedonian camp, "Naiphat" – who's murdering people left and right! Particularly those who are important to Alexander when it comes to entering Asia.

One of Alexander's scout is found at the foot of a cliff with a winged dagger, of Celtic origin, sticking out of his body and a scrap of paper tightly clutched in his dead hand, which had a quote from the Delphic Oracle scrawled on it. Alexander's father had been assassinated with a Celtic dagger and, in combination with the Delphic Oracle, the murderer is obviously aiming at provoking memories, stirring guilt and playing upon Alexander's superstition. An attempt strengthened when two of the murders appear to have been of the impossible variety. 
 
A young handmaid, a Thessalian, who had been send across the Hellespont by her people to go to the city of Troy, in order to appease the goddess Athena, has apparently lost her wits and is brought to Alexander for questioning, but all he can do is hand her over to his friend, Telamon – who treats her with a sleeping drought that will allow her mind and body to rest. And chase out the phantoms. They leave her "in a closely guarded tent" with "its leather sheets lashed tightly together," only a ghost could get through that, but the unknown murderer manages to poison the maiden. This miracle repeated later in the story when Critias, the map-maker, has his throat cut in his tent, which was also guarded and tightly lashed together.

These sealed tent murders have fairly simple explanations and the throat-cutting barely qualifies as an impossible crime, but, simple as it may be, I liked the poisoning-trick. Simple, but workable. Sadly, you can guess where and when the trickery was done, because the identity of the murderer is pretty obvious.

I think the simplistic detective-elements are the only weakness of The House of Death. Doherty rebooted this series and therefore not only had to retell Alexander's story, but also had reintroduce a new series-character, Telamon, who had his own back-story that needed to be told. A second back-story is that of a secondary-character, named Cassandra, who Telamon rescued from the slave pens and took her on as his medical assistance. And then there's the impending battle between Alexander's forces and Memnon's mercenaries.

The House of Death is more of a historical thriller with an origin story at its heart than a proper detective story, but Doherty knows how to spin a yarn around historical events and the result is an engrossing historical novel. So now that the introductions are out of the way, I have good hopes for the last two titles in this series and have read some good things about the second title. I'll get around that one after my next read.

So, yes, this one definitely comes recommended, but only to readers who're already more than familiar with Doherty's work. Readers who are new to him might want to look somewhere else first.

On a final, semi-related note: I seriously suspect A Murder in Thebes and The House of Death might have been (partially) inspired by John Dickson Carr grossly underrated Captain Cut-Throat (1955). I think we can safely assume that Doherty is more than aware of Carr's historical (locked room) mysteries and Captain Cut-Throat would probably appeal to him the most, because the plot resembles so many of his own historical detective stories (i.e. an enigmatic murderer going around killing soldiers). So I can easily imagine he wanted to give his own spin to the bare bones premise of Captain Cut-Throat.

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