The House of the Red Slayer (1992) by Paul Doherty

Paul Doherty's The House of the Red Slayer (1992) is the second novel in the Sorrowful Mysteries of Brother Athelstan series, originally published as by "Paul Harding," which opens with a prologue, set in 1362, showing Moorish pirates capturing a carrack in the Middle Sea and massacring the passengers – pilgrims, merchants, travelers and tinkers. A gruesome, long-forgotten episode that would nonetheless lead to more bloodshed nearly two decades later.

A "murderously cold" wind swept over London in December, 1377, which despite the ice and hail is supposed to be "a time of innocence and warmth," but Sir Ralph Whitton, Constable of the Tower of London, exchanged his comfortable quarter for a grim cell in the North Bastion tower. The stairway to the room is guarded by two trusted retainers with the door between the steps and the passageway securely locked. Sir Ralph and his guards are the only people with keys to the doors.

The reason for these security measures is that Sir Ralph receives "a drawing of a three-masted cog" together with "a flat sesame seed cake," which frightened him enough to lock himself up. Sir Ralph also doubled the wages of his guards and insisted that visitors be searched, but the moat underneath the tower window became frozen solid – opening a pathway to his assassin. An assassin who climbed the wall using the footholds cut into the tower, prized open the wooden shutters with a dagger and killed the sleeping Sir Ralph. A possible matter of treason that brings Sir John Cranston, Lord Coroner of London, to the Tower of London with his scribe, Brother Athelstan.

The House of the Red Slayer is surprisingly conventionally-structured during most of the first half of the story with Sir Ralph's family-and social circle filling the small pool of suspects.

There's his daughter, Philippa, who's betrothed to Geoffrey Parchmeiner. A young man who enjoyed the approval and trust of his prospective father-in-law. A brother, Sir Fulke Whitton, who can expect to inherit a chunk of his estate. A mute Moorish servant, Rastani, whose conversion to Christianity is doubted and has a reason to harbor a grudge against his master. Gilbert Colebrooke is his disgruntled lieutenant and wanted Sir Ralph's post for himself. A chaplain, William Hammond, whom Sir Ralph "caught selling food stocks from the Tower stores." Finally, there are two friends of Sir Ralph, Sir Gerard Mowbray and Sir Brian Fitzormonde, who are now hospitaller knights, but served with Sir Ralph in Egypt.

So most of the first half of the story is told as a traditional, Golden Age-style detective story with its focus primarily on the mysterious murder in the tower room and there only two, very minor, subplots dangling in the background – concerning Cranston's marital problems and the desecration of Athelstan's churchyard. The Great Community is "plotting treason and rebellion" in the shadows, but these plot-strands barely have a presence.

Doherty is a cruel God who cannot be appeased, or satisfied, with a single, measly corpse and the wholesale bloodletting in the prologue proved to have been the soup severed before the meal.

A second victim slipped from a parapet and spattered his brains on the sharp, icy cobbles below, which coincided with the sounding of the tocsin bell, but that "great brass tongue only tolled when the Tower was under attack." Something that was not the case and when the soldiers went to investigate, they found only "the claw marks of the ravens" in the snow surrounding the bell! A minor impossibility of the no-footprints variety with a simple, but good, explanation. After this second murderer stops being subtly and the murders that follow are even by Doherty's standard savagely brutal and gory, which is underlined by his unfurnished depiction of the times.

Doherty doesn't romanticize the past and has no problem with the showing the stinking streets, the heaps of human waste and the unwashed masses or how the frost tortured the wandering lepers and slaying beggars huddled in their rags – while the blackened corpses of river pirates hung picturesquely from the low scaffolds. And remember that this is supposed to be a Christmas-themed mystery novel!

Regrettably, The House of the Red Slayer is a better historical novel than a detective story, because the murderer is not is difficult to spot or hard to figure out who this person was in the prologue and motivated this person. But it was admirable the way in which Doherty tried to misdirect the reader by presenting one of the murders in a very different light than you would expect from him, but that's what immediately aroused my suspicion. Once you look at that murder as a [redacted], there's only one person who could have done it. So, yeah, I didn't reach the same conclusion as Brother Athelstan with a dazzling piece of armchair reasoning, but the scant clueing made that nigh impossible anyway.

The House of the Red Slayer is one of those Doherty novels that is strong on historical content and writing, but have weak clueing and a plot that is easy to pick apart. So not the strongest title in the series, but, as a historical novel presented as a detective story, it's a very immersive read and the idea to "camouflage" one of the murders was a genuinely clever touch. Even if it can give the whole game away to a reader who has consumed an unholy amount of detective fiction.


  1. I have definitely read this, but I don't remember it at all. The setup is familiar, but I feel the eventual solutions must have underwhelmed me -- especially when you consider how starkly the cleverness of The Nightingale Gallery still stands out in my mind.

    Should really try some more Doherty at some point, but, man, soooo many books...

    1. Steve recently reviewed Doherty's newest novel, Hymn to Murder, and posted a few recommendations in the comments for a reader who's new to Doherty. Maybe there's something to your liking there: classicmystery.blog/2020/08/03/hymn-to-murder-2020-by-paul-doherty/

    2. You could be right, but that'll have to wait until the libraries here open. Maybe I'll make it my next FaMLRMfTC post...whenever that happens to be :)

  2. This new Blogger is absolutely awful. Have you gotten used to writing on this mess?

    1. I tried it months ago and immediately returned to the old interface, because compiling a normal post or simply adding pictures was practically impossible. You can return to the old interface when you log in and click on the big orange button on the left hand bottom of the page.

      If they force the new version on users without fixing it, I might have to switch to Wordpress or something.

    2. It seems to force everyone to the new Blogger in the next couple of months.

      Their site reads: "we want to ensure anyone using Blogger has an easy and intuitive experience publishing their content to the web.
      That’s why we’ve been slowly introducing an improved web experience for Blogger." Which is obviously a lie, how do I even leave from there after trying to create a post?

      Seems like they want Blogger to be more like a phone app or those social media sites like Twitter, they want people to write short posts about random stuff they see live and spam the post option.

    3. A similar thing is happening with Wordpress, too -- there's a new interface that's just hideous to use but you can currently opt out of. For how much longer I dunno, but I fear it's just going to be activated for everyone before long and we'll just have to lump it.

      I am...not delighted by the prospect.

    4. "Seems like they want Blogger to be more like a phone app or those social media sites like Twitter, they want people to write short posts about random stuff they see live and spam the post option."

      After trying the new interface, I went to the Blogger help forums to see what was being done about the issues and my impression then was that they were sneakily scuttling the platform. They have been working on the new interface for years and it's buggy and clunky as hell. Such as adding pictures. With the old/legacy interface, you can simply drag a picture where ever you want in your post, but with the new interface you have to right click the picture and select left/right alignment, which looks ugly and messed up the whole post (big gaps between paragraphs). And every question/complaint got the same response with solutions that don't work and frustrate users. It looks like the situation hasn't changed at all since then.

      Since Wordpress is doing the same, there's only one thing we can do if the issues aren't fixed: move together to another platform. I would like to continue with my blogspot, but this is supposed to be fun. Not a chore. So have no problem starting from scratch somewhere else.

      All I want is a place to fanboy about detective stories, but if Blogger/Wordpress stops being the place to do that, I'll simply move to another blogging site. No problem.

    5. Yeah you can even create a blog site if you want and I'll move there.

      I do understand why these sites are doing this though - mobile market is literally one of the biggest in the world right now. For example mobile gacha games rake hundreds and thousands time more money than console games since they got microtransactions and utilize gambling addiction methods.

      So if I'm right, this new blogger is created to post with my smart phone instead of this laptop right? Let's see what this does... Well you can't add anything but yeah, the return button for the new Blogger is the phone's own return button.

      Aha! When you go to the sneak peek option on your smartphone it literally gives bunch of viewing options to view the post with.