The Straw Men (2013) is the twelfth title in Paul Doherty's "the Sorrowful Mysteries of Brother Athelstan," a series of historical mysteries that originally appeared under the name of "Paul Harding," which emerged from a decade-long dormancy with Bloodstone (2011) and a red-thread runs through these novels – culminating in The Great Revolt (2016) of 1381. Normally, I tend to skip through these series without paying too much heed to chronology, but the Great Uprising brewing in the background made me decide to read these later novels in the correct order. You have to respect history.
The Straw Men takes place in January, 1381 and begins when Sir John Cranston, Lord Coroner of London, is waiting with a comitatus of mounted men-at-arms in "the bleak-white wilderness" of winter. Cranston has been tasked with escorting the Flemish allies of the self-styled Regent of England, John of Gaunt, to the Tower of London, but the Flemish have brought a prisoner with them. A hooded woman on horseback with a masked face. As to be expected, this retinue with escort is ambushed by the Upright Men, members of the Great Community of the Realm, who plot "to root up the past" and "build a New Jerusalem by the Thames" – only to fail in their objective. And this is not the only setback the Upright Men suffered.
Brother Athelstan is the parish priest of St. Erconwald's in Southwark, secretarius to Sir John Cranston and is the Father Brown of the 14th century.
Several days after the attack, Cranston fetches Athelstan and asks him to accompany him to a tavern near the Tower of London, called Roundhoop, where he has trapped some of the Upright Men, but they've taken hostages and threaten to fight to the death – unless they can speak with the Dominican friar. Probably to negotiate a safe passage out by river. However, the situation dissolves into a bloodbath and Athelstan can only listen to the dying words of their masked leader ("tell my beloved to continue gleaning"). These last words were not meant as a dying message, but it became one by the end of the story. I thought that was an interesting use of the dying message that I had not seen before.
So the opening of The Straw Men is packed with battles and bloodshed, but all of this was only the prologue. After these events, a murderer begins to stir within the bulwarks of the Tower. The result of this is a handful of seemingly impossible murders!
The first of these miraculous crimes occurs when John of Gaunt is entertaining his guests with his personal troupe of stage actors, known as the Straw Men, when two arrows, out of nowhere, cut down two of the guests as two heads inexplicably appear on stage. However, the unseen loosening of these arrows and planting the severed heads on stage turned out to be more of a quasi-impossibility. But the next impossible murder is a genuine locked room mystery.
One of the Straw Men, Eli, is murdered in a tower room by a crossbow bolt to the face, but the door was "locked and bolted" from the inside, while the eyelet in the door was immovably stuck in place by old-age and the window was tightly shuttered – both from within and without. The solution to this locked room conundrum is not bad at all. It's as simple as it's elegant and deftly combines technical trickery with human psychology to create the illusion of an impossible murder. Even more importantly, it was fairly original in its execution.
There are two more locked room slayings in the second half of the story and they were cleverly linked together: two men are found dead in their respective tower rooms, one room is situated directly above the other, in which one man appeared to have hanged himself and in the room below someone was stabbed to death. The two-pronged solution to these two locked room murders aren't terribly original or have the same level of synergy as The Case of the Séance's Double Locked Room from Detective Conan, but liked them nonetheless. They were a nice little extra.
This is still only a fraction of the entire plot. Athelstan and Cranston have to contend with spies, conspirators, political secrets and a litany of gruesome murders. A hangman is brutally slaughtered and an entire family, except for a baby, is wiped out. So you can forgive an overworked Athelstan that only caught sight of the murder long after the reader has identified this person.
Everyone who pays a modicum of attention and has a passing acquaintance with Doherty's detective fiction can spot the murderer long before the end, which is my sole problem with this otherwise solid entry in the series. The Straw Men is a fast-moving, intricately plotted historical detective novel packed with impossible crime that fascinatingly inches closer to the Peasants' Revolt of 1381 – only slightly marred by the obvious murderer. I find it fascinating how Doherty is slowly, but surely, shepherding this series towards the Great Revolt and plan on returning to Athelstan sooner rather than later.