Friday, September 30, 2011

"Beware the Jabberwock, my son! The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!"

Welcome once again to a special edition of At the Scene of the Crime! As you probably know by now, I am celebrating my 100th blog post with an extravaganza of crossover reviews, joined by various other mystery bloggers. Today, The Puzzle Doctor has kindly joined me from his blog over at In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel. In fact, it was this same mathematician who, back in July, posted an enticing review of Nightshade by Paul Doherty. That post started an avalanche of Paul Doherty reviews in the mystery blogging community, and I was intrigued from the get-go. At the time, I commented:

“Ok, not fair. After plenty of talks with Curt Evans, here I am with a huge list of books by guys like R. Austin Freeman and JJ Connington, and here you go intriguing me with a completely different book!”

But if you scroll down just a wee bit, you’ll find another comment by John from Pretty Sinister Books, who wrote the following: “I also like the Canterbury Tales series especially since they show Doherty’s proclivity for the inclusion of supernatural elements in a detective novel. AN ANCIENT EVIL is one of the most frightening books about the vampire cult in old Romania I have ever read.”

This intrigued me: a series of mysteries centered on The Canterbury Tales, with supernatural elements? And that comment on An Ancient Evil from such a prolific blogger was too fascinating to resist... So it seemed like an ideal book to read and review with The Puzzle Doctor (a.k.a. Steve), who is responsible for this Doherty craze in the first place.

Steve, the crime scene is all yours! Thank you for joining me!

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Many thanks for the invitation, Patrick. As those who follow my blog know, I've been reviewing a lot of novels by Paul Doherty recently across a variety of his series. The reason for that is simply that I really enjoy his work, whether it's recreating the court of Edward I or taking you back to Ancient Egypt or Ancient Rome. The fact that Dr Doherty has a taste for the impossible crime only sweetens the deal.

One of the first books that I reviewed over on my site from Doherty was A Haunt of Murder, namely the sixth of the Canterbury Tales. It was one hell of a surprise due to the fact that while it's an excellent mystery, it's also a pretty good ghost story - real ghosts, not the Scooby Doo variety - and has a lovely use of the two strands of stories to plant a great clue in plain sight. There's an additional side to the story as well, as we learn as the story progresses how one or more of the pilgrims listening to the story were involved in the tale itself.

One thing that I have discovered about Doherty's work is that he's not afraid on mentioning earlier works in a series and as such, I've been making a point of reading them in order from now on. As such, I was delighted when Patrick suggested An Ancient Evil to review. So, off we go.

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An Ancient Evil is a very interesting book, and it uses Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales as a framing device for the story. The idea is surprisingly good: the pilgrims have all decided to tell two stories each. One should be told in the daytime, to instruct, entertain, amuse, etc. but it is also decided that one should be told at night-time; it should be a tale of murder and mystery to make the hairs stand on end.

The Knight volunteers to tell his story first. It begins with a bone-chilling prologue, as Sir Hugo Mortimer destroys a hellish cult in Oxfordshire that was responsible for the deaths of many, draining and then drinking their victims’ blood. The cult leader is captured, and although the priest present begs Sir Hugo to burn the man’s corpse, he refuses to listen. Instead, he buries the man alive inside a lead coffin in a tunnel that is then sealed off, and a monastery is built on the site.

Cut to two hundred years later; exorcist Dame Edith Mohun, Sir Godfrey Evesden and his clerk, Alexander McBain, are sent by the King to investigate a new series of deaths. Just like in old times, entire families have been discovered dead, their bodies hanging upside down and their blood drained. Not only that, several students had disappeared before these murders began. But how is it possible that so many people were killed without an alarm being raised? No neighbours ever heard anything, after all, and there are no signs of forced entry into the homes…

But before I mislead readers into thinking this is an impossible crime, let me correct the impression. The doors aren’t locked or anything of the sort. But this is one of the many parts of the story that invoke traditional legends of vampires… such as their being unable to enter a house unless they are invited…

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Needless to say, given the author and the fact that we are reviewing it, this is quite definitely a mystery novel, and one of its strongest points in my book is the fact for a fair chunk of the narrative, the nature of the mystery is unclear. Clearly at least one of the cast of characters is a member of the Strigoi, but is he/she the resurrected leader of the cult? Is more than one character a vampire? What exactly are the Strigoi up to? There is a real sense of darkness and doom written into this story, as befits the nature of the tale, and the narrative switches its focus freely from Sir Godfrey to McBain and, to a lesser extent, Dame Edith. The different perspectives of the experienced knight, the intelligent clerk and the religious exorcist keep the tale moving as they progress through the story.

One thing that occurred to me is that it doesn't exactly feel like it's a story being told to a group of people. The interludes as we return to the group of pilgrims remind us that this is the case - and also drop some hints as to what is to come - but given that this is supposed to be the Knight's Tale, it is somewhat odd that we see some scenes of the Strigoi plotting. Of course, the question becomes how much of the story is actually "true", one of the ongoing discussions amongst the pilgrims.

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I at first approached this book like a John Dickson Carr novel— some crazy, apparently supernatural stuff would happen, and then all would be rationally explained. But this is not the case. I’m not entirely sure when it dawned on me, but the further I got into the book, the more I realized that in this mystery, the supernatural goes. The existence of God and (just as importantly) the existence of Satan and his demons are incorporated into the mystery…  In a way, it’s a Gothic horror story/mystery hybrid. But, as you say, the reader is unsure what the mystery is exactly for much of the book.

This book is not so much about vampires as it is about the Strigoi, living dead or demons who take possession of a person’s soul. It seems to me like these legends evolved into the vampires we knew about 15 years ago. (Since then, a bunch of phonies calling themselves vampires have taken over the market.) They drink blood, they cannot abide to be near anything holy, a few are killed by driving a stake through the heart and then burning the corpse…

And is it ever frightening! Doherty really knows how to create a sense of the supernatural. When he described the shadowy figures wearing black clothes and hooded cowls, a genuine shiver went up my spine. In fact, I reluctantly put the book down and went to bed late at night… only to wake up early in the morning in a cold sweat from a nightmare. This is the first time an author has done this to me in years!

But the knight is telling the story to other pilgrims, and we’re never quite sure if he’s made up some bits here or there, although it’s strongly implied that the story is generally true. It may seem odd, for instance, that you see the Strigoi plotting to do this-or-that, but you must remember that this is part of a story-telling competition, and the prize will be a free meal at the Tabard Inn when the pilgrims return. I think that the Knight’s tale is true, and since he is telling the story in retrospect, he reconstructs some events at which he wasn’t present logically, and takes some artistic license to increase the horrors and win the contest. And by gum, unless somebody else has an equally impressive tale (perhaps the priest in Ghostly Murders?), I think he’s won hands-down.

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Well, I agree that it's creepy, but no nightmares for me, thank goodness. One of Doherty's strengths for me is the ability to effectively describe some quite horrific events without the need to go into the revolting detail that plagues so many modern thrillers - much is left to the imagination. The cliffhanger at the end of the first night's story is very impressive at making you imagine what has happened. The skill at placing the break there makes the immediate continuation all the more surprising.

Before the reader thinks this is a review of a flawless book, I'll raise a couple of concerns that I don't think Patrick shared.

First, the romance element of the story - Sir Godfrey and McBain both in love with the same lady doesn't really go anywhere and is resolved in too simple a way for me. I was expecting tragedy here, and as such, it fell sort of flat.

Second, maybe I was expecting too much here, but I thought there would be more of a surprise in the link between the story and the pilgrims - in particular between the story and the teller.

Finally, I thought the unmasking happened rather early and was surprised not to have another twist after it happened. The primary villain's identity was well done, if guessable, but I thought there would have been something extra.

Patrick, your thoughts on these points?

***

Like you, I really liked Doherty’s skill at leaving details to the imagination. One of my favourite scenes in the book is a little over midway through, when you witness the massacre of a family. It’s told through the eyes of a young boy who goes upstairs to play when the intruders swoop in. The way the evil slowly closes in on the boy is far more effective than a scene describing the carnage in detail would have been.

I think the romantic angle is the weakest element of the story. The fair Lady Emily, with whom both men fall in love, is never a particularly fleshed-out character. We see her in a few scenes and see her laughing here and there, but we never get inside her head like we do with McBain or Sir Godfrey. The ending to this angle should have taken a little bit more time, but as you point out, it skips right on through to the conclusion. It just feels somewhat rushed for what should have been a very solemn, important moment.

I was somewhat expecting more of a twist ending as well, but the conclusion was pretty powerful nonetheless, with a climactic showdown between the forces of evil and our heroes. The ending of the book is very ambiguous and leaves a lot to the imagination— is Doherty indicating that link you were hoping for between the pilgrims and the tale? Or is he just ending the story on an eerie note?

The villain’s identity is guessable, but I was fooled. The motive behind a brutal killing early on is excellent, and there’s a lot of interesting answers to small riddles, like the meaning of that murder victim’s scrawled phrase “Le chevalier outre mer”. There were also excellent clues that I completely missed hidden throughout the book— overall, the mystery angle was a triumph. What I particularly loved, though, was how successfully a hybrid between mystery, historical novel, and supernatural story was pulled off. It’s likely to satisfy aficionados of all three genres.

***

I agree, the very end of the book is excellent, but overall... it's a very good blend of mystery and horror (although probably not horrific enough if that's your preferred genre) but I feel that I must say that A Haunt of Murder, the sixth (and last?) in the series is better - the mystery in particular is much better and the ghost bits are even creepier than here.

***

Obviously, I can’t comment on other books in the series since this is the only one I’ve read, but I intend to read Ghostly Murders in the near future and I already own A Tapestry of Murders. I thought this was a strong opening book to the series and I really liked it. Also, you don’t need a detailed knowledge of The Canterbury Tales to appreciate this book, although the characters do make references to Chaucer’s work from time to time. Knowledge of the work will only enhance the experience of this book, but it isn’t mandatory. (My knowledge of it, for instance, is cursory at best.)

Overall, I’d give An Ancient Evil 4 stars out of 4. Though I do have some reservations, they are pretty minor in comparison to Doherty’s achievements: he writes suspense, action, and horror very well, all while keeping a historical background and throwing in a mystery angle. For me, these more than make up for the flaws. This book makes the Strigoi menacing figures of pure evil, and it’s really effectively done, right up there with Dracula in my estimation. (Of course, I haven’t read Dracula in years, but even it failed to give me nightmares.) Add to that fair clueing that fooled me, and you have a book that I’d call a new personal favourite, though not quite a masterpiece. I highly recommend this book, and if the rest of the series is this good, I can only hope it is briefly on hiatus instead of being terminated.

 Patrick's Rating: 4/4

***

I think it's wishful thinking that the series will continue - the last one was in 2002. Still, Athelstan is making a comeback later this year after his last showing in 2003 so anything's possible.

As for my rating... I don't do those, so let's make something up. I don't think it's Doherty's best work - as I mentioned, I think I prefer A Haunt of Murder and the early Athelstan books, but it comes pretty close. Those after a straight mystery may be disappointed, but this is an impressive attempt to bring something new to the mystery genre. I'll certainly be reviewing the rest of this series in the future and I'd recommend anyone who hasn't done so to hunt out something by Dr Doherty. One warning though - if possible, try and find something from early in a series as he's not averse to mentioning the murderer of an earlier book in a later one. If you want any suggestions, I'm slowly building up a bibliography over at my blog - feel free to look around.

So, my thanks to Patrick for inviting me over to new territory and I'm sure this won't be the last of our collaborations.

***

The pleasure was entirely mine! Thanks for joining me today, and hopefully, we haven’t seen the last of these collaborations! As for other crossovers, if all goes well there will be one more, but if so, it'll appear in a few days...

2 comments:

  1. Thanks for another great team effort, felolw bloggers. This is an excellent read! I think Doherty's idea of horror is retro - the kind of supernatural horror that Algernon Blackwood, M.R. James and that crowd wrote. It's certainly not modern splatterpunk or torture porn which I don't think deserves the label of horror at all. I prefer horror to have supernatural content and not merely be an excuse for rampant displays of grotesque murders and psychosexual deviancy which is what most readers of horror seem to crave these days. I think true horror is suggested rahter than graphically depicted but must always include the supernatural. [End of micro lecture.] I'll be writing up three of Doherty's purely supernatural books (they do have detective story elements but to a much lesser degree than AN ANCIENT EVIL) throughout next month over at the Pretty Sinister Books blog. I'm glad at least one of you (a nightmare for Patrick!) had a reading experience near to mine. There are few books that have affected me as deeply as this one did. It had a lot to do with what happens to the children in the book.

    It should be noted that Doherty was fascinated with ancient Romania and the cult of the Strigoi. He also wrote two books, both fairly hard to find, The Prince Drakulya and its sequel The Lord Count Drakulya about the historical Romanian prince whose life in part became the stuff of the legendary vampire of Stoker's novel. However, the books are historical adventure novels and not mystery or detective novels.

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  2. John, I entirely agree with you. It's possible to have a scary serial-killer movie--"Halloween" terrified me when I first saw it--but for me, true horror is that suggestion of the supernatural, evil slowly and inevitably closing in...

    I noticed those two books you mention, John, and they sounded interesting. I thank you for pointing them out and clearing up the genre.

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