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by Paul Doherty
Headline, April 2009
305 pages
19.99 GBP
ISBN: 0755338510

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

THE DARKENING GLASS, third in the very prolific Paul Doherty's Mathilde of Westminster series, is given the framing device of being the recollections of Mathilde, who is immured in a London Priory at the behest of Edward III. She is looking back and writing a secret chronicle of events which occurred when she was the 'clerk, physician and lady of the chamber' to Queen Isabella, wife of Edward II. The events which she is recording in this particular book are set in 1312; Isabella is pregnant and the King is fleeing from the great Lords who are pursuing him in order to destroy his favourite Piers Gaveston. While the Court is at York the first in a series of murders of the Aquilae Petri, six close companions of Gaveston, takes place. Mathilde is charged by the King with discovering the truth about the murder. By the end of the book all six have been killed, but Mathilde's pursuit of the truth is disrupted as the Court is constantly on the move - to Tynemouth Abbey where Isabella is very nearly captured by the Scots (this is also the era of Robert the Bruce), then Scarborough Castle where Gaveston is finally captured by the Lords after the Castle is betrayed from within. Mathilde accompanies Gaveston to his final end when he is executed outside Warwick. By this time she has discerned the truth about the murders, although there is nothing she can do about bringing the murderer to any immediate justice.

In an Author's Note Doherty reveals that his DPhil thesis was on Isabella so he should certainly know the period well enough. Every chapter is preceded by a quotation from a contemporary chronicle, and some of the story, especially the death of Gaveston, is clearly based on known historical fact. Doherty also brings in the outlawing of the Templar order and the fact that many of the Templars fled to Scotland which was the only safe haven they could find. As this is a murky historical period there is no particular reason to question Doherty's account of events. Unfortunately this does not disguise the fact that there is a major problem with this book. This is the over-writing and style. Every so often the action will break off for long descriptive passages of medieval life - whether the court, towns, abbeys, castles, sieges or whatever - which not only interrupt the narrative but are not of the highest quality in terms of prose. This is made worse here by the fact that Mathilde's own voice - and the book is in first-person narrative - is distinctly uninspired - "A sinister premonition in the swirling bloody mist of murder and mayhem engulfing out lives. What could be done? I was confronted with a tangled mystery." (Almost an object lesson in the obvious and redundant adjective!)

The pity is that underneath all these unnecessary adjectives and piled-up descriptive passages there is actually a pretty decent murder plot and Doherty does know how to sustain an interesting historical narrative. In terms of the plot there are no less than two locked room puzzles, which must be something of a speciality as one also featured in the only other book of his I have read, the considerably superior Roman mystery MURDER'S IMMORTAL MASK. A full and satisfying explanation of all the events of the book - both historical and mystery - is provided when Mathilde sums the case up. But taken as a whole these undoubted strengths have to be set against the substantial weaknesses in the book's prose and the general ordinariness of characterisation. THE DARKENING GLASS is certainly not for those who demand good writing in their mysteries, but for those willing to over-look stylistic faults and skip some descriptive passages, there is enough narrative impetus, and certainly enough of a plot, to make the book readable.

Reviewed by Nick Hay, July 2009

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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