In the England of 1517, conspiracies unfold beneath the surface of events no less abundantly than rank sewage flows on the street of London. It’s a time of fresh possibility for the island kingdom, with a young and ambitious sovereign ruling at Westminster, but it’s also a time of dark portents and dark realities. This maiden entry in a sequence of tales about political intrigue and personal skullduggery during the reign of King Henry VIII ably evokes a period when life was cheap and truth was dear, and it packs in a generous array of mysteries both large and small. The grandest mystery involves the struggle to control the throne of Scotland—a struggle that, in this telling, has become entangled with the ongoing clash between the Tudor dynasty and advocates of the Yorkist cause, who, three decades after the Battle of Bosworth Field, may be conspiring to retake the English throne. Smaller-scale mysteries arise from a set of killings done to further these machinations.
Two of the murders present variations of the same sealed-room puzzle. The first of them is the keystone event of the whole affair. Alexander Selkirk, a physician to the recently defeated and slain King James IV of Scotland, has gone mad; he writes crackpot verses and issues cryptic utterances that suggest esoteric knowledge about the fate of his country. Forces loyal to King Henry and to James’s widowed queen, Margaret, who happens to Henry’s sister, have captured Selkirk and brought him to the Tower of London, where Margaret and her entourage have taken up residence. One night, in a locked and thoroughly guarded chamber, Selkirk succumbs to death by poisoning. How could anyone have gotten close enough to him to administer the fatal substance? (Remnants of food and drink in the room show no trace of poison.) How, too, did a white rose—a symbol of the Yorkist conspiracy—end up next to the corpse? The core trick, once revealed, proves to be rather simple, and the full solution to the puzzle borrows an oft-used device from other locked-room tales. Still, the trick works well in this context, and the process of detection that leads to its revelation is sharp and appealing.
Two characters share responsibility for unraveling that mystery, along with several other quandaries that surround Queen Margaret and her retinue. The ostensible protagonist and the narrator of adventure is Roger Shallot, a charming scalawag whose likeness to Shakespeare’s Falstaff receives an explicit reference from Shallot himself. (One conceit of the series is that Shallot is writing his memoirs at the tail end of the Elizabethan era and that he personally knew the Bard, among other luminaries of the period.) But Shallot’s friend and master, Benjamin Daunbey, handles more than half of the sleuthing work. Whereas Shallot is earthy to the core, Daunbey is lofty in spirit, and the two personae complement each other in the time-honored fashion of Sancho Panza and Don Quixote. (At the same time, the byplay between Shallot and Daunbey has a blithe, loosely egalitarian quality that recalls the interaction between Bob Hope and Bing Crosby in their “Road” pictures.)
Doherty (who initially published the novel under his Michael Clynes pseudonym) overestimates the charm of his roguish hero: A little bit of Shallot—of his thieving and wenching, of his self-satisfied tone and his profanely flippant attitude—goes a long way. His narrative voice, which becomes disruptive as the story progresses, is the chief weakness of the book. The chief strength, meanwhile, lies in the author’s unflinching descriptions of 16th-century life. In that respect, Doherty departs from a common tendency among historical novelists (including, say, Ellis Peters in her Brother Cadfael series) to sugarcoat the period about which they write. In an account of Shallot and Daunbey’s journey into the capital, for instance, Doherty sets the scene to gripping effect: “We traveled down through Eastcheap and into Petty Wales, the area around the Tower. God save us, London is a dirty place, but after that infection [of the plague] it was reeking filthy: fleas and lice were everywhere, and the unpaved streets were coated with leavings of every kind. Mound of refuse were piled high, full of the rushes thrown out of houses and taverns, thick with dirt and stinking of spit, vomit and dog turds.”