Thursday, 11 June 1998

P.C. Doherty: The Masked Man (1991)

Edition: Robert Hale, 1991
Review number: 65

Ever since Alexander Dumas wrote his classic novel, The Man in the Iron Mask, its subject has been one of the best known historical mysteries. Several of Doherty's early novels deal with such mysteries (the death of Alexander III of Scotland, for example), as did his Ph.D. thesis in medieval history (the murder of Edward II of England). In this case, he claims to have found new evidence to explain who the man actually was, and this is worked into the novel.

The story of the masked man is probably familiar enough. He was a prisoner in seventeenth century France, kept in a mask and forbidden to speak to (just about) any one, presumably so no one would know who he was. The mystery is basically to work out his identity, and why it was such a crucial secret.

The Masked Man is set about a century after the death of the prisoner. Ralph Croft is an English forger who has been sentenced to death in a French prison, only to be reprieved at the last moment. The relief brought by the reprieve is short-lived; Croft is visited by the Duke of Orleans, the regent of France and a man with a terrifying reputation. His pardon is conditional on an investigation into the story of the masked prisoner - whose identity even the French state no longer knows.

Croft joins two other men in his quest to find the truth. D'Estivet is a bullying, vicious man; Maurepas is quieter and more congenial (he also has a daughter of whom Croft becomes rather fond). One of them is seen fairly early on to be involved in a plot to overthrow the French government; Doherty brings in themes from a source I wouldn't expect a real historian to use, The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail.

Perhaps this novel is one best viewed as coming before Doherty hit his stride; the Corbett and Athelstan novels are far better, and the medieval period is his main strength, whether he is writing as P.C. Doherty or Peter Haining.

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