Friday, 9 October 1998

P.C. Doherty: Ghostly Murders (1997)

Ghostly Murders coverEdition: Headline, 1997
Review number: 132

I rather like the idea behind this series of Doherty's, very different from the Hugh Corbett mysteries or the Brother Athelstan books he writes as Paul Harding. The characters are the pilgrims of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, and the idea is that in the evenings, resting from the day's journey, each pilgrim in turn told a murder story to match the tales told during the day and recorded by Chaucer. The stories so far (I believe this is the fourth) all have much the same format, third person narratives which turn out to be thinly disguised autobiographical accounts interspersed with comments from the other pilgrims. Each individual story is much longer than the ones in the Canterbury Tales, and they connect together several of the pilgrims (so that the final number of books in the series will be fewer than twenty-four, the number of Chaucer's tales).

Ghostly Murders is the tale of the poor priest, and it brings in the cook and the ploughman. It is extremely unusual among modern historical novels dealing with the Middle Ages in that it includes supernatural events which do not admit of rational explanation - visions of ghostly horsemen, physical attacks by spectres. Naturally, just about everyone in the fourteenth century would believe in such phenomena, but it is almost a convention of historical writing to allow a get-out for the modern sceptic.

The plot also involves a theme to which just about all writers of novels depicting the fourteenth century - and indeed many others - eventually turn: the downfall of the Templars in 1308. The overnight destruction of the richest and most powerful order of fighting monks (so rich and powerful as to amount to virtually a separate state within Europe) by Philip IV of France, and the acquiescence in its destruction by the Pope and other monarchs including Edward II of England is an irresistibly romantic mystery, with questions such as how justified were the accusations made against them? How complete was the destruction? Why did they just fold up and let it happen to the? (An interesting novel to read if you want to know more about the bizarre theories devised to answer these questions is Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum; Lawrence Durrel's Avignon Quintet looks at the issue from a rather different angle.)

Clearly (and this is one of the few clear aspects of the event), the destruction of the Templars was less swift and less complete in England than in France. The premise of Doherty's novel is that a group of Templars were fleeing from their London headquarters with treasure, when they were lured into the Kentish marshes and killed from a distance with longbows. Over the next generation, the priests of the nearest village have a tendency to feel they are fighting the forces of evil, and to see spirits of both the knights and those who attacked them; then to become obsessed with the treasure and die raving. The novel deals with two men, brothers and priests, sent by the Bishop of Rochester to the village.

Ghostly Murders is an interesting ghost story, not particularly a mystery. Doherty manages his usual authentic feel, the characters not falling into anachronistic Freudian psychoanalysis as is only too common in this sort of novel. It is not written with the genius of Chaucer, so the various storytellers are rather similar to one another - strangely enough, their recitations fall into the same literary style - but it is entertaining.

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