We Have a Winner— 'Murder wears a Cowl' wins the Award

I have now read 13 of the 16-17 Paul Doherty Hugh Corbett medieval mysteries.  Doherty began this series early in his career as a novelist, and the earliest novels reflect works in progress.   But there are also signs of the future skilled novelist.  The best of these early novels is ‘Murder Wears a Cowl (1992).   In some ways this is the perfect summer beach reading, as it is a novel that is less than 250 pages, and the plot moves along rapidly.  In this novel not only Hugh Corbett but his trustee aide Ranulf are fully developed characters, and we get more of a glimpse of the wife of Corbett, the lovely Welsh maid named Maeve.   Corbett is the Sherlock Holmes of his day, but he is also in the employ of King Edward as a royal clerk.    But he is not merely a man of logic, he is a man of deep passions for his wife and young family, and also for God and true piety.  He loves singing the liturgy in churches and monasteries.

One of the things that makes this novel so compelling is that while many of the Corbett mysteries have historical elements woven into them, this story is based in a large way on one of the great actual villains of the reign of  King Edward, namely Richard Puddlicott, and his actual legerdemain is the substance of this tale.   Puddlicott was a confidence trickster, a thief, and a few other things, and he had the gall to rob even the King.    But this novel is also the tale of monks behaving badly, and the murder of many prostitutes in London by someone who wears a monk’s habit, hence the title of the novel.  This novel can be used as a test case– if you like this novel then you will like many others in this series.   If not, then maybe try one of the really recent ones like Mysterium, or give it a rest.   There is such a difference between an historical novelist who really knows his history,  and a hack like Dan Brown who writes hysterical fiction rather than historical fiction.

In this novel we get a strong sense of how chaotic the times were at the beginning of the 14th century, with France and England and Scotland all juggling for space and place and land and influence.   In this novel as in the previous ones  the French are truly villians, especially King Phillips spy and henchman Amaury de Craon.  But King Edward can be a tyrant and a plotter, and his temper is infamous.  Only a few of these characters really care about truth and justice, which is what makes Hugh Corbett such a likable figure.  He must, he will get to the bottom of things.   But Ranulf is no mere foil– he is bright, he is brave, he has ideas of advancement, and oh yes, he is a lady’s man, to say the least.   He wants what Corbett already has.

Doherty has considerable descriptive powers, and in this case, they do not make one want to live in medieval London or in Corbett’s age.  Life was unkind to all, and the filth of the city is palpable.  You can almost smell it, Doherty is so vivid in his descriptions.   Perhaps one of the greatest strengths in these novels is that the Christian virtues of compassion and passion for the truth are constantly to the fore, and one gets a real sense of ordinary life, as well as the life of the royals.  This novel will keep you guessing until near the end,  and the clue that runs like a red thread through it all is a Latin phrase— ‘Calcullus non facit monachium…’  ‘the cowl does not make the monk’.  I’ll leave to your vivid imaginations to ponder that phrase.    Once again, I suggest.  Start with this Corbett novel first.

  • Oscar

    If a person has an appetite for the history of the British monarchy then try David Starkey’s BBC series “The Monarchy” which I viewed on NETFLIX.

    At times sleep inducing, but for the most interesting, this series starts at the very beginnings of history, the abandonment of the Isles by Rome, and takes you all the way through to the Tudors, Cromwell and beyond.

    Not as entertaining as an historical novel, but good stuff in itself.

  • Justin

    “There is such a difference between an historical novelist who really knows his history, and a hack like Dan Brown who writes hysterical fiction rather than historical fiction.”

    Great Line! ;)

  • DaveAlan

    Ben, thanks to you I’ve read about 4 Doherty novels.

    Do you have an opinion on Bernard Cornwell’s novels? He’s got a “Holy Grail” trilogy, another one on the Arthur legend (i.e., he demythologizes Camelot), and several more on British history, and of course his lengthy series starring Richard Sharpe.


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