PC Doherty, according to the “blurb” on the book jacket, studied the reign of King Edward II for his doctorate and now he is putting what he learned to good use! The novel is one of an on-going series, set in medieval England, not far removed from Ellis Peters’ better known Cadfael series. Though it concerns a slightly different era; the 14th century rather than the 12th. As with the Cadfael books, there is a civil war going on in the background, which gives the murders an interesting context.
Doherty’s detective is Sir Hugh Corbett, a minor Norman landowner and the former clerk of the King’s Secret Seal. While he would far rather stay at home to govern his people, watch his small daughter grow up and take care of his pregnant wife, the King commands him to solve some mysterious deaths in the academic world of Oxford University. There is also the matter of the “Bellman”, an anonymous dissident who writes treasonous letters and pins them on the church door. Oxford is a filthy, dangerous place to live in, where the students wear rags and carry daggers and the merchants carry swords. Sir Corbett faces peril on all sides as he clashes with a contingent of Welsh students keen to rake up past grievances, and he is threatened by the Bellman.
PC Doherty’s style is perhaps less rich in period detail than it could be; a cut-price Ellis Peters. Yet he can tell a good story. The one unconvincing note is the seemingly sudden conversion of Corbett’s bodyguard Ranulf from a swaggering bully-boy to a possible candidate for the priesthood. Perhaps the groundwork for this was laid in previous novels, but it seemed to come on rather suddenly and without reason, more than halfway through the story. It takes the attention away from the mail plot, which is perhaps the author’s intention. But it is not very convincing and the novel would have been just as good without the addition of this piece.
“The Devil’s Hunt” is not always as satisfying as some other detective fiction, and Ellis Peters is still the better medieval murder writer, but it is enjoyable. A page turner!