The Nightingale Gallery (Sorrowful Mysteries of Brother Athelstan)

The Nightingale Gallery (Sorrowful Mysteries of Brother Athelstan) - Paul Doherty This is the probably the most mixed review i've had to give a book in quite a while. Anyone who follows my reviews knows that i'm not overly difficult to please - I simply like to be entertained when I read a story, however right up until the last page I was set to give this one only 2 stars, possibly my first 2-star review for the year.

So first, the bad:

I expected a lot from this book as I'd seen Doherty praised, a lot, in mystery lover circles, and historical crime novels - particularly those set in middle-age England - are among my favourite story indulgence. This was however his first novel, so perhaps I am being overly harsh, but for such a short book it really draaaags.

The central story of Nightingale Gallery is quite a clever little locked-room mystery, with a few Christie-like flourishes and an entertaining cast of characters. However, the key to a good, entertaining historical mystery is to have a complex, well research setting as a background to the story itself. Background being the key word. Whilst you expect the setting, differences in culture and law and the like to play major parts in the story, Doherty indulges himself in this novel, showing off his research in endlessly tedious and pointless scenes.

As an example, one long extended scene over quite a few pages simply has the main character walking from one place to another, and describes the route he takes (street by street) and everything that happens along the way. The story doesn't benefit from this scene at all - nothing that occurs has any relevance to the story itself, it is just an excuse for the author to play with his historical toys for a while, forcing us to watch as he does so.

Maybe i'm not the target audience for this novel, but I am familiar with history in broad strokes, and some parts in detail. I read works of historical non-fiction and find them quite entertaining, and I have read many works of historical crime fiction, because as I said before they are one of my favourite indulgences.

The point is, I already know that in the 14th century, London's streets were paved in shit. That it smelt bad, that people were poor and unhealthy, that the rats were numerous enough to form their own union for better wages and so-on. Had that entire lengthy multi-page love letter to his research notes been entirely omitted and replaced with "Athelstan spent the morning pushing through the crowds to X", the story wouldn't have suffered in the slightest.

In fact, if you remove all of the indulgent padding, what you're left with is closer to a short story than a full novel, and probably would have felt tighter and more satisfying if it had been one. If the setting material had instead been crafted in smaller chunks, with more subtlety, maybe it would have made a nice novella.

Unfortunately, the mystery section fell flat for me as well. Although it was, as I said previously, a clever little mystery - Doherty, at least in this book, doesn't "play fair" as fans of Dame Christie would know it. Instead, he uses the annoying little tricks and smirks at the reader to try and build up tension. Letters get read by the characters that "suddenly explain things", but their contents are not revealed to the reader. The protagonist, while meditating, "suddenly realises what he saw and what it means" but this realisation isn't presented to the reader until later chapters. One of the major telling pieces of evidence that gives away the murderer is a wood carving that is described in quite a lot of detail, however the single most important detail of the carving is withheld from the reader, for the protagonist to dramatically reveal in the final scenes. The details are withheld, of course, because if available to the reader the mystery would be no mystery at all - the answer is obvious. Which then leads to the obvious question; What took them so long to figure it out? There are no real twists in this story, the only surprises come from things that were noticed or told to the sleuths but never to the reader.

The reason I gave this book three stars instead of two, can be narrowed down to a single quote on one of the last pages:

"A moment later Athelstan header him roaring to Cecily the courtesan that he didn't care how pretty her arse was, she was to get out of his saddle!"

For all its faults, there is a certain amount of charm in the book, primarily in some of the colourful characters. They are not always believable - it may be that i'm just coming off "Lamentations" by Sansom, whose portrayal of the real terrors of life in the final years of King Henry VIII are a work of claustrophobic genius, but I find it very difficult to accept characters or relatively low station (or in the case of Athelstan, _very_ low station; a dominican parish priest isn't that much up the social ladder from a mendicant) feeling perfectly nonchalant in close quarters with the Regent of England, and his charge the young king. Doherty, who spends pages describing how ordure builds up in the alleys, doesn't even have his main characters bow to the most powerful men in the land. As Athelstan the dominican friar happily gives his Poirot-like rambling accusation story, he speaks to these lords as equals.

For this reason among others, Athelstan, the main protagonist, is probably one of the least sympathetic characters in the book. It was disappointing, I expected Susanna Gregory's Bartholemew, but I got a cardboard cut-out that doesn't quite fit instead.

And after all that, i've actually talked myself back down to two stars after all. I will try more novels in the series, to see if they improve over time, but I doubt i'll ever be back to re-read Athelstan's first steps.

TLDR; -- Not a terrible book, but when your alternative choices include Susanna Gregory's Bartholomew stories, Candace Robb's Owen Archer stories, Ellis Peters' Cadfael stories and C. J. Sansom's Shardlake series - i'm not sure why you'd bother.