Historical whodunit not for the po-faced

Templecombe
Templar Head of Christ displayed in Templecombe church, Somerset

 

Michael Clynes The Grail Murders Headline Books 1993

It is 1522 and Edward Stafford, Duke of Buckingham has just been beheaded for treason. Soon afterwards Cardinal Wolsey’s spies start to be bumped off one by one, apparently in revenge for Buckingham’s execution. Buckingham himself was searching for two objects in darkest Somerset and seems to have been in cahoots with a powerful secret society, supposedly disbanded for two centuries. Under pain of execution two investigators, Benjamin Daunbey and Roger Shallot, are ordered by Henry VIII to find these two missing relics — the Grail, the cup used by Christ at the Last Supper, and Excalibur, the fabled sword of King Arthur — and foil the Templar plot against the Tudors. Along the way there is a lot of intrigue and action before matters are finally resolved. Or not.

First, the good news. A first glance revealed that this was “the third journal of Sir Roger Shallot”, a promising conceit for a tale with an Arthurian twist — Tennyson had famously dubbed a damsel the Lady of Shalott, the very one who was “half sick of shadows” — though I suspect the knight’s name was originally suggested by the phrase “rogers a lot”. Sir Roger had already recounted details of his dissolute life The White Rose Murders and The Poisoned Chalice, and there are three further titles in the series.

Most of the scene is set in Somerset, at Glastonbury Abbey and at Templecombe Manor. Both have Arthurian associations, the first from where King Arthur was supposedly disinterred in the late 12th century and later reburied, the second where a Knights Templar painted panel was discovered in the 20th century showing Christ’s face, which excited antiquarians have connected with the Turin Shroud and, more obscurely, the Grail. In Clynes’ novel Henry VIII is understandably keen to get his hands on both the Grail and on Excalibur — this is long before the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1540 and the destruction of relics like Arthur’s bones — but murder and intrigue provide the inevitable obstacles. This is a clever intertwining of various memes close to the hearts of speculative antiquarians: the Knights Templar, the Holy Grail, Arthur’s sword, Tudor intrigue and conspiracy theories.

Not being a fan of Brother Cadfael and his ilk I cannot say whether this offering measures up to the usual standards of the genre, but I can state with confidence that this certainly wouldn’t be what publishing parlance might term ‘a worthy successor to Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose‘. Though I’m glad to say that there are no Gadzooks, Odsbodikins and the like, Shallot’s asides (presumably later to provide original material for Shakespeare) are rather tedious, thankfully not typical of the wit we are otherwise proffered. The author’s history doctorate was on Edward II and Isabella so he is no slouch on many background details. He’s also known as a prolific writer of historical mysteries though his day job — under his real name of Paul Doherty — is as Headmaster of a successful school near London. However his research is faulty in one respect or he wouldn’t have stated that the Nanteos Cup from Wales (which some mistakenly claim actually is the Grail) “was last seen in the 1920s in a bank vault”, since it was — at least until recently — certainly available for pilgrims to see if they knew whom to ask.

I read and reviewed this in 1994, dismissing it then as airport lounge reading material. Now I’d not be so sure, not that my critical faculties have failed but because I would be less po-faced and more appreciative of the many skills that go into putting together historical whodunits. And who am I, an amateur critic, to argue with a commercially successful writer?

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4 thoughts on “Historical whodunit not for the po-faced

  1. Hmm. I wonder about this. Edward Marston wrote a series of historical detective novels set in the mid to late nineteenth century, I think all with a railway theme, and the first one was undoubtedly well-researched, but the characters and the plot were just awful. Yet evidently these are successful enough for him to continue writing them and being published. So I doubt the taste of the reading public at large, frankly!

    1. As they say, Ela, there’s no accounting for taste. Knowing a bit about the subject matter I thought the author mixed the unrelated themes quite well. Roger Shallot, portrayed as a ‘lovable’ rogue, wasn’t to my taste but may have been to Doherty’s readers. Success is no certainly no guide to quality: I still remember as a child being fed a diet of Noddy stories, the only upside to which I remember thinking were the Beek illustrations.

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