It's 1397, John Of Gaunt has just become Regent on the death of Edward The Confessor, the future King Henry VII being too young to be made king. The Machiavellian Gaunt has close ties with rich merchants, one of whom is found dead in his bedchamber. All the evidence points to his manservant who has conveniently committed suicide, supposedly in remorse for the murder.
Athelstan, parish priest of St Erconwald's, was trained in logic by his prior and has an open and enquiring mind. He is scrivener to Sir John Cranston, city coroner - a king's appointment, akin to a French magistrate of today. Though far too fond of his drink, he is no fool, nor the bumbling fat man people take him to be. Both have a nose for the mere scent of wrongdoing and neither likes to be taken for a fool by snobs of the wealthy and aristocratic.
The two dig deeper and are informed by the rich and gory display offered by the city, including the bodies of three hanged criminals (such bodies and decapitated heads were left on display as an example to would-be wrongdoers - given that a huge number of even minor offences counted as capital crimes, the displays didn't work too well). Athelstan learns interesting facts about hangmen's knots and the boots of the hanged.
As in a good Sherlock Holmes story, the crimes unravel as our heroes learn new facts and interpret them to explain the murders: the reasoning is clever and plausible. The story itself trots along at a good pace: even the references to the ordure-filled streets help the tale along.
Is there anything I don't like about this? Yes, in comparison with others in the series, Sir John appears as a serious drunkard rather than a merry, but boozy sort. Even with an explanation for his excesses I thought his character overdone and unsympathetic - definitely remedied in further books and it won't overly hamper enjoyment of this one.
Summary: if you like well-written historical detective stories then you've tapped into a rich vein with this author. Heartily recommended.
Author's own site. Note, as Doherty writes under a variety of names you may well find this book credited to Paul Harding.