The Horrible Fascination

PAUL DOHERTY talks to Michael Shankland about his historical mysteries, and more

Most readers of historical fiction will have come across the work of the highly prolific Paul Doherty, also known as Michael Clynes, P.C. Doherty, and Paul Harding. Born in Middlesbrough, educated in Liverpool and Oxford, Paul Doherty now resides in Essex. Paul Doherty’s medievalist novels include the Hugh Corbett series set in the reign of Edward I, the Sorrowful Mysteries of Brother Athelstan, set in the 1370s, and a series featuring a number of the lead characters from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Yet he has also devised the adventures of a decadent Tudor rake via the The Journals of Roger Shallot. Also two series of Ancient Egyptian mysteries, the Seth mysteries and the Akhenaten Trilogy, have appeared. Paul Doherty’s most recent series is set in 4th-century Rome, and features Claudia, who is in the pay of the Emperor Constantine’s mother, Helena.

As further proof of his ability to diversify, Paul Doherty has written The Plague Lord, a murder mystery set at the court of Kublai Khan, featuring Marco Polo, which was published in 2002. At the start of 2003 a non-fiction work by Paul Doherty was published, Isabella and the Strange Death of Edward II, (Constable and Robinson), concerning the grisly demise of Edward II and raising the possibility that Edward was not in fact murdered at Berkeley Castle in 1326, but had escaped.

Paul Doherty’s work has been translated into German, Italian, Greek, Czech, Spanish, Bulgarian, French, Hungarian, Portuguese, and Dutch.

I first interviewed Paul Doherty for the small press publication Oriflamme Medieval Journal nearly three years ago. My scope of interest was centred on the Hugh Corbett series, particularly the novel Prince of Darkness, first published in 1992. I was struck in this novel by Paul Doherty’s vibrant portrayal of Piers Gaveston, the constant companion of Edward II. I also admired how the writer could use the medium of a novel to demonstrate a deep knowledge of the complex working of early 14th-century diplomacy and espionage. Paul Doherty seems to be one of the few writers focusing on the Hundred Years’ War who understands the importance of the relationship between England and Gascony during this era. However, most medieval history enthusiasts that I have met who read historical fiction tend to rate the first Hugh Corbett novel, Satan in Saint Mary’s, as their favourite Doherty novel.

Paul Doherty kindly agreed to answer some questions by post in early September 2003.

What is your background in academic history?

I did a three-year course at Ushaw College in Durham, in Theology, Philosophy and History. I gained a B.A. Hons, Class 1 at Liverpool. I did my doctorate at Exeter College, Oxford.

What do you think makes a historian turn to the writing of historical fiction? How did you yourself start writing historical fiction?

I tend to regard historical fiction as speculative history. In other words, it allows you to experiment, to theorise as well as to create an imaginative environment for the theorising to take place. I began writing historical fiction because I wished to speculate in my novel The Death of a King about the possible fate of Edward II.

Do you think that historical novels can add to our overall understanding of history besides being a fine source of entertainment?

I believe historical novels do add to our understanding of history, indeed I think one of the purposes of writing and reading good historical fiction is to develop our knowledge.

What advice would you offer someone who is setting out to write a historical novel? Are there any time periods that they should consider or try to avoid?

My advice to any would-be writer would be to be passionate about your subject, to do thorough research and write as if you have a mission to achieve, whatever the period, whatever the culture or country.

Why have you set three of your series in the 14th century? Is it because you have already researched this time period or do you view the 14th century as a time of particular significance for English history?

I believe the 14th century was a melting pot for European and world history, particularly English. The effects of the Black Death, the Hundred Years’ War, and the Peasants’ Revolt, the growth of parliaments and the deposition and murder of two kings were all stirring events.

Your novels seem to be very visual. Is there any chance of a film or a TV dramatisation of any of your work?

Oh yes, I live in hope! All I can say is that a great deal of interest has been expressed.

Being more specific, your work tends to fall in to the category of historical murder fiction. What interests you in writing murder fiction as opposed to generic historical fiction?

I do write historical novels e.g. Domina or An Evil Spirit out of the West. I tend to regard my novels as historical as well as murder fiction. English royal history is really a history of intrigue, e.g. between 1300 and 1500 five of our monarchs died in fairly mysterious circumstances.

Do you think that a detailed knowledge in the role of the chancery clerks in 14th-century England – as evident in the ‘Corbett’ series, or the Roman agentes in rebus in the ‘Claudia’ series – is vital to ensure a degree of authenticity?

I do believe a thorough knowledge of the administration of a certain period, in particular what can be termed the secret service, is essential to writing historical fiction, e.g. Edward II fell from power in 1326. One of the reasons for the rapid decline of his fortunes was that when his wife Isabella landed in Essex in September 1326 the entire administration, with a few notable exceptions, went over to the Queen. In an era which lacked modern telecommunication, the civil service, particularly the clerks, was vital.

Do you think that the characters of historical detectives such as Corbett, Athelstan, Shallot et al are meant to be typical of their age or does it help to have the detective figure slightly out of synch with their era to make the novel work?

One of the fascinating aspects of true historical detectives is that they did exist. There were basically two types. Men like Corbett were trained clerks who were sent to investigate certain incidents and 14th-century England is peopled with such characters When Edward II was imprisoned at Berkeley Castle an attempt was made to free him. A high-ranking clerk, John Walwayn, was sent to investigate what had happened. He made a slip in one of his letters. Writing back to Queen Isabella about how the attackers ‘d’avoir ravi le père de notre Seigneur de…’ he is using the past tense and is saying that those who attacked Berkeley actually got the old king out of his cell. Now, what happened afterwards is the mystery. The second type of character is symbolised by Roger Shallot, the rogue, the hustler. But if you think he’s fictional, all you have to do is to look at some of the agents used by Elizabeth’s Walsingham. Walsingham, the spy master par excellence, confessed that he didn’t know who some of his agents were actually working for!

What records survive concerning the process of law enforcement in Ancient Egypt, the setting for one of your series?

All sorts of records exist about law enforcement in Ancient Egypt e.g. tomb robbing, which seemed to be a national occupation in Ancient Egypt and figures high in all forms of lawbreaking and disorder. A very interesting source is the Papyrus Salt 124 (formerly known as the British Library manuscript 100550). It gives a vivid description of a gang like the Sebaus robbing tombs during the reign of Sety II. The organising genius behind this was a high-ranking official called Paneb who received a great deal of help from a very corrupt vizier. Records known as the Tomb Robbery Papyri still exist, which describe similar robberies during the 29th year of the reign of Rameses III.

Were you disappointed with the response that your book on the possible disappearance of Edward II has had from medieval history enthusiasts, both inside and outside academia?

I was delighted with the response, both inside and outside academia, to my book Isabella and the Strange Death of Edward II. I’m particularly pleased that, in fact, it is now in its fourth edition and that two television companies wish to buy the book. I was greatly encouraged by the splendid reviews in papers such as the Daily Mail and Sunday Times (the latter by Alison Weir) on the weekend of 15-17 March this year. I also feel greatly honoured to be lecturing on the same subject at the British Museum this November.

Do you think that there are any particular difficulties in having a female historical ‘detective’? Why did you decide to make ‘Claudia’ female rather than male?

I do not see any particular difficulties in having a female historical detective or agent. During the 13th century when the future Edward I was fighting Simon de Montfort, apparently one of his most trusted and valued agents in the enemy camp was a woman simply known as ‘Margaret’. The history of the British Secret Service particularly during the Second World War illustrates, at least to my satisfaction, how effective, tough and ruthless were the British female agents. Physicians were notorious as collectors of gossip and discovering secrets and, until fat Henry VIII passed an act ending it, women could be high-ranking physicians in medieval or early Tudor England. In 1322 Mathilda of Westminster was famous for her skill, whilst Edward III hired Cecily of Oxford.

Which writers of historical fiction do you most admire?

Rosemary Sutcliff and Henry Treece. I think they are marvellous.

In general terms, what do you think is the endearing appeal of murder fiction?

Everybody likes a whodunnit, the probing, the mystery, the cat and mouse game between detective and murderer. Perhaps Freud was right: ‘We kill each other in our thoughts and when some of us actually carry this out we are drawn in by the horrible fascination, be it fact or fiction.’ It’s rather strange that, after the fall in Eden, the first sin was a murder. Cain is the assassin, Abel the victim and God the detective. Cain’s response to God regarding the whereabouts of his brother has been repeated down the centuries, ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ God’s response is that which is echoed by civilised society, ‘Too right you are.’

Paul Doherty’s output still remains high, with new titles in the Brother Athelstan, Hugh Corbett, Amerotke and Akenaten series, and the Imperial Roman series all continuing to see the light of publication.

For more information on the work of Paul Doherty, please visit the sites run by his publisher Hodder Headline. and

The interview concerning the Hugh Corbett series had previously been published on line in the Archive section of

Paul Doherty’s latest novels are The Plague Lord (2002), An Evil Spirit out of the West (both reviewed in HNR 26), The House of Shadows (all Headline, UK, 2003), and The Gates of Hell (Constable & Robinson, UK, Carroll & Graf, US, both 2003 (also reviewed in HNR 26).


Michael Shankland edited Oriflamme Medieval Journal from 1998 to 2001.

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