PAUL DOHERTY: MASTER OF HIS CRAFT

These days, I’ve been reading The Last of Days, the latest novel by the English writer of historical detective fiction, Paul Doherty. Right near the top of the list of my favourite contemporary writers, Doherty is dauntingly prolific. The Last of Days is in fact his 100th novel. While the main focus of his body of work has been the middle ages, Doherty has ventured into other periods, principally ancient Egypt, but also ancient Rome, for example. For my own tastes, I find Doherty’s medieval novels more engaging, mainly because they are set in a world that in its lineaments is recognizably the ancestor to our own, but at the same time startlingly dissimilar. Like an old family photograph album, where a physical feature or quirk leaps out familiarly across the generations, his painstakingly detailed rendering of Europe, particularly England, in the Middle Ages evokes moments of poignant recognition leavened by a sharp sense of alien strangeness.

The breadth and range of Doherty’s achievement are all the more staggering, when one realizes that he has accomplished all this, while working full-time as Headmaster of an award-winning secondary school near London. On top of all this, with a doctorate in history from Oxford, he is no mean scholar.

The Last of Days chronicles the final days of Henry VIII through the lens of a journal kept by his jester, Will Somers. Like so much of Doherty’s work, it is vividly descriptive and has a haunting, liminal quality that captures the Middle Ages as a rich phantasmagoria of the senses, where the secular and the spiritual are juxtaposed in a starkly compelling tableau of contrasts: beauty and ugliness, light and darkness, opulence and squalor. There is good and there is evil woven together deftly into the narrative with a kind of Dickensian exuberance of humours that manages with a finely tuned skill to avoid the pitfalls of exaggeration and caricature.

The uniquely attractive hallmark of Doherty’s world is that, while it is larger than life, it is always deeply grounded in the real, always alive to the “freshness deep down things,” to use a phrase from Gerard Manley Hopkins. On one level, this is rather ironic, given that his novels have their full, unflinching share of murder and mayhem, bloodshed, and political intrigue. On another level, there is no irony, because Doherty deftly weaves the problem of evil into the context of a larger tapestry. As in Dickens, the reader is never taxed with a sense of deep or oppressive gloom.  Always there is light seeping into Doherty’s fictional settings, suffusing them with an ambient glow, because in the end, it is evident, he acknowledges that this fragile, various, enigmatically poignant thing we call life is what the philosophers would describe as “ontologically good,” which is to say an absolute good in and of itself.

Like Romantic English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Xanadu, the realm of Kubla Khan, Doherty’s historical settings have all the earmarks of a uniquely imagined fantasy world, remote and dream-like, but a world that at the same time bears a haunting resemblance to our own.

 

In his essay on fairy stories, Tolkien refers to a humility and freshness of vision that he calls Mooreeffoc, borrowing this insight from that master of visionary, mystical observation, G.K. Chesterton. “Mooreeffoc” is simply the word “Coffee-room,” once a commonplace shop sign in most English towns, seen from the inside through a glass door. As a metaphor, it points to a transformative shift of perspective, an epiphany, that allows us to shed our blinders and see the world anew with eyes of wonder.

 

As Tolkien goes on to say, “The word Mooreeffoc may cause you suddenly to realize that England is an utterly alien land, lost either in some remote past age glimpsed by history, or in some strange dim future to be reached only by a time-machine; to see the amazing oddity and interest of its inhabitants and their customs and feeding-habits.”

 

A uniquely accomplished practitioner of his craft, Doherty deserves a much wider audience than I suspect he enjoys, and I anticipate each newly published novel of his as a rare treat, a kind of passport affording me free passage into the realm of Mooreefoc, a land of the fantastic whose wonders and beguilements shed light, as does all great art, on perennial aspects of the human condition.

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