Raising Hell

"The infectiousness of crime is like that of the plague."
- Napoleon Bonaparte
I picked up Paul Doherty's The Plague Lord (2002) on a whim at a local book fest, after a questing in vain for his stories that were confirmed to me as bona fide locked room mysteries – and as the synopsis entailed a lot of promise, I held high hopes for this book to be one of his unconfirmed impossible crime tales. Unfortunately, I'm unable to cram it in one of the familiar pigeonholes without spoiling the best thing the book has going for itself: keeping you guessing whether you're reading a mixture of a detective and thriller story with occult elements or a hybrid supernatural crime saga. I even omitted the appropriate tags lest I spoiled the gist of the story. 
The backdrop of this historical romance is Cambaluc, thirteenth century China, when the Mongol Lord, Kublai Khan, rules as the first non-Chinese emperor over the region that was part of an outstretched kingdom, but as the narrative opens dark plumes have begun clouding the extended skyline of the empire. A secret society, known as the Water Lily Sect, has resurged and their Demon Father, the sorcerer Lin-Po, is determined to assist their demonic overlord from Hell, the titular Plague Lord, in executing the ultimate crime – exterminating the human race!

Members of the Guild of Pourers, who are tasked with keeping streets clean and cities inhabitable, are the first to feel the brunt of this fiendish conspiracy – as they are almost completely wiped out during an ongoing killing spree. During the same period, a number of religious figures, from different faiths and nooks of the world, have cataclysmic visions of Hell's gates opening up and consuming the world. This apocalyptic scenario will apparently begin within the borders of Kublai Khan's realm, who receives a warning from a spiritual envoy consisting of a Franciscan friar and a Buddhist nun, and as a response to this summons one of his most trusted advisors, the Venetian Marco Polo.

It's problematical to delve deeper into the plot at this point without giving the whole game away, but also because this is a story that sort of unravels itself without the assistance of a catalyst – which in itself can be considered as a strike against the book being labeled as a detective story. 

Nevertheless, the portion of the book relating the massacre of the street sweeping guild members is a fascinating story in itself, involving demonic possession, ghostly apparitions, mind reading and a mountain of blood spattered corpses. And no, that's not an exaggeration on my part. There are close to a hundred bodies littering the three hundred and some pages of this book and one scene recounts a small-scale holocaust at a pavilion, in which an apparently demon possessed guild member treats more than twenty of his companions to another ride on the Wheel of Reincarnation. 
Marco Polo at the court of Kublai Khan
Equally fascinating is the depiction of the Mongol court, which, under the rule of Kublai Khan, showed a surprising diversity of cultures and religious tolerance. Well, more than you would expect from that period in history. Marco Polo may be a favored with a high ranking position in the government and even passes sentences in criminal cases, as is seen early on in the story, but as a foreigner he still has to watch his step when addressing the domestic ruling class – who aren't always as enlightened as their heavenly mandated emperor.

As far as the story goes, that's really all I can spill without divulging too many tell-tale details regarding the plot. But suffice to say, it wasn't what I hoped to find when opening the book. Don't get me wrong, it's a decent story for what it is, but that's really it. I think it would've been a more satisfying read if there was an unmistakable sign post at the start that identified the story, because, one way or the other, readers are bound to end up a little disappointed.

Still, if you are an ardent reader of historical fiction, you might want to check this book out at some point in your life, if only for the delineation of the ancient China under Mongol rule, but don't trip and break your neck attempting to obtain the nearest copy. There are better, more satisfying, historical mysteries than this one – especially from the hands of this particular author.

And thus ends a shoddily written review, which always is a good indicator how dissatisfied I really am with a story – in spite of its pros. Oh well, a better read next time, eh? 


  1. That's a fascinating review - but I can't decide whether you've put me off this one or it's heading to the top of my "must buy" list...

    It sounds like A Haunt of Murder, where there's quite an impressive blend of supernatural and proper mystery - including one very smart use of the supernatural to hide a clue (yes, you heard me) in plain sight. But from this review, it sounds as if the marriage betweent the two ideas is a less happy one...

    On the other hand, Doherty has picked another area of history that a) I don't know much about and b) I feel that I ought to. Maybe when the huge Doherty pile of thirty-ish unread books lessens a bit...

  2. Well, it's more like a broken engagement than an unhappy marriage, but you have to give Doherty points here for being ambitious and the setting reflects a fascinating period in history.