31 March, 2015

A Murder of Crows, by PF Chisholm. Book review

Poisoned Pen Press, 2010. ISBN 978-1-59058-737-9. 253 pages.

This historical mystery is set in London in 1592. Sir Robert Carey, his father Lord Hunsdon (cousin of Queen Elizabeth I through his mother Mary Boleyn), his father Lady Hunsdon, Robert Cecil, Vice Chamberlain Heneage, Will Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe are all historical figures and major characters. The central character, Land-Sergeant Henry Dodd of Gilsland on the Anglo-Scottish border, is fictional.

Tough Borderer Henry Dodd wants vengeance on Vice Chamberlain Heneage for the injuries he sustained in an earlier adventure. He has reluctantly been persuaded that the way such matters are handled in the strange foreign world of London is by suing Heneage in the law courts, rather than by the traditional Border method of burning Heneage’s property and stealing his livestock. Dodd has little faith in this peculiar southern system but is prepared to give it a try. However, no lawyer in London is willing to accept the commission, even for the handsome fee offered by Lord Hunsdon – until a young Cornish lawyer offers to take the case with suspicious eagerness. Meanwhile, Lord Hunsdon wants Carey and Dodd to solve the mystery of an  unknown corpse with no feet that has washed up on the Palace steps. And to complicate matters further, Carey’s formidable mother Lady Hunsdon arrives unexpectedly in London with business of her own that will get Dodd and Carey into still more trouble.

PF Chisholm is a pen name of Patricia Finney, who has written several novels set in Elizabethan England. A Murder of Crows is the fifth in a series of historical mysteries starring Sir Robert Carey and Henry Dodd. I didn’t know that when I picked this up, and haven’t read any of the others. This one seemed to work perfectly well as a stand-alone, although there were probably references to the previous books that I missed.

The vigorous, chaotic and ruthless world of Elizabethan London is brilliantly realised in this entertaining mystery. The glittering snake-pit of the court sits cheek-by-jowl with the criminal underworld, and which has the more cheats, liars, thieves and murderers is anyone’s guess.

The plot is complicated, with several intertwining sub-plots involving political rivalry, financial scams, secret codes, murder, torture and mistaken identity. Both playwrights, Shakespeare and Marlowe, are engaged in various degrees of shady espionage work for patrons unknown, the young Cornish lawyer James Enys is not what he seems, and both Lord and Lady Hunsdon have something to hide. I soon gave up trying to work out who was double-crossing whom, and just went along for the highly enjoyable ride as the dour and very practical Sergeant Dodd works out the solution and brings matters to a satisfactory conclusion.

Although it is billed as ‘A Sir Robert Carey Mystery’, Robert Carey himself is rather a secondary character, and events are almost all seen through the eyes of Henry Dodd. This adds a wonderfully surreal note of comedy to the mayhem, as Dodd views London, with its commerce and courtly shenanigans, through the prism of Border reiver ways – which prove more applicable than one might imagine. Dodd’s speculations about the practicalities of staging a reiving raid on London form a running joke throughout the novel. He has a healthy lack of respect for some of the fripperies of London life, such as the uncomfortable clothes and self-important courtiers, but is developing a reluctant taste for some of its luxuries, like tobacco and a ready supply of apples (which are rare on the Borders, owing to the reivers’ habit of destroying orchards along with everything else). Dodd’s wry humour and down-to-earth attitude make him a splendid guide to Elizabethan London. Other than Dodd, the most memorable character is Lady Hunsdon, here imagined in the entertaining if somewhat unlikely guise of a lady privateer – a sort of Cornish Grace O’Malley commanding a tough crew of pirates. I have to say I didn’t find this terribly convincing, but it was great fun.

A Murder of Crows is full of historical detail, usually either worked into the plot (e.g. paper is extremely expensive, which leads Dodd to an important clue) or to develop character, such as Dodd’s musings on the contrasts between life in London and life on the Borders. Period terminology and slang adds atmosphere. There is a glossary of period terms at the back for readers who are unfamiliar with them. I worked most of them out from context, which is just as well as I didn’t find the glossary until I finished the book. Regional accents indicate the various characters’ origins and social position, with Cockney, Cumbrian and Cornish alongside formal court English.

Entertaining murder mystery set in Elizabethan London against the murky backdrop of court factions and dubious financial dealings.

28 March, 2015

March recipe: Bakewell tart

Bakewell tart
Bakewell tart is a jam- or fruit-filled almond tart. It may be derived from the Bakewell pudding, a sort of almond custard pudding traditionally considered to have been invented by mistake in the early nineteenth century at a hotel in Bakewell*, Derbyshire.

There are many variations of Bakewell tart. Some recipes use puff pastry for the base, some insist on a specific type of jam for the filling, some use fruit instead of jam, some use breadcrumbs instead of flour in the almond sponge. The version I make uses shortcrust pastry and whatever jam I have to hand, which in turn usually depends on what soft fruit was most abundant the previous summer. The tart in the photograph is filled with blackcurrant jam. Here’s the recipe.

Bakewell tart

4 oz (approx 100 g) plain flour
1 oz (approx 25 g) lard
1 oz (approx 25 g) butter

Approximately 3 generous Tablespoons (3 x 15 ml spoons) jam of your choice
2 oz (approx 50 g) butter
2 oz (approx 50 g) light brown soft sugar
2 eggs
2 oz (approx 50 g) plain flour
2 oz (approx 50 g) ground almonds

First make the pastry. Rub the butter and lard into the flour until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs.

Mix with a little cold water to a soft dough. If it is flaky, add a little more water; if it is sticky add a little more flour.

Or you could use ready-made shortcrust pastry if you prefer.

Roll out the pastry on a floured work surface and use it to line a shallow tart dish about 7” (approx 18 cm) diameter.

Spread the jam over the pastry in an even layer.

Cream the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy.

Beat in the egg.

Stir in the flour and ground almonds.

Spread the mixture evenly over the jam and level the surface.

Bake the tart in a hot oven at approximately 200 C for about 25 - 30 minutes, until the filling is set and pale golden.

Serve warm or cold, with pouring cream, whipped cream or ice cream.

I expect to get about 6 slices out of a tart this size, but that depends on how large a slice you like.

The tart will keep in an airtight tin for several days, or can be frozen.

*Bakewell is a pretty small town in the beautiful Peak District National Park, and probably makes an appearance as Lambton in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice

28 February, 2015

The Light Between Oceans, by M.L. Stedman. Book review

Doubleday 2012. ISBN 978-0-857-52100-2. 362 pages

The Light Between Oceans is set in Western Australia in 1918–1930 with an epilogue in 1950. All the characters and events are fictional.

Tom Sherbourne, veteran of the First World War, is now keeper of the lighthouse on lonely Janus Rock, situated a hundred miles off the south-western coast of Australia where the Indian Ocean and Southern Ocean meet. The steady rhythm of tending to the light begins to heal the scars of war, and when Tom falls in love with the beautiful and lively Isabel and brings her to the island as his wife, their happiness seems complete. But Isabel, who longs for a child, suffers a series of miscarriages, and the repeated tragedies take a heavy psychological toll on her. So when a rowing boat containing a dead man and a healthy baby washes up on Janus, to Isabel it seems like a miraculous answer to her prayers. Tom knows he should report it – somewhere there may be a mother grieving for the lost baby in the boat – but can he bring himself to deprive his beloved Isabel of the child she yearns for?

This book was described to me as ‘a real tear-jerker’ and there are certainly some emotional scenes. I can’t describe the central emotional dilemma without spoilers so I won’t say what happens – only that good people, all acting with good intentions, manage to create a situation that is bound to be heartbreaking for somebody and might well be a tragedy for everybody. At the heart of the novel is the question: given that this impossible situation has arisen, what to do for the best? Readers may not necessarily agree with the various characters’ answers to that question – and indeed some will probably find some of them incomprehensible or even reprehensible. But the novel does an excellent job of making the people and their conflicts feel very real.

All the main characters are fully developed as individuals with their own personalities, their own vulnerabilities, hopes and fears, and a mix of appealing and not-so-appealing characteristics. For example, Isabel’s liveliness, irreverence and youthful enthusiasm make her attractive – I can see why the older and more reserved Tom falls head-over-heels for her – but she also has a childish egotism that leads her to some distinctly unpleasant actions. Tom’s sense of right and duty, and his desire to protect Isabel and make her happy, are appealing, but his half-baked attempts to do the right thing without hurting Isabel seem ill-thought-out at best – it’s clear that he did not intend to be cruel, and yet it’s hard to see what other effect it could have had.

The other characters are equally distinctive, from the captain and crew of the store boat that is the only link between Janus Rock and the mainland to the humane local police sergeant.

Landscapes are also vividly described, from the isolation of Janus Rock surrounded only by ocean and stars to the mainland forests with their populations of exotic birds and animals. Western Australia was totally unknown to me before I started reading this book, so I had only the descriptions on the page to create a picture in the imagination. Readers who know the area will be able to assess whether the descriptions are accurate; all I can say is that they successfully created a ‘virtual world’ to step into. I have no idea whether Janus Rock really exists or not, but it certainly exists within the pages of the novel.

There’s a useful map at the front of the book for readers who, like me, are unfamiliar with the geography of Western Australia. As almost all the events take place either on Janus or in the small mainland town of Partageuse the map isn’t really needed to follow most of the book, though it was useful for me to be able to look up the location of the epilogue.

Compelling tale of people caught in an emotional and moral dilemma of their own making, where there are no easy solutions and no right answers.

31 January, 2015

Llangors Crannog

Viewing platform

Llangors Lake (also called Llyn Syfaddan and Brycheiniog Mere) is the largest natural lake in South Wales. It is located in south-east Wales, not far from Brecon.

Map link: Llangors Lake 

Llangors Lake was formed by glacial meltwater after the last Ice Age. It is a shallow lake (only about 7 m deep), notable for an abundance of fish and water birds (and a legendary aquatic monster or afanc).  It is also the site of the only known crannog in England and Wales.

Llangors Crannog

A crannog is an artificial island, typically constructed a little way offshore in an inland lake, river or estuary.  Crannogs were dwelling places, with access either by boat or via a causeway to the shore. Most of the known crannogs in the British Isles are in Ireland and Scotland, where they range in date from the Neolithic to the early medieval period.

Llangors Lake is the only known example of a crannog in Wales, and perhaps reflects Irish connections.

Llangors crannog from the shore
The Llangors crannog was excavated by archaeologists in 1989-1993. It was constructed from bundles of brushwood laid on the lake bed and held in place by hardwood beams and a ring of massive split oak piles, with a layer of sandstone boulders placed on top of the brushwood to create a platform about 25 m across (Wait et al 2005).

According to the information board at the site, dendrochronology dating on the timbers indicated that the crannog was constructed from trees felled in 889–893 AD. It would have been a very considerable construction project, requiring substantial resources in material and labour.

The excavation found a fragment of a very high-quality embroidered textile and a bronze hinge from a reliquary of a style associated with Ireland in the 8th to 9th centuries AD. This is consistent with the Llangors crannog having had high-status occupants, and the reliquary hinge suggests an ecclesiastical connection. One of the Llandaff charters records that a King Awst of Brycheiniog granted ‘Llan Cors’ and its surrounding estate to a Bishop Euddgwy in the 8th century AD (Wait et al 2005). The charter may just be a post hoc ecclesiastical attempt at a land grab, but it is consistent with the presence of the reliquary hinge and may reflect a genuine church connection. Perhaps the crannog was the site of a royal and/or episcopal hall.

Destruction of the crannog

A destruction layer of charcoal and charred timber indicated that Llangors crannog had been destroyed by fire (Wait et al 2005).

The destruction layer may relate to an event recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:

A.D. 916.  This year was the innocent Abbot Egbert slain, before midsummer, on the sixteenth day before the calends of July.  The same day was the feast of St. Ciricius the martyr, with his companions. And within three nights sent Ethelfleda an army into Wales, and stormed Brecknock; and there took the king's wife, with some four and thirty others.
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, available online 

Ethelfleda is Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians and daughter of Alfred the Great. ‘Brecknock’ is an alternative spelling of ‘Brycheiniog’.

The kingdom of Brycheiniog

Brycheiniog (anglicised version, Brecon) was an early medieval Brittonic kingdom in what is now south-east Wales. Its eponymous (legendary?) founder, Brychan, is traditionally said to be the son of a Brittonic mother and an Irish king. Whether literally true or not, the legend is consistent with connections between Brycheiniog and Ireland, which might account for the Irish-style reliquary hinge and the construction of a crannog, a type of dwelling more often associated with Ireland.

According to Asser’s Life of Alfred, Brycheiniog had been an ally (or vassal state, depending how voluntary the arrangement was) of Wessex during the reign of Alfred the Great, seeking protection against attacks from Gwynedd.

Helised, also, son of Tendyr, king of Brecon, compelled by the force of the same sons of Rotri, of his own accord sought the government of the aforesaid king [King Alfred]
Asser, Life of Alfred, available online

The ‘sons of Rotri’ were the kings of Gwynedd, sons of Rhodri Mawr. Attacks by Norse raiders may also have added to the pressure, as Annales Cambriae says that Norsemen laid waste Brycheiniog in 895.

894  Anarawd came with the Angles and laid waste Ceredigion and Ystrad Tywi.
895  The Northmen came and laid waste Lloegr and Brycheiniog and Gwent and Gwynllywiog.
--Annales Cambriae, available online

The date of the alliance between Brycheiniog and Alfred is not precisely stated.  Since it was against the sons of Rhodri, it was presumably after the death of Rhodri Mawr in 878. Anarawd ap Rhodri of Gwynedd co-operated with ‘the Angles’, presumably Alfred, in 894 according to the Annales Cambriae, so the relationship between Brycheiniog and Alfred was most likely established before then. This suggests a date some time in the 880s.

As the crannog was built with timber felled in 889-893, its construction may have been a response to all this political and military upheaval, perhaps a desire for a secure place of refuge in the face of many threats and/or an attempt to proclaim an identity as an independent kingdom and resist being swallowed up as a vassal state.  I wonder if it was in existence when the Norse ‘came and laid waste Brycheiniog’ in 895, and if so, whether it was attacked and how it withstood the attack. Or indeed whether it was built as a reaction to this Norse attack, using timber that had already been felled a few years earlier.

Whatever the nature of the relationship between Alfred and the king of Brycheiniog, Aethelflaed clearly did not regard Brycheiniog as an ally at the time of her attack in 916. Possibly she felt that it was a Wessex arrangement that did not apply to her in her capacity as Lady of the Mercians, or that it had been negated by the death of Abbot Egbert, or that circumstances had changed and an alliance from the previous generation was no longer relevant.

It can’t be often that one queen captures another queen in battle. I wonder about the story or stories behind these fragments of archaeology and the laconic references in the chronicles. Who was the now-unknown Abbot Egbert, how was he murdered and why was he so important that his death started a war? Why did Aethelflaed blame Brycheiniog for the murder?  Was the attack on Brycheiniog really revenge for the abbot’s death? Aethelflaed seems to have acted very fast if she despatched an army within three nights of the abbot’s death, especially as news would take at least some time to travel. Was Abbot Egbert’s death merely a convenient cover for some other motive? (or an unrelated event that was attributed an unwarranted significance by an ecclesiastical chronicler who assumed that everything revolved around church affairs?)  What did Aethelflaed think of Alfred’s alliances with the various Brittonic kingdoms?  Aethelflaed and the queen of Brycheiniog may have known each other personally, or at least have met at royal court events. I wonder what they thought of each other.

Nowadays, Llangors Lake is a tranquil place between the Black Mountains on one side and the Brecon Beacons on the other. You can’t get to the crannog itself (except maybe by boat; I have no idea whether you might need a permit to land there). A walkway leads out from the shore to a modern viewing platform, with a central shelter under a roof like an Iron Age house and a gallery all round to give uninterrupted views of the crannog, the lake and the surrounding mountains. Information boards explain a little about the geography and history of the lake and the archaeological investigation on the crannog. If our visit is anything to go by, it’s home to a lot of dragonflies, ducks and swans (alas, I didn’t spot the afanc).
Llangors crannog from the viewing platform

Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, translation available online 
Annales Cambriae, available online
Asser, Life of Alfred, available online 
Wait G, Benfield S, McKewan C. Rescuing Llangors Crannog. British Archaeology 2005;84, available online