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