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.


Rick said...

A Border reiver in 1590s London - sounds fun! Like an 1880s Wild West train robber going back East and finding out they regard him as a rube - they steal entire railroads!

And a lady Elizabethan privateer would be fun, too, but alas I haven't heard of such in this era. Grace O'Malley got by because she operated in remote waters off the major sea lanes.

Though I suppose Philip II would have disagreed about the lack of lady privateers, albeit Bess was not personally swashing the buckles.

Carla said...

Yes, there's an element of that :-) Dodd has some penetrating observations on different kinds of theft.
I'm not sure whether the lady privateer is intended to be taken seriously. Like you, I haven't heard of any actual examples - only Grace O'Malley, and my knowledge about her beyond the name is vanishingly small. I could believe in a wealthy lady providing discreet financial backing for a cut of the proceeds, as Elizabeth herself did, but Lady Hunsdon is a good deal more hands-on than that, sailing on the ship herself, giving the orders, and threatening someone with a pistol, although fortunately she isn't required to wield a cutlass (that really would stretch my suspension of disbelief too far). Like I said, maybe not terribly convincing, but great fun.