Working on A Famine of Horses while finishing the latest Bill Slider novel

June 28, 2018 at 2:05 pm (Book clubs, Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

  My choice for the next Usual Suspects mystery discussion is A Famine of Horses by P.F. Chisholm. I like this book mainly because of the way it brings a distant time so vividly to life. One way Chisholm does this is by weaving particulars about dress, food, and other specifics into a narrative that has an actual historical personage as its hero. I refer to Sir Robert Carey, cousin to Queen Elizabeth I – His father, Lord Hunsdon, was the son of Mary Boleyn, sister to the ill-fated Anne, Elizabeth’s mother.

Sir Robert Carey, First Earl of Monmouth, circa 1591

The historical Sir Robert Carey’s main claim to fame is his breakneck horseback journey in 1603 from London to Edinburgh. His purpose: To inform King James VI of Scotland that he was now King James I of England:

When the Queen died at Richmond Palace Lady Scrope threw the blue ring from a casement window to her brother. Carey, who had previously told King James that he would be the first man to bring the news, set off immediately for London and from there started his epic ride to Edinburgh. He completed the journey in less than three days, and on his way caused King James to be proclaimed by his brother (the governor) at Berwick upon Tweed, the strongest fortress on the road from Scotland. On arrival at the Palace of Holyroodhouse, he hailed King James as King of England and Scotland.

From The Great North Ride

P.F. Chisholm’s prose style is uniquely suited to the time and place of which she writes. It helps cast a spell; I feel transported to that era. One of my favorite of her locutions occurs when she’s describing Sir Robert’s fast-growing goatee as “invading upland pastures.”

Then there’s the passage in which he strives to convey to Henry Dodd, his second-in-command, the flavor of the language used by those who wish to survive at the Queen’s court:

“Well,” he said consideringly, “a scurvy Scotsman might say she is a wild old bat who knows more of governorship and statecraft than the Privy Councils of both realms put together, but I say she is like Aurora in her beauty, her hair puts the sun in splendour to shame, her face holds the heavens within its compass and her glance is like the falling dew.”

Dodd, astonished by this recitation, asks if all the courtiers are required to speak in this manner. Sir Robert replies with unaccustomed bluntness:

“If they want to keep out of the Tower, they do.”

Queen Elizabeth I, the Darnley portrait, circa 1575

My favorite scene in Famine is one in which the characters move seamlessly from discussing a murder investigation – the killing of one Sweetmilk Graham –  to making music together:

“And then,” continued Carey, as he dug in a canvas bag for the latest madrigal sheets he had carried with him faithfully from London, “there’s where he put the body. After all, Solway field’s a very odd place. The marshes or the sea would give him a better chance of the body never being found. It’s almost as if he couldn’t think of anywhere else. And how did Swanders come by the horse?”

“Killed Sweetmilk?” asked Henry Widdrington, picking up one of the sheets and squinting at it. “

“Not Swanders. He doesn’t own a dag. A knife in the ribs would be more his mark. Can you take the bass part?”

Henry Widdrington whistled at the music. “I can try.”

Meanwhile Lord Scrope, Chief Warden and husband to Sir Robert’s sister Philadelphia, is hard at work tuning the virginals in a corner of the room they’re currently occupying. Scrope may be a lackluster administrator, but he’s a genuine music lover and an excellent keyboardist.

And so, they’re off and singing! The effect they’re striving for would have sounded something like this:

or, more informally, this (‘O Eyes of My Beloved’ by Orlando di Lasso – such a beautiful song!):

(Now in my youth, I sang with a madrigal group, and I can tell you from experience, it’s a fiendishly tricky business for nonprofessionals.)

Another way in which Chisholm strives to achieve authenticity is through liberal use of vocabulary appropriate to the times. Here I must insert a caveat. Words such as Cramoisie and dag do not trip lightly off the tongue of a modern reader. The author does not provide a glossary; I rather wish that she had. Even a few footnotes at the bottom of the page would have been helpful. The degree to which this is a problem will of course vary from reader to reader. (I put together a brief glossary for my fellow Suspects. It’s available upon request!)

A Famine of Horses is the first in a series that at present comprises eight novels. I have read all of them. In the main, they are quite entertaining. I thought A Murder of Crows (2010) rather sub par, to the extent that I had trouble finishing it. On the other hand, I found A Chorus of Innocents (2015), a real triumph and, in my opinion, the best series entry since the series itself began. A Suspicion of Silver, entry number nine, is due out in December of this year. (P.F. Chisholm is a pseudonym used by Patricia Finney, a writer of historical fiction and children’s books.)

Another series of which I’m inordinately fond is the Bill Slider series written by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles. These novels have the same sparkling irreverence and wit that I prize in the Sir Robert Carey novels. The latest, which I just finished, is entitled Shadow Play.

The dialog that characterized Slider’s team is often quite delightful. To wit:

“I’ve never been there,” Atherton said. “Don’t need to. It’s a totally justified irrational prejudice based on subliminal impressions gained over a lifetime.”

“I wish you came with subtitles,” Loessop complained.

And I love this description of a top speed race to capture a suspect on the run, so dizzying it’s positively cinematic:

It was a glorious, adrenalin-fueled chase, through the narrow streets of Soho, dodging the evening revellers and the crawling traffic; down Wardour Street, left into Noel, left again into Poland, across Broadwick Street, into Lexington. Onlookers stepped helpfully out of the way, even when LaSalle shouted, ‘Police!’ In the old days someone would have stuck out a foot. Loessup began to fall behind, but LaSalle had long legs. Where were the two men carrying a sheet of glass, the tottering stack of cardboard  boxes, the young mother pushing a pram, when you needed them?

Having just finished the twentieth installment of the adventures of Bill Slider and company, I find myself so enamored of this series that I’m thinking of going back to the beginning and starting it all over again!

1 Comment

  1. kdwisni said,

    No one ever says they are “working on” a Slider adventure–it’s just pure delight. I have a couple of these on my Kindle to reread when things get rough!!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: