A Famine of Horses: a book discussion

July 16, 2018 at 12:24 pm (Book clubs, books, Mystery fiction)

Somehow I managed to work myself up into quite a state for this book discussion. There always seemed to be more research that needed to be done, more questions needing to be answered, more tangled webs to untangle…. In the end, though, I was really please with how it went. This is mostly because the group members were simply outstanding. They caught the  ball and ran with it. I didn’t have many discussion questions prepared and as it turned out, for the most part, I didn’t need them.

I began, in the usual way, with author information. P.F. Chisholm is a nom de plume  for Patricia Finney. Born in London in 1958, Finney attended Wadham College, Oxford, earning a B.A. degree  and graduating with honors. According to Biography in Context, she has had an extremely varied work life, having worked as a journalist, a medical magazine editor, hospital administrator, scriptwriter, entrepreneur, and – most intriguing – a “property empress.”

Patricia Finney

(The above information was gleaned from an entry in the Biography in Context database. I highly recommend this research tool, although, at least on the local library’s website, you have jump through several hoops to get to it.)

Along with this wide ranging work experience, Finney’s abiding passion, from youth onward, was for storytelling. I shared  with the group this story, recounted on her blog:

One of my first memories is of being in hospital to have my tonsils out, aged 5 (they did tonsillectomies on youngsters with more enthusiasm then). I was doing what I always did to get to sleep, when a nurse came to me and asked if I was having a bad dream. No, I told her with withering patronage, I was telling a story about a hamster. Why was I shouting, she wanted to know? Because the hamster was being silly and trying to jump out of his balloon basket without his rocket pack and I was warning him. She told me to stop telling stories at once and be quiet. She went away rather hurriedly.

I then moved on to the historical background for the novel. During the late 1590s, the time of A Famine of Horses, the north of England near the Scottish border was a land of lawlessness and depredation. Lawlessness might not be the correct  term: the Borderers did have a sort of homegrown legal system. It was based primarily on tit for tat, an eye  for an eye, thieving and reiving and cattle rustling and endless retribution among powerful warlike clans: the Elliots, the Grahams, the Nixons, and the seemingly always belligerent and bellicose Armstrongs.

(The Debatable Land was an area in the border country that seemed to belong simultaneously to everyone and no one. It served as a haven for outlaws and for “broken men,” those who had no declared allegiance to a particular lord or sovereign power.)

Patricia Finney has cited her reading of Steel Bonnets by George MacDonald Fraser as the inspiration for this series. That book contains a wonderful sentence that boldly sets the scene:

The English-Scottish frontier is and was the dividing line between two of the most energetic, aggressive, talented and altogether formidable nations in human history.

That about sums it up, sure enough. Consideration of the enormous contributions in the spheres of literature, science, medicine, philosophy, etc. made by both England and Scotland over the past centuries is enough to convince anyone that these two small nations have consistently punched well above their weight.

Sir Robert Carey, Chisholm’s chief protagonist in Famine and throughout this series was an actual historical personage. He served at the court of Queen Elizabeth and later, at his Sovereign’s request, as Warden of the Border country, where his efforts to institute the rule of law were eventually proven effective.

Sir Robert’s father, Henry Carey, Lord Hunsdon, was a  favorite cousin of the Queen’s. His mother Mary Boleyn was sister to the Queen’s ill-fated mother, Anne Boleyn. Mary was married twice, but she was also, for a time, mistress to Henry VIII. She supposedly bore him two children, although he acknowledged neither of them.

Carey returned to London in 1603 as Queen Elizabeth’s reign, and her life, were coming to an end. Most importantly, his written memoirs have come down to us. They provide a first hand, eyewitness account of the Queen’s passing:

When I came to court I found the Queen ill disposed; and she kept to her inner lodging; yet she, hearing of my arrival, sent  for me. I found her in one of her withdrawing  chambers, sitting low upon her cushions. She called me to her: I kissed her hand, and told her it was my chiefest happiness to see her in safety and in health, which I wished might long continue. She took me by the hand, and wrung it hard, and said, “No, Robin, I am not well,” and then discoursed with me of her indisposition, and that her heart had been sad and heavy for ten or twelve days, and in her discourse  she fetched not so few as forty of fifty great sighs.

Carey found these sighs particularly disconcerting; he hadn’t heard her sigh like that, he averred, since the beheading of Mary Queen of Scots.

Upon retiring, Carey left word that he was to be notified immediately of the Queen’s death. And so it came to pass, in the middle of the night:

…I entered the gate, and came up to the Cofferer‘s chamber, where I found all the ladies weeping bitterly.

Queen Elizabeth: the Ditchley Portrait

There follows a narration of the exploit for which Sir Robert Carey is best known: His breakneck ride north to Edinburgh to hail the Scottish King James VI as James I of England. (Just before her death, Elizabeth had declared this to be her wish in regard to her successor as ruler of England. It signified the end of the Tudor dynasty, which then gave way to the reign of the Stuart kings.)

Finally – on to A Famine of Horses. I discerned a range of  reactions to the novel among the Suspects. Several were put off by the author’s use of antiquated vocabulary. Terms like dag (early firearm type), caliver (a standardized arquebus), collops (slices of beef), and cramoisie (crimson) were found, understandably, to be bewildering. Others, however, maintained that their meaning, at least generally speaking, could be determined from the context in which they appeared. I admit that I was in that second group. I failed utterly to perceive that the vocabulary used in the novel would serve as a stumbling block. to some readers. (This might be partly due to the fact that so much of what I read, both fiction and nonfiction, historical and contemporary, takes place in Britain.)

We all agreed that a glossary would have been very helpful. Another inclusion that would have helped is a list of the characters – who they are, how they’re related, etc. For one thing, there are a great many of them and they’re hard to keep straight. Of course, this impacts the plot, which, as the narrative progresses, becomes increasingly Byzantine.

The Kirkus review of A Famine of Horses was generally favorable, with reviewer describing the the book as “A briskly paced debut rich in spiky characters, eccentric accents, and, above all, a charismatic hero with a sense of honor and a sense of humor.” On the other hand, the Publishers Weekly reviewer was distinctly underwhelmed. That review concludes thus:

Chisholm’s short digressions on the new concept of due process are thoughtful but blunted by archaic terms. And Carey, an upright courtier with the gift of guile, remains too distant, never fully retaining the reader’s sympathies.

That last sentence left me scratching my head. Did this reviewer read the same book I read? In Patricia Finney’s introduction to the year 2000 paperback edition (published by Poisoned Pen Press), she confesses that she’s fallen “hook, line and sinker, for the elegant and charming Sir Robert Carey.” I felt the same way.

Sir Robert Carey, First Earl of Monmouth

Our discussion ranged freely over various aspects of this book. Frank mentioned the fear felt by ordinary people when venturing out alone, especially at night. Marge said that there was a fair amount of humor in the novel, more, at any rate, than she had expected to encounter. She also reminded us of another historical novelist whom we’ve read enjoyed: Candace Robb.

We talked about the way in which details of clothing and food add greatly to the novel’s verisimilitude. And oh, the fleas! Some of us began to itch with empathy for the beleaguered characters.

I think just about everyone agreed that the plot was very complicated. It was hard not to get lost in the thicket of events, some of which seemed to careen into the narrative with sudden and unexpected force. The murder described at the book’s very outset almost seems to have  been shoved aside by the general melee. The solution almost seems hastily arrived  at, toward the very conclusion of the narrative. I had to reread that section several times to make sure I’d gotten in right. (That ending was not at all satisfactory to Pauline. She found it very dismaying.)

However, the novel has many strengths, one in particular being the creation of especially vivid female characters. Elizabeth Widdrington, Sir Robert’s (unfortunately chastely married) lady love; Janet Dodd, Henry’s fearless wife; and the wonderfully named Philadelphia Scrope, wife of the chief Warden and beloved sister to Sir Robert, will probably stay with you for a while after you’ve finished the book.

In my previous post on Famine, I recounted two of my favorite scenes. I’d like to add another. This one takes place at a banquet at Netherby, stronghold of the Earl of Bothwell:

  As the procession reached the high table and the chief men were served, the Earl stood up and threw half a breadroll at a nervous-looking priest in the corner.

“Say a grace for us, Reverend,” he shouted.

The Reverend stood up and gabbled some Latin, which was in fact a part of the old wedding service, if Carey’s feeble classical knowledge served him right. Everyone shouted Amen, bent their heads and began shovelling food into their guts as if they were half starved.

I can just see this happening. In fact, I found many scenes in Famine exceptionally rich visually. I think the book would make a great movie or television series.

Once more, thank you, Suspects. You make the effort well worthwhile.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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