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Review: The Bleak Midwinter by L C Tyler

Bleak Midwinter

The fifth John Grey historical mystery

1668.

John Grey is now a Justice of the Peace and lives in the manor house he has inherited on his mother’s death with his new wife, Aminta.

As the village is cut off from the rest of the world by a heavy snowfall, George Barwell is discovered dead in the woods. Grey is called to examine the horribly disfigured body amidst the rumours that the attack has been the work of the Devil as the victim had been cursed by reputed witch Alice Mardike just days before his violent death.

As Barwell’s father-in-law leads the villagers into kidnapping Alice and throwing her into the millpond to see if she floats as a witch or drowns as an innocent woman, Grey agrees to investigate the murder: his main suspect is the very man leading the witch hunt.

But if Grey can’t solve the mystery of George Barwell’s death within a week, Mardike will be tried for witchcraft – and the sentence has already been decided . . .

My thoughts. . .

I love these John Grey Historical Mysteries. Not only are they set in an unusual period – the 17th Century, but they are also riddled with wry humour. This is a difficult balancing act to achieve – both historical veracity and laughs, but this book has both, along with an exciting plot that keeps you guessing until the end.

The theme of this one is that John Grey is trying to uncover who murdered a man in the snow, and won’t give up even when the villagers are convinced it is the result of a curse by local witch Alice Mardike. They are adamant she is to blame and, not content with a ducking, are keen to subject her to the witch’s usual fate. Grey has to prevent them and ensure justice prevails.

There is a lovely sense of hierarchy in the novel between the rich and poor, the upper and lower classes, and between women and men. This is delightfully turned on its head by Grey’s wife Aminta who comes up with the best leads.

Altogether highly recommended, especially for Christmas.

 

Bonus! Here’s the video of King’s College Choir singing the hymn.

If you are interested in the 17th Century, you might also like my posts this week on

Animals in the Great Fire of 1666

The First Women in the Theatre

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Blog Cabinet of Curiosities

Cabinet of Curio-stories – Miniature Scottish Coffins

In 1836, five young Scottish boys were out huntinCoffins 2g for rabbits on the slopes of Arthur’s Seat, a hill in the centre of Edinburgh. After chasing a rabbit into a small cave, they saw something jammed into a crevice in the crag. It was the first of no less than seventeen miniature coffins – each one painstakingly carved out of pine and realistically ‘furnished’ with cut iron decorations.

The children pulled them out and were amazed to find that each tomb contained an individual wooden figure. All male figures, they had been individually and expertly carved, and then dressed up in their own set of clothes.

Unaware that they might be valuable or interesting, the boys played at throwing them about so several were “destroyed by the boys pelting them at each other as unmeaning and contemptible trifles”The Scotsman, 16 July 1836).

Now only eight of the seventeen remain intact, but what they were made for, or why they were hidden remains a mystery.

 the coffins had been deposited singly, in the little cave, and at intervals of many years. In the first tier, the coffins were quite decayed, and the wrappings had moldered away. In the second tier,  the effects of age had not advanced to far. And the top coffin was quite recent looking.  Charles Fort

The coffins ended up in the collection of Robert Frazier, a South Andrews Street jeweller, who put them on display in his private museum  until he retired in 1845 . They were sold at auction as “The celebrated Lilliputian coffins found on Arthur’s Seat, 1836” and fetched £4.8s. It was not until 1901, that a set of eight were finally donated to the National Museum of Scotland (where they remain today) by their then owner, Mrs Christina Couper of Dumfriesshire.

coffins-3

Various theories have been suggested as to their origin and meaning – from being gruesome reminders of murder victims, memorials to dead children, pagan ritual dolls, hangman’s souvenirs, or sailors lost at sea.

An excellent in-depth article on the subject is here

In this series you might also like:

The Tudor Copperplate Map

Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn Entwined

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The Apothecary’s Widow – Diane Scott Lewis

 

Apothecary's Widow

A Lady’s Murder in Eighteenth Century Cornwall

When I attended the Historical Novel Society Conference in San Diego, one of the panels spoke of the future of historical fiction. They agreed that historical mysteries would remain one of the most popular aspects of the genre. I’d written a few historical novels up until then, so decided my next endeavor would be a mystery. Having bought a book on the history of eighteenth century Truro, Cornwall, I decided to set my mystery there.

A murder, a squire’s wife poisoned, the squire’s miserable marriage revealed, all formed in my mind. And of course, a diligent apothecary, a bold-minded woman who’d taken over her husband’s shop after his death. These two people, Branek Pentreath, the squire with a failing estate and resentment toward his arranged, childless marriage, and Jenna Rosedew, who prepared the tinctures for the ailing Lady Pentreath, would become the prime suspects in the lady’s death. Throw in a corrupt constable who has grievances against both of them, and the noose tightens around Branek and Jenna.

At first suspecting one another for the murder, an unbidden attraction forms between these two, but their places in society forbids their acting upon it—or does it? They must fight their feelings and rush to find the real killer before it’s too late.

Set during the war with the American colonies in 1781, the outcome which might ruin Branek, and the tension is rife in my historical mystery, The Apothecary’s Widow.

I delved deep into the history of the area, the eighteenth century (a particular interest of mine) and the detection of poison in a time when medical knowledge was just starting to come out of the dark ages—but was still primitive.

I also researched the apothecaries’ trade, and the medicine preparation which would have been used in the eighteenth century. The use of herbs and spices, along with more dangerous—not to mention strange—ingredients, was fascinating. My editor says she was impressed by my research.

I fell in love with these characters and hated for the story to end. So there might be a sequel—and another murder to solve.

I hope readers will enjoy this novel as much as I loved writing it.

For more information about me and my books, please visit my website:

www.dianescottlewis.org

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The Art of the Elizabethan Murder Mystery

What does it take to write an Elizabethan Murder Mystery?
I asked the actor Jonathan Digby, whose novel, ‘A Murderous Affair’, is currently flying high in the UK Amazon charts, for some clues.
What appeals to you about Elizabethan History?
The Elizabethan Age is known as the Early Modern period in British history and I think that sums up what is so fascinating about it. It is the perfect crossover point between the medieval period and the modern age and quite a few seeds of our modern obsessions – trade, nationalism, self-made people, famous artists and so on – are sowed, to some extent, during that period. It was also a time of great change – the old world order had collapsed in England – particularly the power of the Roman Catholic church – and out of the ashes a whole new system grew up – I do find trying to pinpoint characters within that whole dynamic quite a fun challenge! There are also lots of great figures – Queen Elizabeth I, Burghley, Walsingham, Leicester, Francis Drake, Walter Raleigh, Christopher Marlowe, Philip Sydney (the list could go on and on) – about whom there is a lot of research and who are also fun to try and capture to some extent in the stories.
I also have a love of the period through being an actor and doing Shakespeare plays – Shakespeare is the pinnacle of an age of enlightenment in the arts, a bit like the Beatles in the 1960s. There was a whole movement of great playwrights during the period and the body of plays gives the modern writer an incredibly rich source of information to draw on.
Please tell me about your main character and what made him enjoyable to write.
John Lovat is an illegitimate son of a Lord. I chose this background for him because I wanted to have a character who could cross believably through the different tiers of Elizabethan society. In the Elizabethan world everybody had their place – their were even maps drawn showing where everyone fitted in from the Queen downwards – and so it presented a problem for a character solving crime amongst both rich and poor. Getting up the social ladder was very desirable but also very difficult. Lovat’s position gives him access to the upper-echelons of society, although his place as one of society’s ‘have-nots’ is never in doubt! To some extent, I also enjoyed making him an ‘anti-Elizabethan’ thus hopefully a prism through whom the wider Elizabethan world can be offset and glimpsed. It is also great fun putting him into difficult situations (as I imagine is the case with a detective from any era) and trying to help him solve them!!
What’s unique about sleuthing in the Tudor era?
I think this is a point where a certain amount of artistic license needs to be taken – there weren’t any ‘detectives’ during the period (they didn’t exist until the 19th century) and certainly very few of the methods that modern crime writers rely on – fingerprints, CSI, DNA etc – had yet to be invented. ‘Policing’ in London in the 16th Century was done by a variety of bodies – the constables who ensured that peace was kept in the different wards, the clergy who made sure that their flock were in church on Sundays, rich and influential individuals who had retainers to do their bidding, the army to a certain extent – it was all a bit of a mess and only loosely corresponded to an idea of justice!
I think sleuthing in the period partly comes down to a character having a unique point of view or insight and also being very observant – it also comes down to being someone who loves solving puzzles. Also, the character has to be compelled to solve the mystery – i.e. if he fails something bad will happen to him, and has to be in a position where he is asked to solve mysteries in the first place. In Lovat’s case he moves from being a retainer in his (legitimate) brother’s household to becoming a spy for Francis Walsingham. In the future, I’m planning on putting him other positions where he will have an opportunity to solve crimes with a distinct set of circumstances. For example, in book two he is heading to France and getting involved in the secession battles that tore the country apart in the later part of the 16th Century. In a later book I am planning on sending him to the English countryside where he will have to battle against people’s superstitions and a ‘conycatcher’ or wise man who the country folk look up to! But all that is for the future …
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Floats the Dark Shadow by Yves Fey

FloatsDarkShadowCover

 

Floats the Dark Shadow had a long gestation.  I tried writing a different Belle Époque novel for about a year. I had a heroine I liked and kept telling her she was an artist.  As an artist myself, I knew I could bring Paris of that era to life through my heroine’s eyes. But this character kept telling me she was a journalist. My perfectly serviceable murder plot wouldn’t take off and my characters wandered around aimlessly.  Writing about that era was what I wanted to do, but it wasn’t working.

Thrashing about, I asked myself what else I could do, and I remembered an earlier fascination with Gilles de Rais because of the extremes of his life – the inspiration that Jeanne d’Arc could at least be presumed to have been, followed by the descent into bestial cruelty dressed up in cloth of gold. But I really didn’t want to write about that period. Then my brain went Copy Cat!  Everything fell into place like dominoes.

The former hero and heroine became secondary characters, then vanished. I needed a cop and still wanted my artist heroine. I’d started a romance that was essentially La Femme Nikita in Elizabethan England. I took those characters but had to find new lives for them because they weren’t in thrall to Walsingham’s spy system. I wanted a conflicted hero who was shut down on some level and saw that his history was woven with the Commune. While she’s lived rough and tumble for a while, Theo has a certain inherent innocence and optimism that made a great counterpoint to the fin-de-siècle European sensibilities of the other characters. And as for the villain – Gilles de Rais, though he could be totally crass and brutal, he could also be an artist of evil, staging his murders, staging his whole life, which made him the perfect inspiration for my killer.  I brought on my suspects—an absinthe addicted poet, a failed priest, an anarchist and an aristocrat, a sadistic doctor and a Satanist.  And so my novel came to life.

Floats the Dark Shadow was published by a small San Francisco Press, BearCat.  Several of BearCat’s publications were up for Indie awards and Floats the Dark Shadow won four Indies in mystery and history, including a Silver Ippy in the Best Mystery of the Year category.

Yves Fey ‘s website 

Want to contribute to Royalty Free Fiction? Contact me at authordeborahswift@gmail.com  with a bookcover, links and a post about your inspiration for your book. Self-published fiction must have been reviewed by the Historical Novel Society. The book must have characters who are ordinary people, not Kings, Queens or Royalty.