At the heart of the 12th Owen Archer mystery, A Choir of Crows, is the tension in the city when the corpses of three strangers are found at dawn after a heavy snowfall that isolates the city. Two of the bodies are found in the yard of York Minster, both deaths violent, one clearly murder. The timing could not be worse. The lay and religious communities in York are already frantically preparing for an influx of Northern nobles and their traveling parties for the enthronement of Alexander Neville as Archbishop of York. Owen Archer’s task is to find the murderer (s) before Neville’s powerful older brother arrives. The family worked hard to elevate Alexander to the post, calling in many favors to achieve it. Readers who have been following the series will know that Alexander Neville’s elevation to the post was strictly political. As time goes on it became clear to all that he was singularly ill-suited for the position.
You might wonder why the Nevilles were so keen to have one of their own in this position. John Neville was already a Knight of the Garter, Admiral of the North, and Steward of the King’s Household. But now they would have power both among the secular establishment and the religious: as Archbishop of York, Alexander would be the second most powerful cleric in England (after the Archbishop of Canterbury.) “Appointments during the latter half of the century were particularly political: Alexander Neville (1374-1388), Thomas Arundel (1388-1396) and Richard Scrope (1398-1405) all came from influential baronial families who were closely involved in the contentious politics of the courts of King Richard II and Henry IV.” For more about how the archbishops were chosen in the 14th century, you can read this post on the blog for The Northern Way; it is the source of the quote above.
The Northern Way is a research project funded by the AHRC and based at the University of York in partnership with The National Archives and with the support of York Minster. Running from February 2019 to October 2021 the project aims to make the administrative records of the archbishops of York more accessible to both students and the general public, and to provide a history of the role of the Archbishops in governing the region over that period. You can be sure I am watching them closely!
Curious about the role in modern times? Earlier this month, a new Archbishop of York, Stephen Cottrell, arrived in the city for his confirmation. You can see photos of the 9 July celebration here (including a walk down the Shambles!) And here‘s another article about the day.
In anxious times, crime novels engage us and reassure us. Seems crazy, doesn’t it? A murderer is loose on the streets. We watch the sleuth(s), the more familiar the better, sort out the clues as they race against time to prevent more deaths. Although more people might fall, and the authorities might decide that the solution is inconvenient and choose to conceal the details with some vague palliative blather, the deaths are stopped, thanks to the sleuth. The community returns to “normal”, or very near—a new normal, or, as novelist Emily Wilson said “…creating a new, second-place vision for life after a terrible thing has taken first-choice hopes away. Justice can be part of that new hope, but it’s inherently a compromise. Justice is like a beautiful funeral: better than a terrible one, but the best would be not needing one at all.” [*] In Wired for Story, Lisa Cron cites a wealth of mind research to support her thesis that our brains crave stories because we learn via stories, trying out experiences to learn ways to cope with new challenges.[†] In a crime novel we follow the sleuth’s investigation, learning how we might do the same. We learn from their mistakes and their successes. We see how troubles might be resolved. We can even find comfort in realizing that everyone in a community has secrets, some more interesting or dangerous than others, but no one’s perfect. Even the familiarity of the regular ensemble of characters and settings in our favorite series is reassuring when calming down after a day of worries. All in all, it’s not such a crazy idea to pluck a crime novel off the shelf and curl up in our reading chair to read away the jitters.
As COVID-19 wormed its way into our lives I calmed myself before sleep by reading some of my favorite crime writers. For all the reasons I’ve just mentioned, I found them a comfort. Beginning in crisis, ending with order restored. To a degree. Donna Leon, Marty Wingate, Chris Nickson, Craig Johnson, Miranda James, Daphne du Maurier (suspense)… Some light, some a mix, some decidedly dark. Yet restorative. I have a good friend who once told me she wished I’d keep writing as Emma Campion because she could read those books; she can’t read my mysteries because they’re too scary. Time and again I’ve tried to explain to her why my novels about Joan of Kent and Alice Perrers are far scarier than my mysteries—Joan and Alice had so little control over their lives and I could do nothing to prevent their suffering. But she just couldn’t see it. Plenty do, thank goodness.
Of course, I have the added comfort of writing crime novels. I’m engaged in a new Owen Archer tale with some of my favorite characters, particularly Magda Digby. I find the plotting of crimes, followed by the investigation of a sleuth I love and trust, a curiously soothing endeavour. I know that Owen is determined to solve the crimes and that he will do everything in his power to do so.
It’s this commitment and deep sense of responsibility that pushes him to investigate. Compared with so many of the movers and shakers I read about in the news, Owen is an honorable, trustworthy person, a man who keeps his word and cares about others. I find him a reassuring companion in these troubled times. And Magda Digby, the Riverwoman…I would love to seek her out at her rock in the Ouse right about now to ask if I might just stay there under her care until COVID 19 spends itself.
How about you? What’s helping you cope?
(I hope one answer is reading A Choir of Crows! Out now!)
[†] Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence, Ten Speed Press 2012.
I’ll return to chat about my book and all things Owen Archer in my next post, but at the moment I want to bear witness to what is happening in the US and around the world in this month of June 2020. No preaching (I save that for my longsuffering friends). I’ll simply share a few items.
First, an thoughtful, savvy essay regarding both the pandemic and racism by M. Rambaran-Olm, “Black Death” Matters: A Modern Take on a Medieval Pandemic
Second, a powerful podcast from the PBS Newshour, ‘A very long, very loud existential scream.’
May we all be healthy, and live as one.
I am thrilled to announce that A Choir of Crows is the Severn House Editor’s Pick for May UK/July US!
As you know, the hardcover is released in the UK this weekend, and worldwide (in English) 2 July–the e-book as well. Here’s the link! If you prefer not to click on the link (though I love the illustration–all the crows surrounding the cover), here is the text:
A CHOIR OF CROWS is the twelfth intricately plotted historical mystery to feature detective protagonist Owen Archer, set in late 14th century York.
The action begins in the freezing December of 1374, with the great and the good about to descend on York for the enthronement of Alexander Neville as the new archbishop. When two bodies are discovered in the grounds of York Minster, and a flaxen-haired youth with the voice of an angel is found locked in the chapter house, Owen Archer, captain of the city bailiffs, is summoned to investigate.
Matters are further complicated with the arrival of an enigmatic figure from Owen’s past. Then a third body is fished out of the river – and Owen finds himself with three mysterious deaths to solve before the all-powerful Neville family arrives in York.
As well as being a gripping murder mystery which kept me guessing to the end, A CHOIR OF CROWS offers fascinating insights into day-to-day life during a particularly turbulent time in York’s richly colourful history, as the obscenely powerful aristocratic Percy and Neville families battled for advancement, and almost everyone in the city seemed to be a spy for one faction or another – with Owen Archer and his family caught slap-bang in the middle of the lethal power games being played out. This was a dangerous, plague-ridden world, where life was often harsh, brutish – and cut unexpectedly short. A world dominated by the all-powerful Church and its attendant politics. (I particularly liked the vivid evocation of a bustling, thriving York Minster in its medieval heyday, which forms the backdrop to so much of the action).
The author handles a large cast of characters with an admirable deftness and sureness of touch, and the satisfyingly complex plot, which demands close attention from its reader, provides rich rewards to those who read the novel with the attention it deserves. As always with Candace Robb’s mysteries, real historical figures mingle seamlessly with fictitious as weighty matters of state intrude upon the lives of Owen, his family and friends. This was a time when the Hundred Years War against the French was raging, and England’s great hope, King Edward III’s warrior son known as the Black Prince, was struck down by a mysterious and (as it turned out) fatal illness. As part of the central mystery plot, Robb offers an intriguing (and to me entirely plausible) theory as to the cause of this disease.
I would wholeheartedly recommend A CHOIR OF CROWS to readers of C J Sansom, Ellis Peters, Susanna Gregory and Paul Doherty.
Needless to say, I’m thrilled. If you’re searching for places to order the hardcover in the UK, do check your local bookshops to see whether they’re taking orders. If not, Waterstones.com and bookdepository.com appear to have it available.
I hope this finds you well. Stay safe, and escape into a good book!
First and foremost, may you be safe and healthy.
As spring deepens and the lengthening days are raucous with birdsong and bright with blossoms and tender leaves, I am at home tending the garden, moving shrubs, transplanting saplings nurtured over the past few years, pruning, weeding. A nesting pair of crows have been assisting me, pruning dead twigs from the crowns of a Japanese maple and a redbud outside my office windows. At first I gathered the twigs that fell to the ground and piled them where the couple might pick over them, but I soon understood that I’d been mistaken—the crows had judged them unacceptable. Now I thank them for the pruning assistance as I toss the discards in the yard waste bin. The crows know…
Speaking of crows… As book lovers, you may have heard about publishers deciding to hold back books due to be published as we cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, and you might be wondering what’s happening with the 12th Owen Archer mystery, A Choir of Crows.
I am delighted to announce that Severn House has decided we all need a dose of Owen, Lucie, Magda, Michaelo, and company sooner rather than later. Publication has been moved forward! The hardcover of A Choir of Crows will be available in the UK on 31 May, and both the hardcover and e-book will be available in the US and Canada on 2 July. I hope this news brightens your day.
I am aware that bookshops in the UK find it almost impossible to order new books, both brick and mortar and online bookshops, a complex situation that may or may not change by late May. At the moment the Book Depository and Waterstones online are accepting preorders. I will have a better idea when we’re closer to publication date and let you know what options might be available. I welcome you to keep me posted in comments regarding your attempts to preorder a copy. Together we can make this work for all of us—bookshops, publishers, and readers.
In the US, I’m teaming up with a local bookshop, Third Place Books, for what will almost certainly be an online launch in early July. Online will mean more of you can participate, or at least view it! Right now it’s available for preorder at Third Place Books and your local bookshop, as well as online.
More sweet news (for me)… I was delighted to see the Kate Clifford series on a New York Public Library list, 30 Historical Mystery Series to Get You Through Any Crisis: “Set in 15th century York, Kate Clifford is a young widow trying to get herself out of the debt left to her by her two-timing husband. Estranged from her family and raising the children of her husband’s dead mistress, Kate relies on her intelligence and intuition as well as her wily servants to get her out of trouble both political and murderous. Turns out York is a minefield of deceit, betrayal and murder. Well known for her Owen Archer series, Robb writes mysteries that are intricate, dense with historical detail and great characters that truly satisfy history and mystery lovers alike.” And The Apothecary Rose appeared on a list, 10 Great Medieval Mystery Books. I’m feeling the love.
Lastly, I am happy to announce that I’ve signed a contract with Severn House to write two additional Owen Archer novels! So when I’m not gardening or taking long walks I am working on Owen Archer #13, tentatively titled The Riverwoman’s Dragon. I am dedicating it to my dear friend Joyce Gibb who died on Christmas Eve. Beginning with A Gift of Sanctuary, Joyce was my sounding board on early drafts, reading chunks of the manuscript as I wrote, offering insights. I miss her more than I can say. Over the years she urged me to give Magda Digby a central role in a book, and this past autumn I decided that #13 would be the one. She cheered me on.
The book is set in late spring 1375 at the beginning of a plague summer. You can imagine my unease when the topic on which I settled in the autumn began to seem horribly current in winter. But letting fictional characters express my feelings is cathartic, and spending my days in the mind of Magda Digby is a joy.
Be safe! Be well!