A Writer Reading: White Fang by Jack London


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**warning: geeky writer post

For the past several years I’ve been browsing books about wolves because, well, I’m writing a book entitled A Conspiracy of Wolves. In my research one book kept rising to the top: White Fang by Jack London. For a while I ignored it, was even, I confess, annoyed that it kept showing up, an old book, surely something better had been written about wolves. But at last I decided to read it, see what all the fuss was about. [Yes, I know, most people read this as children, but somehow I missed it despite loving books about the wild.]

Wolf-wise (oh, how I love the implication of that pairing), it’s a delightful book in many ways, though not informative about wolf packs in the wild. His subject is the formative experience of the eponymous canine, a study of nature vs nurture, to an extent.

I began this post several days ago, saying “I don’t like to write about books I’m still reading, but the introduction of a new character, ‘Beauty Smith’, stopped me cold last night. I didn’t want to read further. Now that intrigues me.” I’ve since finished the book, and I can attest to the page-long description of the odious Beauty Smith being the point in the book at which my enthusiasm flagged; it never recovered. What happened? I thought I’d share with you my experience as a writer reading a book but also reading a writer.

Let me first explain London’s point of view in the book. We begin in the head of one of a pair of men being tracked and terrorized by a pack of starving wolves, led by the female wolf who will give birth to White Fang. A few chapters in, the point of view switches to the female, and then, fairly quickly, her pup White Fang, as he discovers the world of the cave in which he’s born, and then ventures forth into the Alaskan wilderness. But London does not limit himself to the close third person; in his own voice he provides background, details of the landscape, and, in a sense, translates for us White Fang’s perceptions. And, increasingly, London adds to this his very human commentary on White Fang’s limitations as a wolf.

In How Fiction Works (Picador 2008, pp. 6-7), James Wood discusses this authorial voice:

…omniscient narration is rarely as omniscient as it seems. To begin with, authorial style generally has a way of making third-person omniscience seem partial and inflected. Authorial style tends to draw our attention toward the writer, toward the artifice of the author’s construction, and so toward the writer’s own impress. …Tolstoy comes closest to a canonical idea of authorial omniscience, and he uses with great naturalness and authority a mode of writing that Roland Barthes called “the reference code” (or sometimes “the cultural code”), whereby a writer makes confident appeal to a universal or consensual truth, or a body of shared cultural or scientific knowledge. *

* He means the way that nineteenth-century writers refer to commonly accepted cultural or scientific knowledge, for instance shared ideological generalities about “women.” I extend the term to cover any kind of authorial generalization.

Having read a great deal of 19th century lit, I am familiar with this sort of authorial voice, and found London’s comfortable for more than half of the book. However, once I reached the introduction of the clearly bad character at the fort to which White Fang accompanies his native American owner, the authorial voice became far too noticeable. I felt London intruding to instruct me in the “cultural code”, and telegraphing so specifically what was coming that I began to speed read, which, for me, is a sign the author has lost me. As I posted on Goodreads, I give the novel a 5 star up to that point, and a 3 after that, which is actually quite generous. I stayed with the book only because I was curious how London would depict White Fang’s reaction to a city, and then the sophistication of his new owner’s estate (complete with chickens and other dogs). There were delightful moments, but they were drowned out by the “instructive” narration.

After pondering this for a few days and reading some critical material about London’s work I appreciate that the split is intentional: he believed man’s “civilization” was far less noble than the wild, and that man was ennobled by embracing the wild. White Fang’s final owner is clearly meant to seem a cut above those around him, appreciating White Fang for his wildness. He meant to leave him in the wild, but White Fang insisted on staying by his side. So be it. I understand, but it still doesn’t make it more palatable for me.

And yet… this intrusive narration might be completely acceptable if performed by a traditional storyteller—an oral performance, with dramatic pauses for effect, droll asides, expressive body language. In fact, as I write this I can easily imagine enjoying such a performance. I also suspect I would have been oblivious of this aspect of London’s style had I read the book as a child, when I simply devoured stories. (Critical reading is an occupational hazard for a writer.) And I’m quite certain I would have found the narration comfortable had I read it at the time it was published, 1906, when the intrusive narrator was more common in fiction than it is now.

All in all, I’m glad I read it, it’s provided much food for thought, and inspired a geeky blog post. (And I fell in love with White Fang.)

I’m now happily reading Chris Nickson’s new book, The Tin God. Has nothing to do with the Owen Archer mystery I’m writing, it’s just a treat at the end of my day.

Cover Reveal: A Murdered Peace (Kate Clifford 3)


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I have been truant far too long! But here I am, unveiling the cover for the third Kate 71dnq3tRZnLA Murdered Peace-ADClifford, A Murdered Peace, which will be published on 2 October in the US, UK, and Canada. At long last Kate is depicted with a bit of weaponry and one of her wolfhounds. I’m pleased. Yes, I know, that’s the ruins of Clifford’s Tower in the present, not York Castle as it would have been—far larger, walled, a true castle complex, but one must choose one’s battles.

Here’s the copy for the book:

It is deep winter in York, 1400, the ground frozen, the short days dimmed with the smoke from countless fires, the sun, when it shines, low in the sky. It is rumored that the Epiphany Rising, meant to relieve the realm of the Henry the usurper and return King Richard to the throne has, instead, spelled his doom. As long as Richard lives, he is a threat to Henry; so, too, the nobles behind the plot. The ringleaders have been caught, some slaughtered by folk loyal to Henry as they fled west, and the king’s men now search the towns for survivors.

A perilous time, made worse for Kate Clifford by the disappearance of Berend, her cook and confidante, shortly after Christmas. Her niece saw his departure in a dream—he said he was honor bound to leave. Honor bound—to a former lord? One of the nobles who led the uprising? Is he alive? She is hardly consoled when Berend reappears, wounded, secretive, denying any connection to the uprising, but refusing to explain himself. When he is accused of brutally murdering a spice seller in the city, Kate discovers a chest of jewels in his possession. Some of the jewels belong to her old friend Lady Margery, wanted by the king for her husband’s part in the uprising. For the sake of their long friendship, and the love she and her wards bear for him, Kate wants to believe Berend’s innocence. So, too, does Sir Elric. And he has the powerful backing of the Earl of Westmoreland. All Kate need do is confide in him. If only she trusted her heart.

I’ve just recently completed the final edit and it’s now with the copyeditor. For this edit I read the manuscript aloud, listening for repetitions, infelicitous language, and what I think of as the overarching melody of the book. It’s remarkable how much more I catch when I’m reading aloud.

What struck me was that although the action of the book arises from the Epiphany Rising and Richard II’s imprisonment in Pontefract Castle, it’s the characters who carry the story. All the characters I’ve come to love–Kate, Berend, Elric, Lille, Ghent, Jennet, Eleanor, Marie, Petra, Phillip, Lionel (well, I don’t exactly love Lionel), Clement, Griselde, and a few new to the series. And that’s just how I want it to be. There is a great deal of sorrow and conflict, but some sweet joy as well. I’m proud of it.

Meanwhile, I’m hard at work on the 11th Owen Archer, A Conspiracy of Wolves… more about that soon!


A Holiday Gift For My Readers: An Owen & Lucie Chapter


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As a gift to all of you who have waited so patiently, I break my rule of not sharing a book before I’ve completed it: here is the (current) beginning of Owen Archer #11. I hope you enjoy it, and may the new year bring you joy, wonder, and peace.

 A Conspiracy of Wolves

© Candace Robb 2017

The Dogs in the Night

York, Autumn 1374

The river mist curled round Magda Digby’s rock in the Ouse, dimming the reds and golds of sunset, distorting sound, creating shifting shapes that danced at the edge of Alisoun Ffulford’s vision, chilling her fingers until they were too stiff for the close work. She gathered up the feathers, arrow shafts, and knife with which she had been fletching and returned them to her work basket. She paused with her hand on the door latch, listening to dogs baying. Upriver, she thought, in the Forest of Galtres. “May they be safe,” she whispered. Like St. Francis of Assisi, she felt a bond with animals, so much so that Magda handed over to her all animals brought to the house on the rock for healing. Alisoun preferred these patients to the human ones. Their needs were clear, they did not try to mask their illnesses, and, once healed, gladly departed without complaint or blame. She strained to hear the sounds beneath the dogs’ baying. A man’s angry shout. Another. The same? She could not be certain. The dogs continued as before, which she took to mean they were unharmed. Good.

She lifted her gaze to the blank eyes of the upside-down sea serpent on the bow of the ship that served as the roof of Magda Digby’s house. A cunning choice of building material, the part of the ship with the figurehead. The sea serpent was widely believed to have magical powers. Not that Magda ever confirmed or denied it, but as folk had the same suspicion about her, their unease about the sea serpent and the Riverwoman gave them pause about crossing either one. Nodding to the enigmatic carving, Alisoun whispered, “Whoever trespassed upriver will think again.” A subtle draft and a warmth on the back of her neck, as if the figurehead responded in a gesture of reassurance, felt rather than seen. There had been a time when it had frightened her, but that had passed as she learned to trust to the mystery of Magda Digby’s healing gifts. Now, she took it as a blessing.

Stepping inside, she traded the damp chill and rich, earthy scent of the tidal Ouse for an aromatic warmth, the brightly burning fire teasing out the scents of the dried plants and roots hanging in the rafters to dry. Earlier, she had escaped from its warmth to the cool, fresh air without; now, chilled by the mist, she was grateful for the heat, and the homely familiarity. But she was not at ease—the dogs baying in that eerie mist…

She steadied herself by calling to mind the remedies for dog bite and checking her supplies. Although Magda said folk knew to give guard dogs a wide berth, there was always a first time. Betony for the bite of a mad dog, pound in the mortar and lay on the wound. Or plantain. Vervain and yarrow to be mixed with wheat. Burdock and black horehound need salt. Calendula powder in warm water to drink. She had plenty betony and calendula powder. Though she was unlikely to need it, she was prepared.

Now to her evening meal. The fragrance of the stew pleased her. She had learned to use herbs to season her cooking, making almost anything palatable, even a coney that some would have rejected as too old and gristly for the stew pot. With Magda away, Alisoun felt obliged to stay close to the small rock island in the tidal river, so that she might not miss those who came to the Riverwoman’s house for healing. She dare not range too far afield in hunting for food, making do with fish and small prey like the aged coney that had appeared on the riverbank nearby.

She paused with her spoon halfway to her mouth as a lone dog began to bark, an angry sound, and then a man’s startled shout, followed by a loud curse, a few more cries, more pain than anger. Then silence. Alisoun lowered her spoon, bowed her head, and pressed her shaking hands together in prayer. She stayed there until she felt the tremors quiet.

Though Magda scoffed at prayer, she encouraged Alisoun to use her apprenticeship to develop her own skills as healer, not become a second Magda. All that goes before shapes thee. Even thy habit of prayer. Magda honors that. Alisoun had little faith that her prayers were heard—God and the Blessed Mother had stood aside while she lost all her family to the pestilence. But something in the words, the ritual, comforted her. As it did now.

According to Magda, to pay attention to how Alisoun felt about her choices was to heed her inner wisdom, whence came her gift for healing. It was a miracle that Magda had taken her on as an apprentice. In Alisoun’s grief as she watched her family die of the pestilence, she had blamed the Riverwoman for her mother’s death, and demanded that the healer make amends by teaching her all she knew. Magda had given Alisoun shelter for a time, let her observe as she might, and then sent her away to serve as a nurse for Captain Archer and Lucie Wilton’s children, and as a companion to successive invalids. Praying that they were tests, Alisoun had done as she was told—though not without frequent complaint. And though Magda had warned her time and again Thou hast fire in thy eyes, and it is blinding thee, she continued to invite Alisoun to observe her, and, in time, to attend her. The turning point had come at the deathbed of Archbishop Thoresby, where Alisoun had served as the Riverwoman’s assistant. From that time forward, Magda referred to Alisoun as her apprentice—and sometimes simply as a healer.

Looking back, Alisoun wondered at Magda’s patience, and did her best to deserve her gift. She was keenly aware of the trust Magda placed in her, staying behind to see to all who came to the Riverwoman’s rock while she was away. So far Alisoun had done well, challenged only by her usual doubts about her ability, her calling to be a healer. Not when at work—when tending the ill or injured she thought of nothing but how she might best serve. Her doubts arose in the quiet moments. Pray God that was the worst of it. If she disappointed Magda, she did not know what would become of her. Magda steadied her, coaxed her into believing in herself. Without her…

Too much thinking. She finished her modest meal and tidied up, then settled on a stool by the fire and tried to empty her mind, listening to the fire snap, the house creak as it settled for the night, the drying herbs rustle above in the draft from the unglazed windows. With the tide out, the sounds of the river receded to a soft gurgle. Until this evening she had welcomed this part of her day. But the solitude wore thin. She missed Magda and looked forward to her return.

The Riverwoman had accompanied Lucie Wilton and her family to her late father’s manor to the south, Freythorpe Hadden. It was a somber traveling party, escorting the body of Philippa, Dame Lucie’s aunt, for burial. The elderly woman had died in her sleep after a long decline, cared for all the while by Dame Lucie. Most fortunate woman. When Alisoun served as nursemaid in that household she had chafed under the old woman’s watchful eye, but in time she had grown fond of her. Dame Philippa loved to tell tales, and would hold Alisoun’s hand in both of hers as she reached the conclusion, leaning close and looking straight into her eyes. The tales had taught her so much about the important families in York that the city felt less foreign to her—having grown up on a farm upriver, it was a gift.

So many gifts, so undeserving.

Alisoun was roused from her reverie by the clatter and squelch of someone stumbling on the slippery rocks that led from the riverbank on the north to Magda’s rock in low tide. The earlier unease returned, and she fought the impulse to string her bow and ready an arrow as she rose to fetch a lantern. But Magda’s training steadied her. Those seeking a healer should be greeted with open arms, not an arrow aimed at their heart.

In response to a firm rap on the door she swung it open, lifting the lantern high as she intoned, “All who seek healing are welcome here.” Magda need not bother with such greetings. Her mere presence reassured the supplicant. But Alisoun did not yet have that gift.

A man stood on the porch, blocking the fading light. “I seek the Riverwoman.” Pain constricted his voice. He stood slumped, one arm cradled in the other.

“I see you are injured. Dame Magda is away, but she has entrusted me with the care of those who come seeking her,” said Alisoun.

Adjusting the lantern so that she might look at the arm he favored, she noticed him glancing up and bobbing his head at the figurehead, a ritual of respect she had seen before. The injured man was Crispin Poole, a merchant recently returned to York, who had consulted Magda about the pain he suffered in his stump of an arm. Long healed, but still troubling him. Tonight he cradled it as it bled through the sleeve of his jacket.

Saturated, she found when she touched it. She felt him trembling, smelled his sweat. “A knife wound?” she asked.


She remembered the baying. “I heard several dogs, then one.”

“Several? No, only the one.” He said it as if he would brook no argument regarding the number. “A hell hound.”

“No doubt it seemed so when it sank its teeth into you.”

“A wolf, I think, though I am told the sergeant of the forest rid Galtres of them.”

Not quite. In winter a small pack came down from the moors, seeking food. They did not harm folk unless threatened. And it was not yet winter. Alisoun might reassure him of this, but Magda’s instruction was to say only what thou must. Thou art here to listen.

“Whether dog or wolf—or hell hound, the remedies are the same,” said Alisoun. “I have some prepared.”

“When will the Riverwoman return?”

“I am not sure. But I do know your wound will not wait.”

“Mistress Alisoun, forgive me, but are you not still an apprentice?”

She might say much to that, but she chose her words. “I have seen to a variety of wounds.” She stepped aside to allow him into the house if he so chose.

He hesitated, then ducked beneath the lintel, and entered.

As she closed the door Alisoun looked out into the gathering darkness, puzzled by the absence of a horse on the bank. Most who traveled through the forest rode if they had the means, and Crispin Poole was wealthy. Or so they said. So he had been on foot when attacked. Doing what? She imagined Magda standing before her, a bony finger to her lips, shaking her head. Thou art a healer, not a spy.

Crispin had settled on his usual bench near the fire. That would not do.

“Forgive me, I should have said—for this you must sit at the worktable.” She led him across the room, conscious of how he must hunch over to avoid the rafters and the hanging herbs. Tall like Captain Archer, yet otherwise so unlike him.

Lighting a spirit lamp for the close work, she instructed him to rest his injured arm on the table. With care, she slipped a hand beneath it so that she might move it about in the light to study the wound. The dog had sunk its teeth in deep. Bone deep. “How did you manage to get it to release you?”

“I—shouted and—  I could not tell you what convinced it I was not its dinner. All I could think of was retrieving what’s left of my arm.”

“You did not kill it?”

“No. Of that I am certain. We locked eyes as we each backed away.” He shivered to describe it.

The experience had unsettled this bear of a man. She wondered what he had done to so anger the dog for it to attack. And the earlier baying. Why did he deny what he must have heard?

She reminded herself that a healer must put the good of the patient before her curiosity. He must not feel compromised. She took a deep breath. Enough talk.

“Some brandywine before I clean it and stitch the flesh together? My ministrations will worsen the pain before relieving it, the worst of it.” And calm him, she thought. She needed him steady.

“I would welcome it.”

Slipping away to pour him some, she also fetched warm water for the calendula drink. With such a deep wound, best to give him that now, and send him home with enough for a day, as well as packing the wound with a paste of betony. And boneset, in case the bone had been damaged.

She sensed his intense eyes following her hands as she worked, but he kept steady and silent. Nary a jerk or a wince. He was accustomed to sudden, sharp pain. Well, the arm. Of course.

It was only when Alisoun was tying the bandage that he spoke again.

“You are young to have such skill.”

“Our queen was younger than me when she took on the role of the king’s helpmeet and mother to all the realm. And Princess Joan—”

“I did not mean to insult you. I wish only to thank you for your gentle, healing touch.”

Alisoun felt her face grow warm and was glad only her hands were in the lamplight. Apparently she was too quick to recite her litany of females who had been treated as grown women by the age of sixteen.

“I pray you,” she said, “I would thank you not to mention my outburst to Dame Magda.”

Crispin nodded. “And I would ask that you tell no one of this incident,” he said. “Not even Dame Magda.” He neither raised his voice nor seemed excited, yet he made it clear he expected her to agree. Something in his eyes.

“That will be difficult if she returns before you are healed.”

“I am confident that you will find a way. My efforts to impress the city merchants would be undercut by tales of such an incident. And I do not wish Dame Magda to know me for a fool who had challenged something so wild and powerful as a wolf.” A slight smile brightened his wide, dark, thickly lashed eyes. An interesting face, unscarred, yet with the uneven color and roughened texture of someone who spent much time at sea. His heft was characteristic of a muscular man going soft as he aged and grew less active. Magda had called him a merchant adventurer—though more the latter, suspecting he earned more of his wealth by eliminating his partners’ competition than by his eye for a bargain. For such a man to be so disquieted by an encounter with a dog, and now this secrecy—the weight with which he made that request belied his flimsy explanation. What had so shaken him?

Secrecy added cost to treatment for those who could afford it—Magda’s rule, as it helped her see to those who had not the means to pay her.

And, indeed, when Alisoun named her fee, Crispin did not object, drawing the silver from his scrip without comment. Hardly the pittance one might feel compelled to pay to avoid looking the fool.

She handed him the pouch of calendula powder, with instructions.

“I am grateful to you, Mistress Alisoun. May God bless you for the work you do.”

She stepped out the door after him, glad to see that she had worked quickly enough that the tide was just beginning to come in.

“I pray you, did you encounter the dog nearby?” She hoped he would find it an innocuous question. “I thought to forage for roots at dawn. But having tasted blood, it might be keen for more.”

“Near enough,” he said. “But if you have foraged in the forest all this while without mishap, I should think you will be safe. May God watch out for you, Mistress Alisoun.”

Crispin bowed to her and set off across the rocks, his boots getting wet in the slowly rising water. I should think you will be safe… Why? Had someone set the dog on him? He’d said he’d been a fool to challenge it. Then why had he done so? And why had it not simply kept its distance as animals commonly did in such encounters? And his denial of the earlier baying. There was something more to this.

As she lingered in the doorway staring at his back she caught a movement to her left. A figure stood at the edge of a stand of trees. Twenty, thirty paces up the riverbank. Watching Magda’s house? Or Crispin Poole?

She thought to warn the injured man, but he had already reached the bank. She might wade across, but why? If he could not see to warning her away from danger, why should she bother? She had fulfilled her duty as a healer, tending his wound.

Glancing back toward the stand of trees, Alisoun saw no one. “My imagination?” she asked the sea serpent. No response. Not a good sign. Once inside she strung her bow and set it near the door, with a quiver of arrows. The tide might be coming in, but she would take no chances.

* * *

A week later, Alisoun woke shortly after dawn, having dreamt again of Crispin Poole being savaged by a hell-hound, a giant creature, black, with blazing eyes. Shivering, she stoked the fire, lit a lamp, and checked the young woman on the pallet by the fire, grateful for an absorbing task. Young Wren’s head was cool. God be thanked, the fever was gone. A simple miscarriage, nothing worse. And, for this serving girl, a blessing. A child would bring only grief.

Gently shaking the girl awake, Alisoun helped her sit up so she might drink the honey water laced with herbs to stop the bleeding.

“If I hurry, my mistress will never know I was gone the night,” said the girl in a hoarse whisper. Her throat was dry from the herbs that stopped the bleeding. The honey in warm water should help that.

“Drink that down,” Alisoun said. “Then we will talk.”

The girl tilted back her head and drank it down, holding out the empty wooden bowl for inspection, her pale eyes watching Alisoun’s face for a sign of argument. “I need the work. I’ve nowhere else to go.”

This is how it was. “Of course. You’ve no fever. Let’s see if you can stand.”

With Alisoun’s assistance, the girl swung her feet down and rose with nary a wobble, even taking a few hesitant steps. “Oh!” She lifted her skirt, saw the watery blood trickling down the inside of her short, fleshy legs.

“Tend it as you do your courses and no one’s the wiser,” said Alisoun. “Your womb is empty.”

“Was it—?”

Alisoun shook her head. “Too early to know aught.”

“Will you help me to the riverbank?”

She should prefer that the girl lie abed for a day. This was the hardest part for Alisoun, keeping her counsel. Thy opinion is naught but interference, Magda would say. If thou wouldst care for her again, do what she asks and no more. She must allow the girl to return to the house where her master lay in wait, and he would continue to lie with her until she conceived a child and carried it long enough for his wife to discover her condition, tossing her out onto the street as a Magdalene.

Unless the charm worked. Alisoun had whispered it over the girl as she slept, a charm said to render a man impotent when he touched her. Magda was not here to chide Alisoun for using it. Even so, she had shivered as she whispered the words, imagining Magda’s sharp eyes watching from afar. No one knew the extent of the Riverwoman’s powers.

A risk. But Magda had said that Alisoun must find her own way…

“Will you?” the girl repeated, tugging on Alisoun’s sleeve with the dimpled hand of a child.

“If that is what you wish, come along while the tide is low. I have prepared a powder for you to add to ale or water and drink down if the pain returns.”

“I cannot be lazy…”

“This is not so strong that you cannot work as usual. You need not be in pain.” She pressed it into the girl’s hand.

Once she had escorted the child safely through the ankle-deep water, Alisoun returned to the hut and sat down by the fire, drying the hem of her gown while planning her day. She should see Muriel Swann, make certain that the flutters she had felt days ago were indeed the child moving in her womb. Not a young woman, this was the first time Dame Muriel had carried a child long enough to feel it quicken, and the experience had both excited and frightened her. Alisoun added to her basket a calming potion for Muriel’s headaches, and a tisane to increase her appetite.

A memory intruded. A dog in the night, and a man’s cries. Terror. Agony. The girl had awakened, calling out in fear, and Alisoun had risen to comfort her, assuring her it was just a bad dream.

But it had been no dream. Had she been alone, Alisoun might have stepped outside, listening so that she might gauge whence came the cry, then set out at first light to see if she might be of help. But the girl was her first responsibility.

Now she gathered the remedies she had administered to Crispin Poole a week earlier. As it was light, she might walk upriver, see whether she could find the injured man. She placed the basket with all she might need on the small chest by the door, then fetched her bow and a quiver of arrows. Poole had not returned, nor had she seen him or heard anything of him, and that silence, that absence made her uneasy.

That, and the dreams.

* * *

A soft rain in the night had freshened the late summer foliage in the meadows and woodland along the road from Freythorpe to York and tamped down the dust, for which Owen Archer was grateful. He knew the misery of riding for hours blinking away the dust in his one good eye, a scarf protecting his nose and mouth. For Lucie and the children, riding in the cart ahead of him, there was still the discomfort of a bumpy ride, but he heard no complaints.

For a while they had traveled behind a group of players who serenaded them with songs and japes, a felicitous arrangement, though he hoped that his eight-year-old daughter Gwenllian would forget the bawdier lyrics. Now that the players had moved on, the monotonous rattle of the cart and horses was punctured now and then by sounds of reapers and gleaners in the fields, though not as many as on their journey to Freythorpe. Harvest was almost over.

He enjoyed watching his wife Lucie with the little ones, admiring how gracefully she sat, back straight despite the jostling. At the moment Gwenllian leaned over her brother Hugh, her dark curls veiling her face and mingling with the five-year-old’s bright red hair. She was teaching him a string game. Lucie held Emma, the baby, guiding the two-year-old’s chubby fingers in the intricate patterns. Emma had a gurgling laugh that easily rose to infectious peals of laughter, resulting in a general jollity. Alfred, Owen’s former lieutenant in the archbishop’s household guard, sat in front handling the carthorse, his companion the children’s chatty nurse, Lena. Every now and then Alfred would nod and shrug, his way of keeping the peace while only half listening. A tactic Owen envied. But years of playing the archbishop’s spy had turned him into a deep listener. Pity. He could use a deaf ear while riding beside the talkative Geoffrey Chaucer.

Yet he was certain his habit of listening had strengthened his marriage. Lucie smiled and laughed with the children now, but last night Owen had held her as she wept for her aunt, and all the years she had wasted blaming Philippa for her father’s decision to send her to a convent after her mother died. He had listened until she exhausted herself, then did his best to persuade her that her tender care of her aunt for the last years of her life more than made up for those long years needlessly estranged. But she had been inconsolable. Bless the children. They seemed the best balm for her spirits.

“Lucie is strong,” said Geoffrey, trespassing into Owen’s reverie.

“I know that.”

“She grieves in her own way.”

“What do you know of her grief?”

“Forgive me, my friend. I meant only to cheer you.”

It was churlish to resent Geoffrey’s presence, Owen knew that. He had hurried to Freythorpe Hadden upon arriving in York and hearing of Dame Philippa’s death. Geoffrey had been fond of her, and she of him. While biding with them in York after the archbishop’s death, Geoffrey had endeared himself to Lucie by keeping her ailing aunt entertained. Arm in arm, he and Philippa would stroll round St. Helen’s Square and down Stonegate, she telling him what she could remember of the people passing by—her memory came and went—he embellishing the bits with invented tales of their younger, secret exploits, inspiring much laughter. She could talk of nothing else when he was called back to London. Such a storyteller, he is! And wise.

“Forgive my temper. It was good of you to come,” said Owen.

“I lost my most appreciative audience with her death.”

“That you did.”

“Hah! I made you smile. I count that a victory worthy of celebration with tankards of Tom Merchet’s fine ale this evening. Will you join me?”

“If all is well at home.”

“It will be. Your son is a trustworthy young man.”

Jasper, their foster son and Lucie’s apprentice, had been left in charge of the apothecary. By choice. He had been eager to prove he was capable of seeing to the business for a fortnight.

“As I said,” Owen muttered.

“I promise not to press you about the prince’s proposal.”

“That may be the least of my concerns.” Owen gestured toward two men on horseback approaching their small company. One wore a Benedictine habit, and rode with a familiar grace.

Geoffrey shaded his eyes. “You know them?”

Alfred had seen them as well, and slowed the cart. Owen rode up beside it.

“Can that be Brother Michaelo?” asked Lucie. “I thought he had agreed to stay as Archdeacon Jehannes’s secretary. But if he is on the road…”

Upon Archbishop Thoresby’s death his secretary, Brother Michaelo, had found himself without a home, without a purpose. A Benedictine, he had left the Abbey of St. Mary’s in York during the incumbency of the reasonable Abbot Campion. Unfortunately, the current abbot, knowing of Michaelo’s penchant for handsome young men, and a long-ago attempt to poison the abbey infirmarian, refused to receive him back in the fold. An earlier plan to return home to Normandy and seek a place in a modest priory near his ancestral home had clearly been one Michaelo pursued with reluctance. The compassionate Jehannes, Archdeacon of York, had suggested the monk stay with him for a time, believing there must be work for a man of Brother Michaelo’s experience in the city. Jehannes had need of a secretary, though not sufficient to keep Michaelo regularly engaged. He hoped to find other clerics who might need some of the monk’s time. But Michaelo’s reputation preceded him, and so far clerics proved reluctant.

“It is indeed Michaelo,” said Owen, “accompanied by Bartolf Swann, if I am not mistaken.”

“A strange pair,” said Lucie. “What business would Michaelo have with the coroner of Galtres Forest? Do you suppose they are taking ship together?”

“I very much doubt it. Michaelo would drive Bartolf mad with his fussing.”

The elderly Bartolf was far more likely to be riding south to consult with Magda Digby about one of his mysterious ailments, which, according to the Riverwoman, were merely signs of aging in a man who moved as little as possible and drank wine to the point of passing out every night. Though of sufficient status and wealth to hold the position of coroner, he dressed more like a laborer except on official occasions, his clothes ill-fitting as he shrank with age, his copious white hair kept somewhat under control by a felt hat crammed low over his forehead, his pale eyes peering out through a snowy, greasy thicket. Many a widow in York yearned to clean him up—he had once cut a fine figure, when his wife was alive, and many remembered him with fondness. Today, he looked as if his horse had dragged him much of the way.

Owen dismounted. “Master Bartolf, Brother Michaelo, good day to you,” he called out as the riders drew up beside him.

Benedicite, Captain Archer, Dame Lucie.” Michaelo’s delicately arched nose quivered with relief. “God’s grace is upon us, that we should meet you on the road home. We were on our way to Freythorpe.”

While the monk spoke, his companion had scrambled from his mount and made straight for Owen, latching onto his arm. “My son! My son! You must come at once. I’ve ordered them to leave him as we found him, though, God help me, it pained me to leave him lying in his own blood. But I said Captain Archer must see it all as it was. He will find who did this to my Hoban.”

“Hoban?” Owen looked up at Michaelo.

The monk crossed himself. “His son Hoban has been found dead in the forest. I have told Master Bartolf that you are the prince’s man and cannot be expected to help in this, but he’ll not be swayed.”

“I am nobody’s man at present,” Owen said.

“No?” Michaelo glanced over at Geoffrey Chaucer with a little sniff. “Your friend must be disappointed. But all the better for Bartolf Swann.”

Lucie reached down to touch Bartolf’s head. “This man needs care. Perhaps it is best that you let Brother Michaelo explain what has happened while I see to that gash on your head, Bartolf.” He had blood caked on his cheek and in the hair over his left temple.

“What do I care about my old head, Dame Lucie, my son is murdered—”

She had already risen and was stepping from the cart with Geoffrey’s assistance. “Let me see to you while my husband speaks with Michaelo.” She nodded to Owen and drew the old man toward the back of the cart, where she kept a basket of supplies.

Owen said a silent prayer of thanks for Lucie’s graceful intercession.

Once Michaelo dismounted, Owen asked him how he came to be escorting Bartolf Swann.

“Well you might wonder, Captain Archer. It seems he knows of your close friendship with the archdeacon. He thought to engage the archdeacon’s help in persuading you to take on the task of finding his son’s murderer. Archdeacon Jehannes advised him to leave you in peace to mourn Dame Philippa, but Bartolf would not hear of it.” Michaelo glanced over at the man with a look of distaste. “So many years serving as coroner, yet look at him— Did he believe his own seed immortal? But as I saw he could not be dissuaded, I offered to escort him to Freythorpe, as I know the way.”

“Father, what has happened?” Gwenllian asked sleepily from the cart.

“Hush, my love, it is some trouble in the city, nothing to do with you,” said Owen, kissing her and coaxing her to lie down beside her brother and rest. “We will be home soon.”

Lucie seemed to have noticed that Gwenllian had awakened and had drawn Bartolf farther off the road, in the shade of a tree. Alfred and Geoffrey held the man steady while Lucie cleaned and bandaged his wounds. As Owen went to join them he heard the old man muttering about dogs, his son’s throat torn, a bloody clearing near his home in the forest…

“He was savaged by dogs?” Owen asked Michaelo, who had followed him.

“So he says.”

“Bartolf’s dogs?” Swann kept a brace of hounds at his property in Galtres.

“He is adamant that his own dogs would never harm Hoban. But one wonders. Hoban’s purpose in riding out yesterday evening had been to bring the hounds back to his home in the city, where his father has been biding. This morning, discovering Hoban had not returned, Bartolf took a servant and rode out. They found him in a clearing. You see how little control he has. He might have alarmed the hounds.”

“And the hounds?”

“Gone. As is his horse.”

“Not at the house?”


“Why did he ride out in the evening?”

“I have asked as little as possible, Captain. I should say that he had enough presence of mind to request one of the York coroners to record the death, knowing he could not do so with any clarity.”

“The coroner will have left a guard over the body. Good.”

Lucie joined them. “I have given him something to calm him. He will soon sleep.”

Indeed, he seemed half asleep already, propped against the trunk of the tree, eyes closed, his breathing rough but beginning to calm.

Crouching down beside Bartolf, Owen gently roused him. “You will ride back to York in the cart with my wife and children, Bartolf. Alfred and Master Chaucer will accompany you.” He glanced up at Lucie. “Brother Michaelo and I will ride ahead.”

She nodded her agreement.

Owen and assisted Bartolf to his feet. “Michaelo says that one of the York coroners was out there?”

“Gerard,” said Bartolf, his voice weak. “Been and gone. Left his men to guard my son.” He clutched at Owen’s sleeve. “You will find my son’s murderer? You will see that justice is done?”

“I will go to the forest and learn as much as I can,” said Owen. “That is all I can promise for now.”

“Do not leave me behind!”

Lucie met them at the cart. “Bartolf, you and I must go to Muriel. Remember, she carries your son’s child. She must not feel alone.”

“Muriel. Oh, my poor daughter.” Bartolf gave a sob of dismay. “I meant to send for Mistress Alisoun. Pray God someone had the wit to do so.”

Thank you for reading!

Q&A with Dr. Sara M Butler: Forensic Medicine & Death Investigation in Medieval England


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I am thrilled to welcome to my blog Dr. Sara M. Butler, the King George III Professor of British History at Ohio State University, author of Forensic Medicine and Death Investigation in Medieval England. After using up several packets of book darts marking passages in her book, I approached her about an interview. Not only did she accept, but, as you will see, she answers my questions with such depth and breadth that I feel you will get a far better sense of the book from her responses than any summary I might write. Suffice it to say that existing studies regarding the discovery and investigation of suspicious death left me with more questions than answers about: coroners–who they were, their status, the makeup and purpose of their juries; investigators–who investigated, were medical experts involved, and what was considered sufficient evidence; and what constituted guilt as we think of it. Sara’s book answers all my questions–what a gift! She writes with the clarity of one who has honed her understanding by presenting the material to her classes and making note of what confused them. A remarkable book, and a joy to read. Thank you, Sara.

Q.  What drew you to this topic? Was it something that came up while researching another project? Something you’d been curious about for a long while?

A. I have always enjoyed a good murder mystery. As a child I read every Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, and Trixie Belden mystery in publication, and harassed my two brothers to no end with my Hardy Boys’ fingerprinting kit that somehow always resulted with me turning one of them in to my parents as the culprit. As I grew older, I left the Hardy Boys behind, but still loved solving crimes. I toyed with the idea of pursuing a law degree, as many of my friends did, but I was less interested in working with people than mysteries. I had also fallen deeply in love with the Middle Ages and come to realize that historians are detectives in their right. They work with clues, piecing together a distant past that seems both familiar and oh-so-foreign at the same time.

This book also evolved out of a great appreciation for the coroners’ rolls, with which I first became acquainted during my doctorate at Dalhousie University (Halifax, NS). I was working on the subject of marital violence, a thesis that eventually resulted in The Language of Abuse: Marital Violence in Later Medieval England (Brill 2007). For this project, I read mostly legal records because the law is one of the few ways that real people (the peasantry, the middle class) left an imprint on the medieval record. I spent months looking over trial records from medieval England, which are generally brief and formulaic; for the most part, the records give so few details the best you can do is count them. This is not true of coroners’ rolls, however. Many coroners (or their scribes) were intent to record every juicy detail, especially when it came to domestic spats! Wives caught with their lovers in flagrante; husbands eager to explain away their abuse as “discipline”; neighbors bursting into homes in the middle of the night to restore the peace before an argument spiraled out of control – the coroners’ rolls help to bring the history so tediously documented in the trial records to life.

The one aspect that intrigued me most in this process was the coroner’s inquest jury, that group of men drawn from the visne (the region where the crime took place) to conduct an investigation into the events leading up to the sudden and unnatural death (coroners did not only investigate homicides, they also looked into accidental deaths and anything that seemed unnatural). Reading Thomas Green’s work (Verdict according to Conscience: Perspectives on the English Criminal Trial Jury, 1200-1800) helped me to understand why their verdicts were sometimes at odds with those of juries later on in the process: Green emphasizes that juries represent communal, rather than crown, values. This made me realize that juries had their own personalities and their own baggage, and by exploring their verdicts I might crack a window onto the lives of these captivating communities. All of my early work is focused on the jury and its impact on the judicial system and people’s lives, whether in cases of marital violence, abortion, suicide, or infanticide.

Q. You correct several concepts about the medieval coroner as well as coroners’ juries and investigating the crime scene. My impression is that most of the errors arose because scholars had too narrow a scope. How did this catch your attention?

A. Originally, I wanted to call this book CSI: Medieval England – of course, copyright got in the way, but this is very much how I approached the book. Assuming that my reader’s comprehension of homicide investigations was equally tainted by television as was my own, I wanted to answer those niggling questions about the medieval process of investigation that we were all wondering (and that often came up in the classroom when I teach “Medieval Crime”). How did they decide what was an unnatural death?  Who sat on coroners’ juries? If the coroner was not a medical practitioner, how did the coroner and his jury determine cause of death? And just how efficient was criminal justice without a police force and modern methods of investigation?  None of these questions had yet been answered sufficiently because the field of medieval coroners and their documents had been dominated by R.F. Hunnisett, the former assistant keeper of the Public Records Office who published extensively in the 1950s and 60s. Quite frankly, the feeling was that everything had been said about the coroner that needed saying.  I didn’t think that was quite true, but I could not have done any of this project without Hunnisett’s seminal work. I also think that the questions I had to ask of the coroner are a product of the era that I’m living in now, where we are much more conscious of the role played by average people in history, rather than always focusing on “great men.”

The central thrust of my book is that England was not, in fact, centuries behind the Continent when it comes to the use of forensic medicine, but rather the nature of the records hide the participation of the medical profession in death investigations.  England is often “othered” by Continental historians who just don’t understand the vocabulary of English law and who get irritated by the fact that greedy England hogs the spotlight, but also by English historians who choose to believe that England was unique, always dancing to the beat of its own drum.  However, the channel was not much of a barrier keeping knowledge out.  The English were well aware of how law was practiced on the Continent: remember that many of the king’s justices and sheriffs during the thirteenth century were university-trained clerics who studied in Paris or Bologna. They were not out of touch with Continental trends in jurisprudence or law enforcement.  The problem is borne from the records themselves. The purpose of English records of crown pleas (i.e. records concerning felonies) was financial: the king wanted what was owed to him to be closely recorded. The king was less interested in the details of the case or the methods of investigation. Accordingly, there was no need for a coroner to explain in writing that of course he had sought out a barber-surgeon to sit on the jury so that a proper examination of the corpse might ensue.

I spent a lot of time in this book trying to resurrect the reputation of the medieval English criminal process. Our capitalist mindset today makes it hard for us to understand that people in the English past regularly took on jobs that were unpaid and that did not deter them from working hard. We have a tendency to believe that you get what you paid for: thus, if coroners were unpaid, surely little could have been expected of them. The medieval records simply do not uphold this perspective. Yes, some coroners were lazy; but many others worked hard, showed up in a timely fashion, and were determined to do their best.

Q. Research is a process, never truly complete. Has anything come up in further research that you wish you’d been able to include in this book?

A. Not yet! But give me time.

Q. Were there any stories you wish you could have included?  Would you care to share some here?

A. What didn’t appear in the book will appear sooner or later in a blog that I write with Krista Kesselring and Katherine Watson: https://legalhistorymiscellany.com/

Q. I came away from the book with a new respect for the medieval coroner and the jury process. I also have a new appreciation for the differences between now and then in the purpose of juries and the goals of an investigation/trial, as well as what is considered the important truth in the cases. Is there any particular instance of this that stands out in your mind? Did it change how you think about crime and punishment?

A. I read Richard Firth Green’s A Crisis of Truth: Literature and Law in Ricardian England (U of Pennsylvania P, 1999) back in the days of my doctorate and it was an eye-opening experience for me. Firth Green was the first to explain clearly that what we see as “truth” is not really the same as what a medieval jury understood as truth. When a trial jury took an oath to speak the truth, they did not mean about the events leading up to a crime and whether the defendant was in fact the perpetrator; they meant the truth about the man’s character. If they acquitted him, would he repent of his sins? Or, would he fall back into a life of crime? Could he be reintegrated into the community in a way that might restore peace and harmony?  The most important mental shift that is required to understand the medieval courts is that, despite what we see on television, they were not bloodthirsty. Hangings were fairly rare in the medieval period, and no one was eager to see a member of their community dangling from a rope. Most defendants were acquitted, not because their system of law enforcement was inefficient, but because it was a Christian society and they believed in giving people second chances.

My favorite case will always be the death of Roger son of Gervase, drawn from the miracle stories of St Thomas de Cantilupe, Bishop of Hereford. Roger was two years old and naked when he wandered out of his house in the middle of the night while his mother and father were at an all-night vigil praying for the souls of two recently deceased fellow villagers. Drawn naturally across the bridge leading to the castle where his father worked as a cook, the boy fell from the dark and icy bridge, smashing his infant body on the rocks below, and eventually freezing to death. The boy’s body was found the following morning. The coroners appeared immediately and began to conduct their investigation. Despite being prohibited from entering the scene of the accident while the coroners’ and their jury were embroiled in the minutiae of the investigation, one burgher climbed down to the child and bent a penny to Saint Thomas, promising to visit him at his tomb if he brought the child back to life. Lo and behold, Thomas heard his prayers and the boy began to move his right arm ever so tentatively. The burgher alerted the coroners and carried the frozen boy to his mother, who was half out of her mind with grief, and she warmed his naked body against her flesh. That night the entire village, including the coroners, celebrated with a procession to the church, singing Te Deum Laudamus.

This miracle story gives us an opportunity to see the coroners as human beings.  Far too often studies focus on the corruption of medieval law enforcement: coroners who refused to hold inquests unless paid to do so, who misappropriated funds, or who failed to investigate a sudden death because the weather was too cold and unpleasant for traveling.  This story, however, shows us coroners who were delighted to find that their trip had been unnecessary after all, who shared in a community’s joy that one of their own had risen.

Q. As a novelist writing about crime in medieval England I appreciate your explanations of the differences between how we view crime and punishment, but also in what is expected of the various professions/officials involved. For instance, you mention that coroners’ juries were better served by barbers and surgeons than by physicians because the latter were trained to be theorists rather than hands-on practitioners. They hired surgeons or barbers for hands-on medical care. In your other research projects have you come across other examples of occupational tags that no longer mean what they did in the past?

A. I’m delighted that you appreciate that aspect! One of my reviewers wanted all of that cut, but I stubbornly refused.  That viewpoint was essential to my motivation for writing the book. I also felt that it was useful tool to make sense of what we were reading in the medieval record.

In terms of occupations: Before doing the research for this book, I never understood King Edward III’s 1363/64 pronouncement of one craft per person (37 Edw. III, c. 6). Why would the king feel it necessary to limit men to only one trade?  As I tried to figure out how to classify who might belong to the pool of medieval medical practitioners, I realized just why Edward III made this declaration. Occupational diversity was the norm in late medieval England. Hardly anyone worked in just one profession. A chandler needed wax to make candles: but wax could also be used for other purposes, such as shaping pills and making ointments. Why not expand also into the apothecary profession? Similarly, overlap existed between surgeons and metalworkers:  a surgeon needed iron-tools for his work, and metalworker produced those tools. Why not have one man employed in both trades? Because of this it was not all that easy to pigeonhole men and women from the era. To the king, this was frustrating because he saw the guilds as a useful way to control the population and he wanted everyone to fit neatly into a category. To me this is really exciting because it suggests much more ambition, creativity, and flexibility than we often imagine of medieval men and women.

Q. In writing about medieval England for a popular audience I am keenly aware of the trap set by a common language—I do glossaries for my readers, but quite often my editors urge me to avoid the words that might confuse them. Most hilariously, an editor asked me why there were bars at all the gates of York—took me a day to realize that she thought Monk Bar was a tavern. But I have gone down a rabbit hole in doing research when I didn’t realize I was chasing the wrong term. Has this ever tripped you up? How do you flag these items in your own research?

A. Language is a serious problem for me. I write about legal history; however, I am determined to write for a wider audience than the few legal historians that I see regularly at the Conference for British Legal History. However, when I try to write in a more accessible manner by sidestepping the legal jargon, reviewers of my work in the field of legal history seem to think I’m avoiding it because I don’t know it. I have been told by the editors of legal history journals that I write social history, not legal history, while the editors of social history journals have insisted quite the opposite. Sigh. In this book, I have tried my best to include all the legal jargon, but to explain it to my audience in the hopes that this might be a useful handbook of sorts for tackling other works of medieval legal history. The legal record is too useful to social historians to be ignored, but it is a shame that so much of the legal history out there sounds as if it was written by a lawyer.

My students play a key role for me in determining which terms need to be explained so that I avoid your Monk Bar experience!  Students have told me that they thought “gaol” was a high class prison (why else would it be spelled so oddly?); that an “eyre” (itinerant court) was a lovely, lilting tune; that justices of the peace were only interested in marrying people; and that a villein (an unfree tenant) was in fact always the bad guy.

Q. Often when I’m writing one book I find something that I tuck away for another book. Did writing Forensic Medicine lead to a future project for you?

A. It led me to two new projects.

One: I’m working on an article about juries of matrons, the women who were called in to perform a physical examination of convicted felons who claimed to be pregnant, and another one on pleas of the belly. Medieval courts did not execute pregnant mothers: they waited until after the birth of the child before they executed its mother.  I’m interested in knowing more about the matrons: who were they? How did they qualify as matrons, that is, were they mothers, or medical practitioners? How did they decide whether a woman had in fact conceived?  I’m also interested in pregnant felons and their treatment in prison. Did they actually give birth in prisons, and what happened to the babies? How long after the birth were they executed?

Two: I’m working on a new book project on peine forte et dure.  When a defendant refused to plead to a felony indictment, the English courts were left in a quandary. In the English system, defendants had to consent to be tried: consent came in the form of a plea. If the defendant refused to plead, what is better known as “standing mute,” then he could not be tried. Accordingly, the king’s justices sent him back to prison to be coerced into pleading. He was subjected to peine forte et dure: strong and hard punishment, essentially pressing with weights and a starvation diet, until he agreed to undergo jury trial. By the early modern period, this had come to be death sentence, and is probably best known to a non-legal historian audience by the deaths of Saint Margaret of Clitherow (a recusant during Queen Elizabeth’s reign), or Giles Corey (during the Salem Witch trials). During my research I came across a number of deaths from peine forte et dure and it made me question why anyone would choose to undergo the peine. I also wondered why the English employed the peine: the English were always proud of the fact that they did not employ judicial torture. Yet, peine forte et dure sounds an awful lot like it. My book is going to look at how the practice evolved, and how the peine fit in with the ideology behind justice in the medieval English context.

On My Mind: Wolves, Magda Digby


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Why do we so fear wolves? They are predators, yes, but so are cats, and many of us live with cats, indeed sleep with them curled into our warm bodies. Eagles, hawks, and owls are also predators, yet most people I know, though in awe of them, don’t fear them, don’t see them as threats. Granted, domestic cats and birds of prey cannot knock over an adult human, but they can do serious harm. Yet it’s the wolves…

I’m thinking about this not only because of my work in progress, but also because the battle between farmers/ranchers and wolves is a thing in my state, and it breaks my heart.

Here’s a thoughtful piece of writing about that fear by James Roberts in the ezine Zoomorphic: http://zoomorphic.net/2017/10/in-the-eyes-of-a-wolf/
“Wolves mourn their dead. Some wolf mates return over and over to the place where their partners were trapped or killed. Others leave the pack and spend the rest of their days wandering in a state of growing starvation before they too die. Some wolves, when relocated by helicopter in an effort to shrink pack numbers, travel many hundreds of miles back to their home territory, risking being killed by other packs or by starvation. Some have even been caught again, then again relocated and this time have simply given up and died in their transport cages. Wolves create their own cultures. There is much we humans have forgotten we share with them. There is much we still have to learn from them.”

I tend to agree with Farley Mowat: “We have doomed the wolf not for what it is, but for what we deliberately and mistakenly perceive it to be –the mythologized epitome of a savage ruthless killer – which is, in reality, no more than a reflected image of ourself.”

And this: “…in the wolf we have not so much an animal that we have always known as one that we have consistently imagined.” –Barry Lopez, Of Wolves and Men

They are exquisitely beautiful beings, loyal to the pack, mating for life.

In medieval England the wolf was considered an enemy of foresters (i.e., the king’s hunting grounds) and the wool trade (monasteries grew rich on the wool their flocks produced), so the goal of wolf hunts was to rid the realm of their presence. In Aleksander Pluskowsky’s book, Wolves and the Wilderness in the Middle Ages (Boydell Press 2006) he notes that “the last reliable reference to wolf trapping in England is dated to 1394-6, from Whitby Abbey in East Yorkshire, where the monks paid 10s 9d for tawing fourteen wolf skins” (30).

So… there might have been wolves up on the moors in the late 14th century…

Also much on my mind: John Thoresby suggested to Magda Digby in A Vigil of Spies that she might cease referring to herself in third person, that she had surely done sufficient penance for her youthful errors. Would she attempt to change her speech pattern in honor of his memory? I’ve been debating this with myself ad nauseam. I’d be curious to know what you think.



The Gift of a Talented Narrator


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Both The Apothecary Rose and The Lady Chapel are now available from Tantor Audio in the US, with The Nun’s Tale coming in December!

When Tantor Audio offered an audiobook contract for the first three Owen Archer mysteries, I scoured their list of narrators for the one I thought might be the best match for the series, and proposed the award-winning Derek Perkins. I am so pleased with the results. Derek not only creates distinct voices for each character, but he gives a deeply nuanced reading that never strays from my intention. What a gift!

Publisher’s Weekly reviewed the recording of The Apothecary Rose: “Set in the 14th century, Robb’s historical detective stories about Owen Archer, a spy working for the influential John Thoresby, Lord Chancellor of England and Archbishop of York, currently runs to 10 volumes. This new audio edition of the first in the series is the obvious starting place for both curious newcomers and a treat for fans of the shrewd one-eyed Archer and his beautiful pharmacist wife Lucie, who may appreciate a reminder of how the two first met: over a pair of corpses possibly killed by a concoction mixed by Lucie’s first husband, master apothecary Nicholas Wilton. Reader Perkins gives Archer a confident-sounding British voice, with the requisite uncertainty about his trial employment by the demanding archbishop and feelings for a married woman. Perkins also presents thoughtful interpretations of the series’ continuing characters, like the warm-hearted midwife, Magda Digby; the rowdy, humorous tavern proprietress Bess Merchet; and the enigmatic Thoresby, whose voice changes according to the situation. His clerical delivery is sharper, higher pitched, while his personal conversation, which Archer prefers, is more relaxed, down-to-earth, and uncritical. Adeptly capturing the voices of the series’ recurring characters, Perkins delivers a promising start to the audio edition of this beloved series.”

Perfect for holiday gifts! And downloadable on Audible.


Toronto Bouchercon & a Long Answer to a Question


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I’ve returned from a delightful sojourn in Toronto, attending Bouchercon (the World Mystery Convention), but also playing tourist. It’s a beautiful city with distinct neighborhoods, many museums (loved the kimono collection in the Museum of Textiles), a lively theater district, a peace garden (photo on the right), a never-ending labyrinth of underground shops, all filled with the friendliest, most courteous people. What a treat!

Note to Canadian readers–The Sleuth of Baker Street, Toronto’s great mystery bookshop, has freshly signed copies of both Kate Clifford books as well as a number of Owen Archers and Margaret Kerrs!


I had so much fun on the panel Creative Histories. It might have been 8:30 on a Saturday morning, but we were lively: Sylvia Warsh (moderator), A.G. Wong (my companion to the kimono collection), Ovidia Yu, and in the photo below, you see me between Wendi Corsi Staub and Emily Carpenter.

At the convention, a reader asked, “Which characters in your books are your favorites?” I thought about it for a few minutes and then asked, “Favorite in what way?”

Because characters endear themselves to me for many reasons. Some are easy to write–Kate Clifford’s ward Marie Neville–she naturally inserts herself into scenes; Brother Wulfstan and Archbishop Thoresby in the Owen Archers, so clear in my mind that I was immediately in their heads. Some are fun because I never know what will come out of their mouths–Kate’s mother Eleanor is my current favorite in that regard, and Bess Merchet as well. Some touch me deeply, such as Brother Michaelo, the archbishop’s secretary, a character who has gone through such a sea change, a man who yearns for redemption; two young females who lost everything–Alisoun Ffulford and Petra Clifford. Some puzzle me–Sir Elric, Kate’s nemesis–or is he? Maggie Kerr’s friend Hal–does he have a special gift with animals or does he simply pay close attention to them? Some are just dear to me–Owen, Lucie, Bess, Kate, Petra, Berend, Maggie…   And some inspire me–Magda Digby is at the top of that list. How can I choose which character is my favorite?

Can you choose just one favorite character?


Writing as a Journey of Discovery


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I’m happily absorbed in rearranging and polishing the third Kate Clifford novel. The first draft of a novel is always a journey of discovery for me: only after I’ve followed the characters through the story do I see the patterns, the connections, the emotional journeys. Then I dive back in, reading it with curiosity, making notes toward the next draft, what to rearrange, what to rewrite, how to polish it. I love this part.

Clearly this process is shared by many, if not most, writers. Here are  two examples that I came across this week.

  • In the last paragraph of Marilynne Robinson’s essay “On Finding the Right Word” in Friday’s NYT she warns against forcing the topic:
    “Writing should always be exploratory. There shouldn’t be the assumption that you know ahead of time what you want to express. When you enter into the dance with language, you’ll begin to find that there’s something before, or behind, or more absolute than the thing you thought you wanted to express. And as you work, other kinds of meaning emerge than what you might have expected. It’s like wrestling with the angel: On the one hand you feel the constraints of what can be said, but on the other hand you feel the infinite potential. There’s nothing more interesting than language and the problem of trying to bend it to your will, which you can never quite do. You can only find what it contains, which is always a surprise.”
    Exploratory, a dance, always a surprised. Exactly!
  • This reminded me of a short video I discovered a few days ago, George Saunders on Story. in which he “deconstructs what makes for an effective story, and describes his personal strategies for writing, revealing the importance of conversing with your characters, the pitfalls of fixing your intentions in place, and why good storytelling is a bit like being in love.”
    Conversing with your characters–I find that essential. I’ve learned to let go of my intentions as soon as a character balks. Instead, I follow their idea and see where it takes me. Sometimes it’s a dead end and I abandon it, but even then I’ve learned something in the process, and I know the story is better for having listened.



Medieval York, Again?!


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As promised, here is the third post I wrote for the Kate Clifford series blog tour in July. Enjoy!

The What that’s begged the Why: I set my popular Owen Archer crime series in medieval York, the first book beginning just past the middle of the 14th century, and now I’ve set the Kate Clifford crime series in the same city at the beginning of the 15th century. Why late medieval York again? Well might you ask. As Kate would say, it’s complicated.

Answer #1:  I have loved York from the moment I set foot in the city years ago while I was a grad student studying medieval literature. I felt the ghosts of the middle ages in the narrow streets and snickleways, and atop the medieval walls that still largely enclose the central part of the city. There is so much to explore there, and researchers are always digging up (literally and figuratively) more historical data. It was an important city in the late middle ages, with a powerful archbishop and a wealthy merchant population, so although some of the city archives for the 14th century were lost, events in York appear in other archives. Every time I visit I learn more. I never tire of it. It’s a joy to write about both York and Yorkshire.

Louise Hampson giving me a tour of Lady Peckett’s Yard (York)

Fair enough, but why not just keep going with one series? Answer #2:  When I set the first Owen Archer mystery (The Apothecary Rose) in the early 1360s, I was not aware of York’s involvement in the Lancastrian seizure of the Plantagenet crown in 1399 and the early years of Henry IV’s reign. Later, I groaned when I realized what opportunities for political skullduggery I’d missed. I didn’t like the idea of skipping ahead so many years to get to that period. There’s still so much in between to explore. And, to be honest, although Owen Archer could still be actively sleuthing in his 70s, it felt like a stretch.

But as I just couldn’t let go of the opportunity to write about Henry’s haunted reign, I chose to start afresh with a new sleuth in 1399. The first Kate Clifford mystery (The Service of the Dead) takes place just as King Richard II refuses to life his cousin Henry of Lancaster’s exile upon the death of his father, and, in fact, declares that he has forfeited his inheritance of the duchy of Lancaster. No one expects Henry to ignore this challenge. Kate Clifford’s connection to this? It’s possible that a man murdered in Kate’s guesthouse was a political spy. In the second book, A Twisted Vengeance, as Henry lands in Yorkshire, in defiance of his cousin, the city of York prepares for a siege. Kate Clifford is not directly involved in the fighting, but her mother’s sudden return from the continent and an attack on one of the religious women who accompanied her brings suspicion on her family. And in the third book, Murdered Peace, Henry wears the crown, but he is far from secure.

In King’s Square near the Shambles, taking notes as Louise (just off camera) tells me about the church that once stood there

Has York changed in the gap between the two series?  Answer #3:  Enough has changed in York, including the structure of its government, that it feels fresh to me. And I’ve learned so much more from recent publications about medieval York that I can vary locations. For instance, I placed Kate’s home in the first two books in an area of medieval York that new information transformed for me. I had not known that the wealthy Thomas Holme had gardens extending from his home on Castlegate to the River Foss. He referred to it as his “urban manor.” Kate lives next door.

Answer #4:  To answer the “late medieval” part of the question, the first response would be, it’s the period I’ve studied in depth and want to write about. But another reason arose as I began to work on the second Kate Clifford book. The gap in time between the most recent Owen Archer (1373) and the first Kate Clifford (1399) is short enough that the two series could share characters. Now Owen Archer characters are popping up in casting calls for the Kate Clifford novels. Only one was cast in the second book, but two more, with meatier roles, grace the third. Connected series. Why not?

Thanks for asking.

[Photos are by Charlie Robb, taken in June 2017]

Casting a Female Sleuth in a Historical Crime Series


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As promised, I’m sharing with you the three guest posts I wrote for the recent Kate Clifford blog tour, knowing that many of you would not have seen them. Here is the second, which first appeared here.

I remember the day my new sleuth, Kate Clifford, auditioned for the role. I’d stepped away from the crime genre to write two novels about women in the court of King Edward III, Alice Perrers and Joan of Kent (The King’s Mistress, A Triple Knot). They’d first appeared as secondary characters in my crime novels, and I’d been so taken by them that I wanted to get to know them better. My research for their books took me down paths I had not yet explored, and I came away with a deep admiration for both women. But great frustration as well. I’d grown accustomed to writing about the women who surround and support Owen Archer, the sleuth in my original crime series. They were women of the merchant class—tradeswomen, innkeepers, apothecaries, and midwives, independent, pragmatic, wise. The women of the court did not lack wisdom or strength of character, but they were anything but independent—such is the nature of life in a royal court. I found myself wanting to shake them and point to the door—especially Alice, who had been brought up in the merchant community. Go back! Step out of the shackles! But I was not writing that sort of book—I was filling in the blanks in their biographies, not revising history.

For my next project, I wanted to return to fictional characters whose circumstances might be derived from the archives, but whose stories, whose fates were in my hands. Kate Clifford answered the casting call. She came striding down Stonegate in York, flanked by Irish wolfhounds, her step bold, her gown craftily hiding the small battle axe she wore for protection. She rounded the corner into High Petergate and entered a well-appointed house, received by an elderly couple with the respect due an employer. Curious, I invited her to stay awhile, tell me her story. Once I knew more about her, I couldn’t imagine anyone else in the role. Kate was my new sleuth.

Someone interviewing me about the new series commented that there would seem to be more scope in historical novels for male characters rather than female, and then asked, “do you prefer to write one sex or the other?” I answered that a male sleuth has a potentially wider range of activities in 14th-15th century England than a female sleuth, which is why I crafted Kate Clifford’s background with an eye toward making plausible the ways in which she seems unconventional. And strong. Kate’s background is a combination of women I’ve found in the records, women who took control of their lives and overcame adversity. They are there in the archives if you look; strong women aren’t a modern phenomenon. They took charge of manors and farms when their men went off to war, took over businesses when widowed, or when their husbands were imprisoned, away, incapacitated. Taking charge included defending those manors and businesses as well as managing them. Women knew how to use weapons; I’ve given Kate a childhood on the border with Scotland where that would have been a given.

So Kate’s responsibilities give her a wide scope in the city of York and beyond, where she and her family own property. That doesn’t mean she can plausibly ride off on adventures far afield, as my sleuth Owen Archer does on occasion. She’s more like Owen’s wife, Lucie Wilton, who remains in York when Owen rides off on adventures. She’s an apothecary with a clientele who count on her, and the mother of young children. So, yes, a male character has more geographic scope than a female character. But what I might lose in a variety of locations I gain in the richness of women’s social networks—which in the late middle ages meant humans communicating face to face. Where there’s a community, there’s plenty of material for a mystery writer. So which sex do I prefer writing? Depends on the story. At the moment, I’m enjoying Kate. And even in the Owen Archer mysteries, some of the most dynamic characters are the women in his life.


I must share this amazing statue in Beauvais because–well, she could be Kate, couldn’t she? According to Wikipedia: Jeanne Laisné (born 1456) was a French heroine known as Jeanne Fourquet and nicknamed Jeanne Hachette (‘Joan the Hatchet’). She was the daughter of a peasant. She is currently known for an act of heroism on 27 June 1472, when she prevented the capture of Beauvais by the troops of Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy. The town was defended by only 300 men-at-arms, commanded by Louis de Balagny. The Burgundians were making an assault, and one of their number had actually planted a flag upon the battlements, when Jeanne, axe in hand, flung herself upon him, hurled him into the moat, tore down the flag, and revived the drooping courage of the garrison. In gratitude for this heroic deed, Louis XI instituted a procession in Beauvais called the “Procession of the Assault”, and married Jeanne to her chosen lover Colin Pilon, loading them with favours. As of 1907, there was still an annual religious procession on 27 June through the streets of Beauvais to commemorate Jeanne’s deed. A statue of her was unveiled on July 6th, 1851.