After his hair-raising adventures in London, Sir Robert Carey has finally tracked down Queen Elizabeth, who is about to make a state visit to Oxford. But instead of giving the Courtier his much-needed warrant and fee for being Deputy Warden of the West March with Scotland, Her Majesty orders him to investigate the most dangerous cold case of her reign—the mysterious 1560 death of Amy Dudley(née Robsart), unloved wife of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester.
Some thirty years back, the late Dudley was Elizabeth’s favorite suitor and potential husband. Amy died at Cumnor Place, close at hand. The Queen has since been one of the most obvious suspects in arranging Amy’s murder. This makes Carey deeply uneasy with his sleuthing role. He’s further uneasy that his father, Elizabeth’s cousin from the wrong side of the blanket, is clearly involved. Then someone manages to poison Carey with belladonna, which temporarily blinds him. Worse still, Sergeant Dodd, the man most often guarding Carey’s back, has disappeared on the road from London.
As the Queen’s scandalous past collides with her magnificent State entrance into Oxford, can Carey rally in time to find both Dodd and the true murderer of Amy Robsart?
P. F. Chilsolm offers a well-written historical mystery which takes a look at the death of Amy Dudley (nee Dudley.) Chisolm’s eye for historical detail is excellent, as is her portrayal of the politics and major players of the age: Queen Elizabeth, Lord Burghley (William Cecil), Lord Hunsdon (Henry Carey, father of the protagonist), and others. Unusually for a historical mystery, even the main character, Sir Robert Carey, actually existed in real life: the eighth son of Henry Carey, he eventually became Earl of Monmouth.
I was fascinated by Carey’s investigation of Amy Robsart’s death, but he doesn’t really get going on it until well into the book. For that reason, and because of POV issues which I’ll talk about below, it took me a while to really get invested in the characters and in the story as a whole. To be fair, there’s a reason Carey can’t start investigating right away: someone poisons him with belladonna, which nearly kills him. But even before that, there’s a long period of scene-setting as Carey arrives in Oxford, where the Queen is on progress. Again, the historical detail is extremely accurate (to the best of my knowledge), and Chisolm brings to life the splendour and squalor of Elizabethan life as well as the convoluted political maneuvering of Elizabeth’s court. Still, I found the beginning a bit of a slog.
Robert Carey is a flawed but engaging main character: a gambler and risk-taker, always in debt, but both charming and clever, with a mind that leaps immediately past surface appearances to the implications of whatever he is focused on. Even half-blind and recovering from the poisoning, he picks up more than most people would, and usually draws the right conclusions.
The POV changes frequently, alternating primarily between Robert and the irascible Sergeant Dodd, his man, who is separated from him for most of the book. That didn’t really bother me, except that I couldn’t see for quite some time what Sergeant Dodd’s story had to do with the main plot. (It intersects eventually, in a way I hadn’t anticipated at all.) I was, however, disconcerted whenever the POV shifted to other characters, as it does occasionally and without warning, even mid-scene. There’s also a section at the beginning from the perspective of a character I assumed would be important, but who diminished rapidly once the Robsart investigation was underway.
Once the investigation really got going, the whole book seemed to take off, and I found myself turning the pages as fast as I could, eager to know both the results of Carey’s investigation and Sergeant Dodd’s eventual fate. There are more than a few surprises and a satisfyingly suspenseful section toward the end of the novel. The mystery itself is complex, and does rely in part on the murderer’s confession, something that in this context actually worked well. While I doubt Chisolm has hit upon the true solution, her explanation of Amy’s death fits the known facts as well as the character and motivations of many of the main players, and only part of it feels a little contrived — from a historical viewpoint but definitely not from a fictional one.
Carey makes a good investigator, and the Elizabethan period has always fascinated me. Taking the book as a whole, I enjoyed it despite the slow beginning, and will probably seek out the rest of the series.
Rating: 3.5 stars
Category: Historical mystery
Series: Sir Robert Carey #6
Publisher: Poisoned Pen Press
Release date: Feb. 4, 2014
Book source: Review e-copy from the publisher
About the author:
P. F. Chisolm is a pen name used by British writer Patricia Finney for her historical mystery series featuring Sir Robert Carey. Finney is the author of a number of historical novels for adults and children, including the Lady Grace mysteries (with Jan Burchett) and the David Beckett and Simon Ames series beginning with Firedrake’s Eye. Finney’s first novel, A Shadow of Gulls, published before she entered Oxford at age 18, won the David Higham Award for Best First Novel. In addition, she writes a series of children’s books featuring a Labrador named Jack, and is an accomplished radio playwright.