A Choir of Crows, by Candace Robb

Peter Tonkin

Peter Tonkin reviews Candace Robb's 12th in the Owen Archer series.
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A Choir of Crows is the 12th novel in Candace Robb’s enormously successful series of Owen Archer mysteries. It follows A Conspiracy of Wolves but, like all the others, it stands on its own. In A Choir of Crows, Candace Robb carries her readers back to the winter of 1374 and to her brilliantly constructed mediaeval York. The city is in the grip of an icy December. It is also in the grip of fearful anticipation. Cardinal Archbishop John Thoresby is dead. His successor Alexander Neville is due to arrive for his formal enthronement at any moment, accompanied by members of his own powerful family and their rivals for supremacy in the North, the Percys. Against this background, Owen Archer, Captain of the City and Black Prince Edward’s spy, must solve a series of suspicious deaths. He does so with the questionable involvement of old friends, powerful retainers, and various characters cunningly disguised.

What is particularly engaging about Candace Robb’s work is that, although Archer is the central figure, the reader meets and grows to know a wide range of characters, seeing into the minds and through the eyes of family, friends and allies (old and new), the bailiffs he commands, the enemies he encounters. The characters are rounded and delicately drawn; the city, the season and the century they inhabit are equally well done. The novel’s dedication to the Medieval Women’s Choir, with whom Candace Robb sings, explains in part the theme of contemporary song that is so central to the story. There is little doubt, however, that the author also has in mind the world of Geoffrey Chaucer – who has travelled through many earlier adventures with the redoubtable Owen. It is a world full of bustling, vivid life where the great and the good knock elbows with the halt and the lame. Where simple, holy, monks and nuns can have their contemplative lives disrupted by the most murderous villains, serving a range of powerful masters, and always their own ends as well.

She presents a Europe under the Church of Rome (though the Pope is in Avignon) where, despite the 100 Years War, travel is restricted by nothing other than time for many of her characters and a minstrel last seen performing at the French court of Charles V can appear in great houses south of York and wander into the city almost unremarked, like a pilgrim from The Canterbury Tales. But this ability to travel comes with a price that is currently all-too familiar – for travellers and strangers carry pestilence. And, of course, in Owen Archer’s world they also carry secret intelligence at great risk to themselves and to others they might happen across.

Every page of this spellbinding mystery rings with the authenticity that comes from exhaustive research lightly worn, so that the reality of the background always enhances the gripping foreground narrative. Once Owen Archer’s latest twisting, turning investigation grasps the reader, as it does from the very first page, it simply never lets go.

Peter Tonkin is the bestselling author of over 30 novels. His latest book is Shadow of the Axe.