A Chorus of Innocents by P.F. Chisholm O frabjous day! Here we are on horseback again, galloping ventre a terre over the Debateable Lands between England and Scotland circa 1592. Yes, Sir Robert Carey returns for a seventh glorious outing, and I am delighted to report that this time we get to spend some quality…
It’s been three long, cold years since last we saw Sir Robert Carey, that Elizabethan courtier who buckles better than Scaramouche and swashes better than all three Musketeers put together. Last time (A Murder of Crows, Sir Robert Carey #5) we saw Sir Robert’s redoubtable Sergeant Henry Dodd matching wits with Sir Robert's mother, the darling but deadly Lady Hunsdon. Now we get to hang out with Sir Robert’s father, Lord Hunsdon and illegitimate brother to Queen Elizabeth. Not that he’s bothered by his illegitimacy:
He was profoundly grateful that Mary Boleyn had been so much less determined than her sister, that she had been married off to the complaisant William Carey while pregnant with him, the King’s bastard. If she had hung on to her virtue the way her younger sister Ann had done, well, he might have been King Henry the IX and had a much worse life, his sons would have been Princes of the Blood Royal and even more trouble than they were anyway…Thank God for bastardy, that was all he could say.
So now I’m in love with two generations of Carey men.
This time around the Queen employs Sir Robert on a secret mission to investigate the dubious death of Amy Robsart, that lady unfortunate enough to have been married to Robert Dudley twenty years before, and who died in a way that proved most fortunate for those who had no wish to see Dudley married to Elizabeth. Which was pretty much everyone except possibly Elizabeth herself. [Author’s note: I can argue pretty strongly against her having any such thought in her head, but that’s another conversation.]
Sir Robert does investigate but old murderers don’t fade away and an attempt on his life leaves him ill and temporarily blinded, listening to his father and his aunt bellow at each other from his sickbed:
”My son! you put my son in danger of poisoning…?”
“I had to do it!” roared the Queen, “I have to find out…”
…His father had his arms around the Queen and she was…good Lord, she must be crying into his chest, from the snuffling sounds.
Carey was too weak and dry even to moan. Ask her for my fee and my warrant as Deputy Warden, he thought as forcibly as he could. Go on, Father! Fee! Warrant! Ask!…
“Eliza, may I beg a favour?”…
Thank God, Carey thought, Come on, Father, you know how to do it.
“Please, Eliza, for God’s sake, will you make sure the boy’s mother doesn’t get to hear of this?”
Arrgh, thought Carey. Then after a moment’s thought—well, yes, all right. Sensible.
As anyone acquainted with Lady Hunsdon would agree.
Sergeant Henry Dodd forms the other arm of the investigation, albeit unwittingly. Sergeant Dodd is one of those endearing supporting characters who one suspects was constructed originally to prop up his protagonist but who with every scene takes up more and more narrative space for himself. He begins by riding hell for leather for the north and along the way burns down another building, is kidnapped, turns the tables on the kidnappers, a formidable one of whom rejoices deservedly in the name of Harry Hunks, is finally reunited with his employer, and gives excellent advice to Lord Hunsdon:
The lady-in-waiting smiled. “Thank you for your advice, Sergeant Dodd. My lord Hunsdon, I think we are done here.”
Hunsdon harrumphed. “Indeed, I shall indict him on a charge of high treason…”
“Och for God’s sake,” groaned Dodd, goaded beyond endurance by this stupid Southron way of doing things, “He’s said hisself the bill’s foul, ye have him, string him up now and be done wi’ it. Ah’ll dae it for ye if ye’re too…”
“Sergeant, the laws of the Border and the laws of England are different. We can’t simply string a man up here without trying him first…”
“A’right, give me a crossbow and five minutes and…”
The lady-in-waiting was almost laughing again. “Sergeant, then we would have to arrest you for murder.”
“What? Och, no, see, I took a shot at a deer in the forest and what a pity, I missed and hit…”
That lady is no lady, and Sergeant Henry Dodd is proved right yet again. All of the usual historical suspects are present, Lettice Knollys, Sir Robert Cecil, the idiot Earl of Essex, but the principals, Lord Hunsdon and the Queen, like Lady Hunsdon before them, radiate so much charisma they eclipse everyone else in every scene they’re in. An Air of Treason is a lovely addition to the series. Highly recommended.