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Authors: P. F. Chisholm

Tags: #rt, #Mystery & Detective, #amberlyth, #Historical, #Fiction

3 A Surfeit of Guns: A Sir Robert Carey Mystery

BOOK: 3 A Surfeit of Guns: A Sir Robert Carey Mystery
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A Surfeit of Guns

A Sir Robert Carey Mystery

P. F. Chisholm

Poisoned Pen Press

Copyright © 1996 by P. F. Chisholm

First Trade Paperback Edition 2000

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 99-068848

ISBN: 9781615954094 epub

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in, or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the publisher of this book.

The historical characters and events portrayed in this book are inventions of the author or used fictitiously.

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Author Note

R Is For....Extraordinary

A Surfeit of Guns

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To Rosie, with thanks

Author Note

Anyone who wants to know the true history of the Anglo-Scottish Borders in the Sixteenth Century should read George MacDonald Fraser’s superbly lucid and entertaining account: “The Steel Bonnets” (1971). Those who wish to meet the real Sir Robert Carey can read his Memoirs (edited by F.H. Mares, 1972) and some of his letters in the Calendar of Border Papers.

R Is For....Extraordinary

The number of “R” words that come to mind when describing P.F. Chisholm’s rousing Elizabethan detections is remarkable. Filled with rakish, ruthless, reckless, rapacious, rough-riding, ruffianly, rascally, reprobative, roguish, occasionally rueful rapscallions, raiders, and reivers, they are rich, ribald, rowdy, riveting, riotous, robust, rollicking, rambunctious, randy, roistering, racy, and rattling good reads. What makes them so?

It is, of course, their blend of those basic components of fiction—plot, characters, setting—plus content, all washed with the sort of prose that turns such elements into literary gold. Rare is the novel in which the reader finds each building block to be of high quality, rarer still when a real balance is achieved. In my book, the Robert Carey novels,
A Famine of Horses, A Season of Knives, A Surfeit of Guns,
A Plague of Angels
, reach that plateau.

As P.F. Chisholm,
nom de plume
of author Patricia Finney, notes in her Introduction, to each Poisoned Pen Press edition, Carey is a real historical character whose life was itself the stuff of fiction. He’s a natural to be the hero of a book, or books, that flesh out the bones of the historical record and embrace not only what we actually know of Carey, but imagine what could have been the truth of his life and character.

Elizabeth Widdrington, too, is a real woman and I think it’s especially to Chisholm’s credit that she gives us Elizabeth’s character and behavior in a manner consistent with her time and not as rendered through the lens of today’s sensibility. An Elizabethan woman would not have carelessly abandoned her marriage but endured its vicissitudes, although many took such comfort as there was along the way, nor would she have shown disrespect to her husband in public, nor been heedless of her reputation. Nor would she have risked a breach with the Queen which, in the case of a relationship with Robert, the Queen’s blood kin, would have been likely. The rocky course of the Carey/Widdrington romance is, of course, the very stuff of good fiction. Interesting, too, is its unlikely nature, for Elizabeth was no beauteous maiden but a mature woman who’d acceded to an arranged marriage with her elderly husband. She had, thus, family obligation to honor along with personal and political considerations. I think Chisholm captures her dilemma movingly in the closing pages of
A Season of Knives

Other historical personages appear such as Philadelphia, Carey’s sister, and her ineffectual husband Lord Scrope, and Lord Hunsdon, Carey’s father, met finally in the flesh in
A Plague of Angels
. But
A Surfeit of Guns
belongs, in great part, to that difficult monarch James VI of Scotland, son of the beheaded Mary, cousin and perhaps heir to Elizabeth, husband of Anne, and progenitor of those unlucky and ill-judging Stuart kings who ruled England and Scotland during the 17th Century. James it is who eventually gave Carey his break in life, and James it is who really rules these pages as the story moves back and forth from Carlisle to Dumfries. With James comes his court, the powerful Earl of Mar, the quarreling and scheming nobles and their henchmen, foreign agents, and the nasty boy, Lord Spynie, who has captured the wayward king’s heart. With James, the role of Favorite, usually filled by female forms, went to men, some of whom, like Lord Spynie, played power games of their own.

Chisholm has a dazzling ability to plunge her readers straight into the late 16th Century, straight into the Debateable Lands, the most dangerous part of Elizabeth’s kingdom, that border country so porous that blood relations took arms against each other and posses rode back and forth on legitimate hot trods and illegitimate raids. So well transported are we that any interruption becomes unwelcome and we must follow the twists and turns of the plots to the end. In
A Surfeit of Guns
we are led to Dumfries, “the centre of gunmaking for the whole of Scotland, being placed in the area of highest demand,” and thus onto an enlarged stage. Its sequel,
A Plague of Angels
, then carries the action to London.

A Surfeit of Guns
is arguably the bleakest of the Carey stories, filled with doubts, duplicity, double dealings, and death. It is of the novels the most political, centering around the machinations of the Scottish court, and it is the most venal. While in part a police procedural, consonant with Carey’s official post as a sort of Sheriff, the plot is built upon power politics and espionage. Its hook lies in armaments, in the valuable guns shipped into—and out of—the Carlisle garrison. To what purpose? the author asks, and challenges us to work out the answer.

As a plotter, Chisholm is inventive and does not repeat herself. In her third Carey novel she is, I think, more interested in character than in story. And it is somewhat dour. Let’s face it, there is less to like in James and his court than in Elizabeth’s, and less
joie de vivre
, less electricity. It was, for the Stuart monarch, a waiting time and a waiting game. But, in the overreaching arc of the Carey series—and I, for one, hope for many more novels as we build up to the events of 1603—it’s as important to establish the anchor end in Scotland as it is the other anchor in London, though we spend much time on the grounds where Carey filled his post as Deputy Warden. Thus we need to meet up with James and firm the connection between him and Carey.

To me, the real joy of the Careys lies less in the real life figures than in the glorious secondary characters, as ruthless, charming, and complex a bunch of survivors of what Chisholm spares no pains to reveal as a harsh, unforgiving, real minimalist life, as ever you will meet. From stalwart Sergeant Dodd to the randy servant Barnabus to the unfortunate Long George and his Little family to the imp Young Hutchin, you meet them and you know them, just as you learn to wander familiarly among the Grahams and the other Border clans. You could as easily be in our American Wild West, caught up in Tombstone territory with rustlers, outlaws, hired hands, and a few guys sporting badges, the whole bunch operating under the umbrella of shifting alliances or clan loyalties—or just for the paycheck.

I’ve paid tribute to the characters, the setting, the plot, and the historical content of Chisholm’s work. In the end, however, what makes me a True Fan and completes that sense that “You Are THERE!” —noted by Sharon Kay Penman in her Introduction to
A Famine of Horses
, Dana Stabenow in her Introduction to
A Season of Knives
, and Diana Gabaldon in her Introduction to
A Plague of Angels
—is the language. It is through her lively dialogue and unfailingly canny sense of the Right Word that Chisholm conveys the rags and riches of the period and the in and outs of character. There is no question her research has been prodigious, though it is never flaunted nor allowed to take over the narrative. But somehow, perhaps as a consequence, she has simply stepped into a pattern of speech as into a time warp and sucked us right along with her. It is the web of language she weaves that holds us, once transported to Carey’s world, and leaves us reluctant to travel back when the end of the tale is reached.

As the editor of Poisoned Pen Press, my enthusiasm for our publications is unbounded. A joy of working within a small press is that we can publish what we like, not what will sell, although one hopes for a successful marriage between the two. It is a privilege as well as a pleasure to bring you the novels of an author as talented as P.F. Chisholm in the hope that you will share both in the joy of discovery and in the journey each affords.

To bolster my recommendation, let me end with a statement from a reader. “P.F. Chisholm’s strength lies in her ability to write a dialogue which is natural and not preciously ‘period’ and she certainly seems to understand the mind of the borderer. I speak as a borderer myself, albeit from the East, not the West March. I would strongly recommend this book to lovers of both historical and mystery fiction.”

Barbara Peters
The Poisoned Pen Mystery Bookstore

A Surfeit of Guns

Friday 7th July 1592, late afternoon

Sir Robert Carey woke up to a knock on the door, feeling sticky-mouthed and bad-tempered and uncertain what time of day it was. He was in his clothes with his doublet buttons undone, his boots by the side of the bed. Through the window the diamond mosaic of sky had greyed over. Barnabus Cooke his man-servant came stumping in carrying a bowl of cold water, a towel over one arm, a leather bottle of small beer under the other.

“Afternoon, sir,” he said in his familiar adenoidal whine. “Sergeant Dodd wants to know where you was thinking of patrolling tonight.”

Ah. Night patrol, therefore an afternoon nap.

“I haven’t decided yet,” Carey answered.

He sat up and swung his legs over the side of the bed, hearing the elderly strapping creak beneath the mattress. Although the bed had once been honoured by the sleeping body of Her Majesty the Queen of Scots while she was briefly an uneasy guest in Carlisle, that was nearly thirty years before and it had had a hard life since then. He honestly thought a straw pallet on the floor might be more comfortable and certainly less noisy.

While he splashed his face with cold water and drank some of the beer, Carey gathered his thoughts and tried to wake up properly. Barnabus fastened his many buttons, helped him on with his jack. As always there was a depressing moment when the padded, double-layered leather coat, with its metal plates in between, weighed him down like original sin. Then, once it was laced and his belt buckled so the weight was evenly distributed between his shoulders and hips, his body adjusted and he no longer felt it. As armour went, it was very comfortable, much better than his tilting plate that was in pawn down in London. He had his new broadsword, the best the Dumfries armourers could produce, and Barnabus had oiled it well, though the hilt still felt rough and odd against his hand after he had strapped it on. His helmet was a fine piece, a blued-steel morion, with elaborate chasing on its peaks and curves, well-padded inside. He knew it made him conspicuous, but that was the idea after all—his men needed to know where he was in a fight.

BOOK: 3 A Surfeit of Guns: A Sir Robert Carey Mystery
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