Search This Blog

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Two Medieval Mysteries: The Apothecary Rose and The Lady Chapel

After reading several good NetGalley offerings, I started and discarded several more.  Since Medieval mysteries are a sub-genre I relish, I decided to try a new series.  Candace Robb writes the Owen Archer series set in the late 1300's, and having read some good things about the series, I decided to give it a try.

It was, fortunately or unfortunately, a reminder of the potato chip commercial:  "Bet you can't eat just one."  

Candace Robb did PhD studies in  Medieval and Anglo-Saxon literature (ABD, all-but-dissertation) and has continued to research the fields thoroughly for each book.  

I love Beowulf , Chaucer, and medieval history.  I still have my Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, although I was required to do very little translation of it for that course in Old English. My copy is a college text edition, nothing like the beautiful original manuscript (which is fortunate, since the cover has teeth marks where our dog Emily decided to taste Old English many years ago).

In the Author's Note at the conclusion of The Apothecary Rose (first in the Owen Archer series), Robb includes quite a bit of interesting information about the use of longbows (6-foot bows that "were capable of penetrating chain mail and had a range of about 275 yards,"  a proficient bowman could shoot 10 or 12 arrows per minute, as opposed to a crossbow's two per minute); the 14th c. city of York, including its importance as an ecclesiastical center;  the long war in France and its consequences; politics of church and state; medical and herbal treatments, etc.  

Some of this was familiar due to my interest in both medieval history and medieval mysteries, but there is always new information and new perspectives on familiar topics.

Robb also has some intriguing comments on the three hats a writer of historical mysteries must wear.  Not all writers of historical mysteries manage all three as well as Robb.  She creates well-developed novels with dynamic characters; gets the chronology right (or explains why some changes are included); makes sure that the places she mentions in the city of York are well-researched and accurate; and avoids superfluous historical detail that doesn't develop the story.  Some of that detail can be found in the Author Notes, and you can easily skip those if you choose.

The Apothecary Rose is set in 1363 in the city of York.  The main character Owen Archer had been the Captain of the Archers under Henry of Lancaster, until losing an eye.  The old Duke found a use for Owen as a spy, but when the old Duke died, Owen found himself having to choose between John Thoresby, Archbishop of York and Lord Chancellor of England, and the new Duke, John of Gaunt.  Thinking that the Archbishop would be a better choice, Owen discovers that politics and self-service trump religion more often than not.  Owen is a little naive, thinks more like a soldier, and does not admire Thoresby's worldliness and easy moral stance.  

When two suspicious deaths occur in the infirmary of St. Mary's Abbey, Thoresby sends Owen in to determine if the deaths are connected and if murder was done.  Although Owen is not aware, the reader knows who is responsible--the mystery is not who, but why. (And I have to admit the why wasn't a complete satisfaction for me.)

An intricate story set in a world of both fact and fiction, with historical detail that aids rather than distracts from the compelling plot and characters.  From the infirmary to the apothecary shop to the machinations of some of the church figures, Robb gripped my imagination and allowed me to immerse myself in another time and place with characters that engaged my interest.  

Purchased.  Read in Nov., 2015.  Blog review scheduled for Dec. 2, 2015.

Medieval Mystery.  1993; 2015.  Print length:  340 pages.  

I immediately ordered the next in the series.

The Lady Chapel takes the title from a thread running through the novels about the real John Thoresby and his determination to complete the Lady Chapel for his tomb.  

A man is murdered and his body left on the steps of York Minster--missing a hand.  The Archbishop once again recruits Owen Archer to solve the mystery, but the body count rises.  An orphan is in danger, the complicated reasons behind the murders involve the wool industry and the financing of a war, and Alice Perrers, mistress of King Edward III, makes an appearance.

Of interest to me:  

--the Town Waits, musicians employed by the city and provided with livery, salary, and silver chains of office.  They were common in every English town up until the beginning of the 19th c., according to Wikipedia.  I'd never heard the term before, but guess they were similar to city sponsored orchestras in the present.  Cool.

--the wool industry and the smuggling and the way Edward III tried to make money for his war in France.  And frequently, went back on his word.

--the fact that the novel began when Robb read an account of the Goldbetter lawsuit and "false monies" from Edward III

All of these things and more are responsible for instigating the plot, yet don't require thorough knowledge.  Robb doesn't bog the story down with unnecessary detail, but I always get a bit sidetracked with history and find Robb's Author Notes fascinating!

Purchased.  Read in Nov., 2015.  Blog review scheduled for Dec. 2, 2015.

Medieval Mystery.  1994; 2015.  Print length:  402 pages.


  1. Sounds interesting, the era of the Plantagenet Kings is a special interest of mine.

    1. A fascinating era, and I love reading about this period!

  2. I love it when I find a series that is so exciting I can't wait to read the next book. I actually have The Apothecary Rose somewhere on my shelves. Glad to know I'll be in for a treat!

    1. I do hope you enjoy it, Iliana. It has been fun watching the real and imaginary characters progress. I've read five of this series now, flying through them and ordering the next one as soon as I finish!

  3. The curse of the books that you just can't get enough of. :-) This sounds like a good series, Jenclair. It all sounds so fascinating with the crime, the politics of the time and the way the author put it all together. I can see the draw to the books. Definitely one I will have to add to my wish list.

  4. I love it when a series grabs me like that and I just want to read the books like they were my favorite snack. This series does sound good, Jenclair. The time period isn't one I read often, but I do have an interest in. I will have to add these to my wish list.