We begin in the peaceful Dorset town of Wimborne in the spring of 1840. Just a few months earlier, in the Chapel Royal of St. James’s Palace, London, Queen Victoria had marred Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg. Louisa Chilcott and Samuel Portman are also due to be married, in the equally beautiful Wimborne Minster, but the joy of their day is short-lived.
Just days earlier, Samuel had approached his best man, Charles Ellis, with a request for help. Louisa’s young cousin, Henry Cuff, is a member of the Minster choir, but it has been reported that he is desperately unhappy, is absenting himself from school, and refusing to sing in the choir. So how can Charles help? His half brother, Matthew Ellis is the Choirmaster. Could Charles please intercede, and try to find out what is the matter with young Henry?
Charles agrees, but with a heavy heart. He and his half brother are barely on speaking terms. Charles is gentle, urbane and conciliatory, while Matthew – a brute of a man – is bad tempered, censorious, and has an evil reputation. Charles speaks to Matthew, but gets nowhere. A visit to Henry Cuff and his parents is equally fruitless. The boy is clearly terrified, and Mr and Mrs Cuff are unhelpful.
Louisa and Samuel’s wedding goes off as planned, but Henry Cuff – who was due to sing a solo – is nowhere to be found. As the happy couple are basking in the love of well-wishers after the ceremony, a townsman interrupts the festivities with the terrible news that Henry Cuff’s body has been found in the river.
Resentment and anger at Matthew Ellis begins to seethe in the town. Things worsen when it becomes clear that Ellis has not only been cruel and bad-tempered with his boys, but has been abusing them in the vilest manner imaginable. When a group of men decide to take things into their own hands, and Ellis disappears, the consequences are far reaching.
The structure of this fascinating novel is worth examining. It is, in effect, fourteen short stories, cleverly written so that they stand alone – indeed, three of the episodes have been published separately – but are linked to a central event, in this case the disappearance of Matthew Ellis. I am struggling for a suitable metaphor; ripples in water spreading out from a central disturbance, maybe? The trouble with that one is that literal ripples weaken the further they spread, and in this case, with the time span being twenty years or more, the ‘ripples’ don’t weaken – they become stronger and more deadly.
I suspect that the author knows and loves his Thomas Hardy. There are tragic outcomes for many of the characters in this novel, not because they are bad people (the only malignant person is Matthew Ellis) but because they have made errors of judgment, or pursued a wrong option. The words that are singing in my ears come from the last page of Tess of the d’Urbervilles:
“Justice” was done, and the President of the Immortals (in Aeschylean phrase) had ended his sport with Tess.”
This book operates on so many levels. At its simplest it is a murder mystery, a whodunnit, almost, (and yes, we do learn the identity of the killer in the final pages) but it is also brilliant history reflecting, as it does, on the hardships inflicted on the rural poor by increased mechanisation. I won’t call it a comedy of manners, because there is very little to laugh about, but we are treated to intriguing glimpses of social conventions and the sensitive hierarchies of the mid nineteenth century. Finally, the book is shot through with beautifully imagined descriptions of the Dorset countryside across the seasons. Crow Court is Andy Charman’s first full length novel. It is published by Unbound, a crowdfunding publisher, and is available here.