Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. As this is posted, it’s Independence Day in the US. So I thought it might be interesting to take a look at what life in Colonial America might have been like. Let’s do that, and turn today’s spotlight on Donald Smith’s The Constable’s Tale.
It’s 1758 in the colony of North Carolina, and plantation owner James Henry ‘Harry’ Woodyard is serving his term as a Royal Constable for Craven County. His work consists mostly of settling the occasional drunken quarrel, catching petty thieves, and other small matters. He is conscientious and tries to behave ethically; but he’s also hoping that loyal service in this capacity will make him eligible to move up in North Carolina’s social ranks.
Everything changes one day when an itinerant peddler makes a horrifying discovery. Edward and Anne Campbell and their son have been found murdered and their bodies carefully posed, as if ritually. The only survivor is their infant. On the surface, it looks as though Indians may have been responsible. Considering this takes place during the Seven Years/French and Indian War, that’s not out of the question. But a few things aren’t consistent with that account. For one thing, Indian killers wouldn’t likely leave an infant alive at a murder scene. They would be more likely to take a baby with them. More importantly, the Indians in the area are not enemies. Most intriguing, a brooch with Masonic symbols on it was found at the scene of the crime. Since Edward Campbell was not a Mason, there’s a possibility that the killer might have been.
Soon enough, a local Indian named Comet Elijah is arrested and imprisoned for the murders. He says that he is innocent, but he’s held over for trial. Woodyard doesn’t believe that Comet Elijah is guilty. The man’s been a friend of the Woodyard family for many years; in fact, he served as Woodyard’s own mentor. So Woodyard starts to ask some questions.
Woodyard decides to begin with the brooch. He reasons that, if he can find its owner, he can find the killer. Noah Burke, who tutored the Campbells’ son, accompanies him. The trail leads first to Williamsburg, then to Philadelphia, then to Boston, then to Québec. Along the way, several possibilities about the murders arise. For one thing, the British and French are at war, and there are spies for both sides. If the Campbells found out that someone was a spy, that could easily be a motive for murder. For another, many Masons are in high social positions. If the Campbells knew about a scandal involving one of them, that, too, would be a motive.
As Woodyard continues following leads, he faces increasing pressure from the Craven County authorities to accept the theory that Comet Elijah is guilty. There’s no concrete reason to believe anyone else was, and Woodyard is needed back home. He persists, though; and after another death, and two attempts on his own life, he finds out the truth. As it turns out, that truth is closer to home than he thought.
This is, of course, historical fiction. So an important element in the novel is its depiction of life in the mid-18th Century. Readers learn about daily life, social structure, law enforcement, and customs of that era. There are even a few letters between Woodyard and his wife, Toby, that show the writing style of the times. Oh, and there’s a bit of information about Masonic symbols, too. Readers who enjoy reading historical detail will appreciate this.
It’s worth noting here that that detail includes a close look at the society of the times. Woodyard, for instance, comes from respectable, but by no means wealthy or ‘well born’ roots. On the one hand, he knows that if he does his job well, and causes no scandal, he’ll be accepted by people of higher social station and move up in the world. He can increase his holdings and perhaps become a ‘gentleman of substance.’ On the other hand, he will never reach the highest levels of society. Everyone knows that he wasn’t ‘well born,’ and that his wife is a former indentured servant. That’s enough to exclude him from the very highest circles. He’s actually a bit insecure about his social status, and works hard to do ‘the right thing’ when he’s in the company of his ‘betters.’ In fact, each chapter begins with a piece of advice from the Rules of Civility, which governs every detail of the way people are expected to behave.
There is also the element of the Seven Years/French and Indian War. This is not a novel of war, and I can say without spoiling the story that Woodyard doesn’t go off to fight the French. But there is ongoing tension, and quite a lot of anti-French sentiment. There’s danger, too, and there’s discussion of various battles between the foes.
The American Revolution is twenty years away, so there isn’t talk of what counted then as treason. But there is a growing dislike of what the colonists see as British highhandedness. And we see the beginnings of the simmering resentment that later fueled the revolution.
There’s also the element of adventure. There are narrow escapes, daring trips, a femme fatale, secret conversations and more. There’s intrigue, too. Readers who don’t care for adventure novels will notice this.
The mystery itself – who killed the Campbells and why – is solved, and it’s interesting to see how Woodyard goes about getting answers. He doesn’t really have the force of law, at least, not as we know it today. And he certainly has no authority outside Craven County. Nor does he have access to modern technology or communication. But he finds his own ways to learn what happened. And, while the resolution of the story isn’t happy, there’s a sense of real hope at the end.
This isn’t a light, fun mystery. The reason for the killings is a very sad one, and readers who like the satisfaction of the ‘killer led away in handcuffs’ scene will notice that that doesn’t happen here. There’s violence, too. But at the same time, the novel isn’t dark in the way that noir fiction is.
The Constable’s Tale is a portrait of life in the Americas in the decades before the American Revolution. It depicts a strange mystery, and features a constable who tries to do the right thing and solve it as best he can. But what’s your view? Have you read The Constable’s Tale? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 11 July/Tuesday, 12 July – Resurrection Bay – Emma Viskic
Monday, 18 July/Tuesday, 19 July – Unleashed – David Rosenfelt
Monday, 25 July/Tuesday, 26 July – Our Trespasses – Steph Avery
On Another Note…
My best wishes for a happy Independence Day to my US friends, and all my best to all of you, wherever you are.