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Books by Candace Robb
The Apothecary Rose (1993)
Candace Robb is living proof that even the most obscure-seeming college study might eventually lead to a thriving career. "I'm one of those all-but-the-dissertation people," she says with a gentle laugh, recalling her graduate study in Anglo-Saxon and medieval literature at the University of Cincinnati in Ohio. "I had all of this wonderful information in my head, and even though I didn't finish the degree, I wanted to make use of what I knew."
That opportunity came in the year after she left grad school, when Robb sat down to compose the short story that would later become The Apothecary Rose (1993), her first entry in a now-bestselling 14th-century mystery series starring Owen Archer. These books -- including her just-issued sixth novel, A Gift of Sanctuary -- have allowed their author not only to employ the knowledge she gleaned in school, but to go further and thoroughly satisfy her curiosity about British society and politics during the Middle Ages.
Her perspective on those times comes through the eyes -- or, rather, the eye -- of Archer. A cocky Welshman in his 30s, he had served as the captain of bowmen for England's powerful Duke of Lancaster until a nuisance struggle between two prisoners resulted in his partially losing his sight. Since then, Archer has worked for Archbishop John Thoresby of York, Lord Chancellor of England, as a reluctant spy and -- incidentally -- a detective.
Although based in York, a medieval city that long ago captivated Robb ("The northern setting is so moody and dramatic -- gifts to a writer"), Archer has spent more and more time in recent books chasing distant mysteries. He has periodically abandoned his herbalist wife, the former Lucie Wilton, and their small family to investigate crimes that cast him into the company of well-known figures, from King Edward III's influential mistress, Alice Perrers, to future poet Geoffrey Chaucer. The author's meticulous attention to the historical events from which her tales spring as well as to the smaller-scale community atmospherics of Archer's era moved Kirkus Reviews to declare that "Robb puts the history back into historical mystery." Like novelists Sharon Kay Penman, Susanna Gregory, and the late Ellis Peters, Robb does a superb job of painting the entire spectrum of medieval life, from the daring to the decidedly dreary.
In person, Robb hardly seems the sort to voluntarily coop herself up in dusty libraries, doing research. However, prior to emerging as a full-time writer, she spent years editing technical publications (mostly about oceanography and polar science) for the University of Washington and she continues to teach creative writing for the UW's Extension College. In her mid 40s, a North Carolina native now living in Seattle with her husband Charlie and several cats, she has a quick smile, an attentive gaze, and a self-confident manner that suggest she might have been the model for Archer's wife Lucie. Indeed, the author and character share a significant interest in herbs.
Shortly after the US release of A Gift of Sanctuary, I talked with Candace Robb about her development as a mystery fictionist, her methods of probing the past, and her phenomenal popularity in modern-day York.
J. Kingston Pierce: Is it true that your first book, The Apothecary Rose, began as a mainstream historical novel, not as a mystery? How did your transformation into a mystery writer take place?
Candace Robb: An agent suggested that in order to sell historical novels "these days" they needed a hook. One excellent way to achieve that was to write in a popular genre -- so she suggested that I take the mystery already in the story and make it more prominent, or that I give Lucie [Wilton] a romantic interest. In other words, turn it into either a mystery or a romance. I stewed about that for a long while, working on other pieces, while I read loads of mysteries and academic books analyzing mysteries. Owen Archer's arrival on my psychic doorstep one Sunday evening was the missing piece. Once he appeared, I had a detective, and the potential for a series.
Have you learned to appreciate the mystery fiction form more since you embarked on the Owen Archer series? What is it that you find most and/or least fascinating about this genre?
Yes, indeed. And I've come to realize that any well-plotted novel contains a mystery. As a writer, I enjoy the discipline of the genre: Writing within the structure of the detective novel is rather like writing sonnets -- it's a very tidy structure, a disciplined structure, within which anything goes. I also enjoy the continuity of a series, the luxury of following characters for years.
At least in the beginning, you were criticized by some reviewers who thought your books were too much like historical romances. Do you see why that criticism could be made, and if so, does it bother you?
This is embarrassing, because I'll sound as if I'm denying a bad review, but I don't remember a review that said my books were too much like historical romances. So I don't really have an answer to this. There is some romance in The Apothecary Rose. I remember worrying about the title, fearing it sounded like a romance. I changed it to something sounding more like a crime novel (Death Has No Remedy, I think), but my first editor reinstated the original title. He thought it was perfect.
I understand you wrote two novels before The Apothecary Rose. Whatever happened to those? Might we someday see them transformed into Owen Archer tales?
Actually, one novel and bits and pieces of another, as well as a slew of short fiction set in the not-too-distant future that I intended as loosely connected stories a la The Joy Luck Club or Winesburg, Ohio. I think the novel will reappear someday as a complete reworking of the original -- I still like the theme: a shaman, or healer, in conflict with the Church authorities during the first horrible visitation of the Black Death. But it won't be a part of the Owen Archer mysteries. As for the futuristic tales, I've rather lost interest in them at the moment. I found them depressing to write -- my vision of the future was quite bleak. Some of the characters have probably already been reworked into characters in this series. In fact, just thinking about those stories, I recognize bits of Lucie, Owen, and [midwife] Magda [Digby] in those characters.
How did you choose a retired captain of archers as your sleuth in this series? What was it about his background that made him an ideal amateur detective?
I was reading Robert Hardy on the longbow and playing around with the stance in a mirror when it hit me that a right-handed archer sighted with his left eye dominant. I explored how difficult it might be to readjust that to the right eye, and realized it was possible, but very, very difficult. Now why I was thinking about an archer being blinded I cannot really say -- that's the sort of thing that catches my imagination when I read. But a character insinuated himself into my musings, a Welshman who had risen through the ranks in the forces of Henry of Grosmont, considered one of the most splendid military minds of his time. This Welshman had reached the top of his career. And then he had his world shattered by being blinded in the left eye. How would that change him? I liked the brooding possibilities, the self-imposed change of career (it is Owen's distrust of himself that causes his resignation, not Grosmont's). And the "detective" I needed to tell Lucie and Nicholas' story [in The Apothecary Rose] was standing before me, complete with name. I owe a lot to Robert Hardy...
I had also read in the academic takes on the detective novel that the best detectives are dissatisfied outsiders. The theory was that Sherlock Holmes, [Hercule] Poirot, and several other famous detectives worked so well because they were outside the society they were investigating and thus were able to observe objectively. Sherlock Holmes was not an alien, yet his behavior was at all times quite unusual, and he looked at mankind as specimens, as it were. The disaffected part was, I believe, my own addition as I read through the examples and read the originals. I felt all the detectives who best fit this mold ([P.D. James' Adam] Dalgliesh is another, in my opinion) distanced themselves slightly from their fellows with their own peculiar moral code. Which often allows them to use solutions beyond the law -- as when Holmes lets someone walk away, or Poirot stays silent. Owen is more like Dalgliesh, expressing dissatisfaction with the authorities, but accepting their judgments. And so the reader gets a bit of moral commentary that urges him or her to think about the implications of society as it is portrayed. And sometimes the moral code helps the reader see the crime and/or the criminal in a different light. Owen fit the bill. And his connections would make it possible to move him around and among all classes. I confess I also enjoyed the time I spent with my left eye covered, figuring out what I would need to relearn, rethink. That's probably a long enough answer!
Is it true that Owen Archer's name wasn't intended as an allusion to either of two earlier investigating Archers: Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer or Dashiell Hammett's Miles Archer?
Very true. I chose a Welsh name and his occupation -- pretty standard medieval naming practice. Not very noir, I'm afraid.
Once upon a time, there was only Ellis Peters (aka Edith Mary Pargeter) setting crime in medieval Europe. But now there are many novelists using that background. What is it about the Middle Ages, do you think, that makes it so attractive a setting for works in this genre?
I think we have Edith Pargeter to thank for creating such a sympathetic character in [monk detective Brother] Cadfael, and for her skill in making what might seem a foreign and distant setting accessible to modern readers. She opened readers' minds to the possibility that medieval England was a place and time they could understand, filled with characters with whom they could empathize. As far as medieval Europe being fertile ground, if you're thinking Sister Fidelma to Roger the Chapman, you're talking about 900 years (I think) -- it's rather like saying 1100 to 2000 AD Europe is fertile ground. Good lord, there's a lot of history and a lot of places from which to choose! (Sorry, that's a medievalist's knee-jerk reaction.)
I think the appeal of this long period is that the society is recognizable to us and yet far enough in the past that it's full of surprises. I think it may also have to do with the people who are writing the books -- for the most part we have degrees in the history or the literature of the period and are absolutely delighted to be asked to delve into what fascinated us in graduate school and make it palatable. So we're dipping into vast reserves of material and reveling in the research, but we're also putting flesh on the people who have intrigued us for a long time. So what am I saying? We're not simply using the history as "atmosphere," but trying to recreate the past.
When you're writing a novel, is your first interest in the history or in the mystery you create around that history?
One of the first things I do in planning each book is to review what is going on at the time -- I check about a year out from the previous book and look for a historical incident that might add a nice political or historic backdrop to a mystery. So I suppose the political or historic backdrop is chosen first. Of course that said, I immediately think of an exception -- with The Nun's Tale, the entry in the history of Clementhorpe Nunnery about Joanna of Leeds drove the entire planning process. And The Apothecary Rose began as a short story about an apothecary's wife trying to keep the shop going while her husband was very ill. The Lady Chapel began with an article about the Goldbetter lawsuit. I'm not sure I know which comes first, the chicken or the egg.
Do you read other medieval-period mysteries?
I actually read very little in this particular area, for various reasons.
Which books of this type have been your favorites?
My favorite novels set in the Middle Ages are the Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy by Sigrid Undset; An Innocent Wayfaring, by Marchette Chute (a young-adult novel that is delightful and full of excellent research); Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose; and Katherine, by Anya Seton.
How carefully do you research the life of 14th-century York in order to create verisimilitude in your novels? Is most of what we read about people's behavior and mores in these books authentic, or must you make up a lot of the day-to-day details of medieval existence, just to fill in blanks in our understanding of that period?
I try very hard to stick to what we know about the period, and query a growing network of researchers when I come up blank. Only after I've received a few "your guess is as good as mine" responses do I make an educated guess. As far as the locations, particularly York, I spend a great deal of time walking the terrain, experiencing what I call the spirit of place. For me there is no other way to tap into the essence. And fortunately for me (well, and a bit planned) York still has much of its medieval flavor. As far as mores are concerned, I use the literature of the period -- the poetry, the plays, the sermons, the handbooks for behavior, etc.
I understand you're quite the celebrity in York these days, that when you go there for research, people gather about you as if you were an old friend or a certifiable native of the town. How long has this been going on, and does all that attention make you more concerned about portraying historical York in a favorable light?
I'd say the fuss in York has been going on since The Lady Chapel, when the town crier announced the publication of the book with "Murder in the minster close! Murder in the minster close!" I think I'm so well-regarded because of the care I take with my research. As to portraying it in a more favorable light, I hadn't actually ever thought of that. I chose York because of how I think it is and was a pretty wonderful place.
Back to the question of research: It seems a prime example of your research came in writing The Riddle of St. Leonard's. You try in that story to immerse readers in the horrors of the Black Death. What was involved in researching the background of such a yarn?
A lot of depressing reading, both in statistics and in handbooks for physicians that were written in the period. Through ecclesiastical letters, sermons, the plague handbooks, I tried to get a sense of how the people attempted to cope with the horror. Obviously they had to see to their livelihoods, take care of their families, while all the while they remembered the horror of the first visitation and feared each day was their last. Regarding hospitals, I happen to have a friend who is the expert on St. Leonard's Hospital, [York historian] P. H. Cullum, as well as medieval hospitals in general. She graciously answered my questions and walked the area with me and my husband (who does the maps for the Archer books).
Is there an aspect of medieval English life that you would like to explore further, but that you haven't yet fitted into one of your novels?
I would like to do much more work on the mystery plays and the guilds. I scratched the surface of both in The Lady Chapel, but I want to return to those topics. I also heard a wonderful paper at the Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo (which I attend every spring) on insurance and the shipping industry in the Middle Ages -- believe it or not, a fascinating topic with loads of potential. There are also some historic figures I would love to study in more depth, devoting entire novels to them.
Figures such as... whom?
I'd rather not answer that question. It makes fans eager for the books, and who knows when and if I'll get to them.
I'm curious about what study you've done of the work of medieval apothecaries. I know that you're interested in herbs -- you have an herb garden of your own. Is the apothecaries' use of herbs what caused you to make Archers' wife Lucie an apothecary?
My study of apothecaries has ranged widely, from reading the old herbals to the wills of apothecaries to court records of transgressions in the trade. That is how we put together the day-to-day lives of such people. I am also keeping close tabs on an archaeoethnobiological study in Lothian on the Scottish border, at the site of a medieval hospital that burned in the 15th century, then was abandoned, so that the medical waste is largely undisturbed in the soil. To my knowledge, this is the first large-scale study attempting to find out not just what was there but how it worked, which is helpful in understanding the how and why of medieval medicines and practices. Herbs were only part of what you might find in an apothecary. They dispensed many other, far odder things, such as emerald dust, parts of animals, stones -- I thought a connection with medieval medicine would give Owen knowledge he might not have otherwise. And, yes, I wanted to wallow in a medieval herb garden.
Would you like to have lived during the Middle Ages in England? Or is the distance of a novel as close as you'd prefer to get to those rougher times?
The latter, definitely. I have no romantic illusions about the period. Life was hard -- very, very hard. My life is full of more comforts than King Edward's. [During the Middle Ages], only the exceedingly wealthy could devote themselves to creative pursuits such as mine.
What were the best and worst aspects of living during the time that Archer and Lucie do?
I think one of the best aspects must have been the strong sense of community, and the comforting strength of their faith. I just read a review of Peter Ackroyd's new biography of Sir Thomas More and it sounds as if he's hit the nail on the head about what More found so threatening about King Henry's break from Rome -- he was shattering the strong foundation the Church gave people's lives, the common values, the continuity. This makes me sound like a hardcore Catholic, and I'm not, I assure you. The worst aspects of living when Lucie and Owen stalked the streets of York were the filth [and] the riskiness of the medical practices.
If you had lived in medieval England, what do you think you'd have done with your life?
I would, of course, love to think I might be Christine de Pisan, writing brilliant social commentary and a biography of a king that is still read today. But it would depend on my birth. People stayed in their social categories for the most part, and women at the extremes of society -- aristocratic or poor -- were given little choice. However, at the time [about which] I'm writing the middle class was growing quite strong. So I would hope to have been born in the new middle class, in a town, so I might be an apothecary like Lucie, or perhaps an innkeeper like Bess Merchet. But who knows? I might have been a healer like Magda Digby. Or a nun.
What was your inspiration for A Gift of Sanctuary?
The poetry of Dafydd ap Gwilym, a passing mention of John Lascelles being in trouble, the threat of a French invasion and the French king's support of Owain Lawgoch, Lancaster's Marcher lordships being on the south coast, [and] the old Welsh laws regarding marriage. All dovetailed nicely with an urge to explore whether Owen could go home again.
You long ago established Owen Archer as coming from Wales. Did that decision reflect your interest in the history of Wales?
I had no idea how interesting Welsh history was until I asked a few friends for a reading list and spent time in Wales. It's been a revelation. Before that I was fascinated by the idea of Wales, the romance of Wales.
Did you spend a great deal of time in Wales, in order to establish your settings correctly?
I spent almost two months, spread over two summers, in Wales and at the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth. If I ever win the publishing lottery, I'll buy a small house in St. David's for R&R. It's simply magical.
Why, as you show it in A Gift of Sanctuary, did the English consider the Welsh such an inferior people?
Good question. I'll sound like Owen when I say that the uninvited conquerors need to consider the natives inferior in order to sleep, eh? Beyond that, the Welsh seemed to the English less advanced, more primitive, and so the English thought them inferior. Sounds horribly familiar, doesn't it?
It's interesting that, while Scottish history seems to have received some acclaim -- through movies such as Mel Gibson's Braveheart, for instance -- there hasn't been similar interest in the great figures of Welsh history. Aren't there delights in that area's past that those of us with an interest in history would benefit from knowing?
Well, let's see, there's Arthur, Merlin, Gawain, Guinevere, Mordred, Morgaine. And then there's Owain Glendywr (Owen Glendower to Shakespeare), who almost succeeded in bringing back Welsh rule in the early 15th century; Owain Lawgoch who became a French hero and was threatening enough to King Edward to be assassinated; and Llewellyn the Great, Llewellyn the Last, Nest, Dafydd ap Gwilym. And that's just taking us up to the early 15th century.
The concept of religious pilgrimages is essential to your story in A Gift of Sanctuary. Who were the people who made such pilgrimages, and why did they go?
Actually, look at the members of Chaucer's pilgrimage and you'll get a taste for how catholic the appeal of pilgrimage was. If you could afford the time away and the cost of food and board when an abbey guesthouse was not available, you might well consider it. Merchants and knights, clergy, middle-class women and aristocratic women, and nuns all went on pilgrimage. They went to do penance for great sins, thank God for bringing them through terrible times, to satisfy vows, to ensure their places in heaven, and apparently occasionally merely to have a vacation. I suspect that the latter were mostly confined to pilgrimages within the kingdom, such as to Canterbury, Beverley, and York.
If you could have written any other novel in this genre -- not necessarily just a historical crime novel, but crime novels in general -- which would it have been?
I was about to say, "Oh, that's easy," but I immediately thought of more than one. At the moment I'd say Kate Ross's The Devil in Music, which is heartbreakingly brilliant. Before I read Kate's last novel I would have said Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose. Or -- wait -- Daphne du Maurier's My Cousin, Rachel. A Daughter of Time, by Josephine Tey. Or anything by Raymond Chandler -- his style was brilliant. This is quite impossible. I'll stop.
Who is your ideal reader?
Me. Seriously. I'm a very picky reader, but also a very appreciative one.
What do you think are the chief strengths and weaknesses of your books? In what areas do you think you still need improvement as a novelist?
This is a question to raise the hackles of a writer! We struggle with our devils everyday. In private.
All of your novels thus far have been historicals. But have you thought about expanding your writing, either into other time periods or other genres?
OK, then, what sorts of books would you like to write at some time in the future?
At the moment I'm absorbed in the late Middle Ages, so I am sticking to the period for the time being. But I am keen to write some bigger books, more sprawling historical novels. As far as other periods, I should love to explore the English Civil War (17th century), the French revolution, the Viking age in England, the settlement of the American Northwest. I can't imagine writing about the present, however.
You're an American; you live in Seattle. Yet I've noticed that your books seem to be published in Britain first, then republished in this country. How did that arrangement come about? And has it been beneficial in making sure that the language and facts in your stories are spot on?
The British editions have been first since The Nun's Tale, I believe. Why? I believe it began when I suggested to my US editor that I loved my copyeditor in the UK, and wouldn't it be convenient to use the same copyedit of the manuscript. Somehow the politics of using the UK copyedit became using the UK typescript, and Bob's your uncle. It is brilliant having a UK copyeditor who can ask whether an unfamiliar phrase is an Americanism or a medievalism (or creativity). Actually, I also work very closely with my UK editor, Lynne Drew, who is a rarity in 1990s publishing -- an editor who is actively engaged in the book from start to finish.
I presume you are currently immersed in writing a seventh Owen Archer story. Can you tell me the title and maybe a little bit about the background for that story?
The title is A Spy for the Redeemer. I'm working on a dual plot -- Owen is trying to leave Wales for home, but is blackmailed into investigating a murder and wooed by the supporters of Owain Lawgoch, who wish to wrest control of Wales from the English. Lucie is dealing with a violent attack on her father's manor and coming to grips with how she resents Owen's frequent absences. I am exploring how difficult it was for a woman at that time to run two households alone. | December 1998
J. Kingston Pierce is the crime fiction editor of January Magazine.
Read a review of Candace Robb's newest novel, A Gift of Sanctuary.