Crow Court by Andy Charman
In the Dorset market town of Wimborne Minster, as wedding bells ring through the bright Spring morning, a choirboy is found drowned among the rushes and weeds of the River Allen. Andy Charman’s debut novel connects thirteen more episodes, spread out over more than a decade in the mid-19th century, to that initial tragedy and scandal. Key characters include a bereaved cordwainer who sleepwalks onto his wife’s grave every night, a panicked, lovestruck stablehand making a midnight flit, a young Admiral Nelson fan whose play-acting goes awry, a labourer-turned-sailor rounding the Cape, and many other memorable folk.
Each of their chapters is carefully voiced, totally convincing in its historical texture, and appropriately peppered with Victorian Dorset dialect. That ranges from the self-explanatory (‘proper trimmen crop o’ rushes’, ‘bangen girt wave’) to the more cryptic (‘spindly little gawk-hammer’, ‘dewbit’). But the language never trips up the story, and there’s a helpful Glossary at the back.
Crow Court always keeps one beady eye on the mystery it began with, but is in no hurry to resolve it. Confident that he has a cracking conclusion up his sleeve, Charman takes his time exploring each little narrative thread, finding the humour and humanity in everything. Even the episode most loosely related to the drowned choirboy (Shakespeare’s Thief) is entertaining in its own right. Indeed, some of the chapters have previously been published as self-contained short stories.
This is an impressive, innovative first novel and a piece of historical fiction like no other.