Lovers of historical murder mysteries will enjoy this exquisitely researched tale of dark goings-on set in Victorian Dorset and told in the vernacular of the time. Author Andy Charman explains the story behind Crow Court.
The paperback edition of Crow Court, a novel set in 19th century Wimborne Minster, is published by Unbound on February 3rd.
Crow Court is my first novel and I was proud to see it long-listed for the Desmond Elliot prize 2021. Set in Dorset and centred on Wimborne Minster, it tells the story of several townspeople who are drawn into a mystery surrounding the drowning of a choirboy and the disappearance of the choirmaster.
Rather than telling this story with a single narrative, I used Crow Court to explore the lives of as many different characters as possible, so the tale unfolds through fourteen episodes, each telling different aspects of the story. The narrative is passed from the vicar, to a cordwainer, to a wine-merchant, a farm-hand, a sailor, and a well-to-do composer of parlour music – among others.
While the events are entirely fictional, I was determined to make the characters and their lives as realistic as possible. It took a great deal of detailed research, to the level that, for example, every name and profession is drawn from census data. Most importantly, the voices needed to sound right, and rural labourers of the 1800s spoke in Dorset dialect.
Fortunately, William Barnes (1801-1886) left us fabulously detailed records of both the vocabulary and grammar of the time. Using this, I was able to attempt a recreation of fulsome Dorset expressiveness.
‘Proper trimmen crop o’ rushes here,’ says Bill Brown in the opening chapter. ‘You joinin’ us a-labourin’?’ asks his more mischievous friend, John Street.
After a lot of practice, I attempted a few sections as if narrated entirely by a farmhand. I kept the spelling modern for clarity, and aimed at as good a re-creation of Dorset dialect as I could manage; the jokes are predictably earthy.
Anyone who knows Wimborne Minster will find the setting of this novel familiar and it ranges out to Sturminster, Swanage and Lyme Regis. With such a broad survey, I hope that Crow Court captures the warmth, good-humour and quick-witted nature of the Dorset character.