Here is why you should read Guns in the North: it has a handsome, swashbuckling, charming, clever, but somewhat rash hero and it is with written with buckets of humour and historical accuracy. Somehow Chisholm makes you want to live in a drafty castle in Northern England where the food is moldy and the plague not far of, just because it would be so much fun to hang out with her characters!
Sir Robert Carey arrives in Carlisle in the summer of 1592 to be the new Deputy Warden. Basically his job will be to keep law and peace along the English-Scottish border. Which is easier said than done; he has less than 10 men, the local economy is built upon the theft of cattle and horses. Even the local law enforcement dabbles in crime from time to time. Corruption runs so deep in Elizabethan England that everyone (including Sir Robert’s boss) is surprised that he refuses to be bribed (Carey’s servant calls him “(…) the only man ever at Court capable of turning down a bribe”). People are rather surprised that he has come up North; in London, he was a courtier and he seems made for that life. He is loves music, clothes he cannot afford and is rather good at charming royalty. But to the North he has come and there is plenty enough for him to do.
The three stories contained in this book take place over three short weeks. In that time our Sir Robert must deal with two murders, numerous cattle raids, haymaking, a trip to the Scottish court, torture, a masquerade as a commoner, faulty firearms and a court case. Each story contains its own mystery, but there is an eclectic cast of characters that remains pretty constant. There is Dudd (Carey’s always mournful and harassed, but competent, sergeant), Scrope (Carey’s useless boss and brother-in-law), Lowther (Carey’s corrupt and villainous rival), Elizabeth (Carey’s clever, capable love, but alas tragically married to a brute of an earl) and Janet (Dudd’s terrifying wife).
The stories are intended as mysteries or crime stories, but really I cared less about solving the puzzles and more about what happened to the people in the stories. Not all of the character’s were well developed, but I really enjoyed Elizabeth. In one sense she is the typical love interest: most of her conversations and thoughts are about Carey. But she is also a complex character in her own right; she is much smarter than Robert, and although she loves him, she stands up for her own beliefs of right and wrong. For example, she refuses to leave her abusive husband for Robert because she values marriage vows made before god. It is a pity she does not get much of a story arch of her own.
Carey was a real guy and I was so intrigued by the man that I jumped straight to googling him and listening to podcasts, after finishing the book. You can feel the authors love for this guy in every word she writes and I get it, Sir Robert had a fascinating background and life. His father was rumored to be the illegitimate son of Henry VIII and Mary Boleyn (as in the other Boleyn Girl), making Queen Elizabeth Carey’s aunt. Chisholm has given Carey quite a few of his putative grandad’s traits (a temper, vanity and arrogance), but I do not know if he was as handsome as Chisholm makes him out to have been. Do you think so based on his portrait? Anyway, I am willing to go along with it for the story’s sake.
Prior to becoming a warden in the North, he had worked for Walshingham, spy master for Elizabeth I, fought against the Armada and in the Netherlands. Also, he had been to Edinburgh and the Scottish king apparently had a serious crush on Carey. King James wrote letters to Elizabeth and asked for the handsome young man to come for another visit. These are quite a few accomplishments that are just mentioned in passing in the book, but are entirely true. Many of the stories are based on his actual memoirs!
The author freely admits that there were a few things she got wrong in the first books, but really her historical research shines through. If you want to know more about Carey you can listen to an excellent talk given by Chrisholm here.
There were some strange bits of the book I am not a super fan of; Chisholm’s portrayal of gay men, including king James, is a bit strange; most of her gay characters are pedophiles rather than gay, but I guess at the time people did not make the distinction. Also the women character’s needed a bit more development in my opinion. But still, this is only a small part of the story and the book is a fun read. There is a second volume of Carey stories out there and if I come across it I will definitely buy it.