DEBORAH CROMBIE: Do you mind if I start on a personal note? At my very first Malice Domestic, which was somewhere in the... mumble mumble... early nineties... mumble mumble... I saw a name among the authors on the program that made my heart go pitter pat. Kate Charles! I'd read the first of her Book of Psalms mysteries, A Drink of Deadly Wine, and absolutely loved it. From that moment, I was determined to meet her, and I asked everyone I ran into if they knew her. Finally, someone pointed her out. I introduced myself, gushing fan and newbie author that I was, and she was as gracious as I would have imagined.
Kate Charles and I have now been friends for more than twenty years, and the only thing that gives me more pleasure than the chance to introduce her here on JRW today is the fact that there is a new Kate Charles book, False Tongues, featuring her curate detective Callie Anson, out this week!
But as long as we've known one another, there were parts of the story she's going to tell you today that I didn't know. I was riveted, as I am sure you will be.
The (Dead) King and I: A love story with a (sort of) fairy-tale ending
Like many other mystery readers, especially those with an Anglophile bent, I was introduced to the story of Richard III by the inimitable Josephine Tey in The Daughter of Time. What a wonderful book! Through the clever device of a-story-within-a-story, Tey explores the life and times of England’s most controversial king, examines the evidence provided by contemporary sources as well as human psychology, and leads the reader to the inevitable conclusion that he was a man much maligned by history – not to mention by Thomas More and Shakespeare! I was a teenager when I first encountered The Daughter of Time, and I was totally convinced by it. Perhaps it would be an exaggeration to say that I fell a little bit in love with Richard III, but I certainly developed an interest in him which has had lasting consequences.
I read all of the novels about him, and many of the factual accounts of his short life and reign. I joined the Richard III Society, took university courses in English history, and bought extra copies of to give to my friends for proselytising purposes.
1983 marked the 500th anniversary of Richard’s accession to the English throne, and it also marked my 10th wedding anniversary. To celebrate the two events, I persuaded my husband to travel from the US to England, where we joined the commemorations arranged by the Richard III Society. I had a booklet called ‘Ricardian Britain’, published by the Society, which determined the itinerary of our trip. It wasn’t the usual tourist trail by any stretch of the imagination: instead of London-Cotswolds-Oxford-York-Edinburgh, our stops included Gloucester (as in Duke of), Leicester (as in car park), and a charming little town in Shropshire called Ludlow, which possessed a castle where Richard had lived as a child. We made a return trip two years later, in 1985, for the Society’s solemn commemorations of the Battle of Bosworth, ending up at Bosworth Field on the battle anniversary, 22 August.
A year after that, I had managed to achieve my life goal of living in England, and began to discover – to my amazement – that most British people I encountered knew next to nothing about Richard III, and if they knew anything, it was likely to be the old hunchback-who-murdered-his-nephews chestnut.
My, how that has changed.
In August 2012, when those bones were dug up in that Leicester car park, suddenly the whole world became interested in Richard III. What an incredible story it was: due to the intuition and steely determination of one woman, Phillipa Langley, an archaeological dig was conducted on a site in the vicinity of where Richard was presumed to have been buried. On the first day, the very first trench uncovered the skeleton, and it had a markedly crooked spine. The latest advances in DNA technology made it possible to establish his identity beyond doubt. The timing seemed uncanny: had the discovery been made a few years earlier, technology would not have been advanced enough to do the DNA testing, and a few years later, the last surviving inheritors of Richard’s mitochondrial DNA, a Canadian cabinet-maker and an Australian woman, might not have been alive to confirm the match. Too bizarre for any writer to make up – a king in a car park, lost for centuries but now miraculously found.
Once the skeleton had a name, the wrangles began over the King’s final resting place. Westminster Abbey, where so many generations of royalty are entombed? Gloucester, from whence he derived his title? York Minster, where he wished to be laid to rest? Or Leicester, which had the bones and wasn’t about to give them up without a fight? My personal preference was for York Minster, not least because if the funeral had been held there, I would have had a pretty good chance of getting in; as a much larger building, it has far more than the 200 seats which were available for members of the public in Leicester Cathedral, and I have Friends in High Places at York Minster upon whose mercies I could have thrown myself. But that was not to be, and Leicester won out.
Of course I put my name in for the ticket lottery, and of course I was unsuccessful. But the king was to lie in repose in Leicester Cathedral for three days for the public to pay their respects, and that was something I wasn’t going to miss.
We decided to go on the first day, on the assumption – which proved entirely correct – that once people started seeing it on the news, the crowds would only increase. So on the Monday morning we drove to Leicester and joined the queue several blocks away from the cathedral. Someone came along to tell us that we could expect to spend about 4 1/2 hours in the queue; no one was discouraged into giving up. The weather was overcast and cold, but the atmosphere in the queue was extraordinary. It was by no means a festival atmosphere – people were respectful and a bit subdued, and everyone seemed to share the sense that they were taking part in history in the making. As we all shuffled along, there was quiet conversation, strangers becoming co-pilgrims for just a few hours. Volunteers passed along the queue giving out bottles of water and wrapped sweets, sharing leaflets and information. Photographers and video camera operators were everywhere. Though we didn’t know it, as we stood by the ‘Waiting Time: 2 hours’ sign, someone from a national newspaper snapped our photo and it appeared the next day. It’s an iconic image – me looking sad, resigned and cold; my husband, with a Union Jack bag, appearing a bit more cheerful.
In under two hours we were in the cathedral, standing beside the coffin of Richard III. I can hardly
describe the feeling of the weight of history at that moment. I said a prayer, shed a tear, and we were back outside again.
About 20,000 people filed past the coffin during those three days. I would never have forgiven myself if I hadn’t been one of them.
The funeral itself was broadcast live on television, and I found it intensely moving. The re-uniting of the king with his own prayer book. The lowering of the coffin, bare now of its sumptuous velvet pall, into the ground. The poem, written for the occasion by the Poet Laureate and read by Benedict Cumberbatch: ‘Grant me the carving of my name … Lost long, forever found.’
It was an extraordinary event in every sense. The king – my king – was laid to rest at last, with honour and dignity. Josephine Tey would have been very pleased.
And the fairy-tale ending?
Because of Richard III, and the travels I undertook in his footsteps, I now live in Ludlow, that beautiful town in the Welsh Marches where he spent the early years of his life. His life may have ended brutally, but for myself I couldn’t have written a better ending if I tried.
DEBS: I have goose bumps. What a moving and momentous occasion. I wish I had been there.
How about you, REDS and readers? Have you followed the story of the discovery of King Richard's remains? Do you believe that Tey was right, and that Richard has got his due at last?
Here's more about Kate's new book, False Tongues:
The Reverend Callie Anson should have learned her lesson by now: revisiting the past is seldom a good idea. But she succumbs to peer pressure and attends a reunion at her theological college in Cambridge, where she is forced to confront painful memories – and the presence of her clueless ex, Adam.
Meanwhile, in London, police officers Neville Stewart and Mark Lombardi are involved with the latest stabbing of a teenager. Was the victim – gifted, popular schoolboy Sebastian Frost – all he seemed to be, or was there something in his life that led inevitably to his death? The police find themselves plunged into the queasy world of cyber-bullying, where nothing may be as it seems.
While they're apart, Callie and Mark's relationship is on hold, and his Italian family continues to be an issue. Will Mark realise, before it's too late, that while his family will always be important to him, he is entitled to something for himself?
Kate Charles, a past Chairman of the Crime Writers’ Association and the Barbara Pym Society, is American by birth but has lived in England for almost thirty years. She is co-organizer of the annual St. Hilda’s Crime and Mystery Conference and a member of the prestigious Detection Club. Her books, including the Callie Anson series and the ‘Book of Psalms’ series, are set against the background of the Church of England.