Review: Not One of Us by Alis Hawkins
The latest book in the excellent and absorbing Teifi Coroner series has just been shortlisted for a prestigious Crime Writers Association Golden Dagger award and deservedly so.
It’s history brought to pulsing life, complete with the darkly unpleasant side of things. In this case it’s the unexplained death of a young girl, Lizzie Rees, which brings coroner Harry Probert-Lloyd into the story.
Harry’s under pressure right from the off, with his sight failing and affairs at Glanteifi, the estate he owns in a tensely precarious financial situation.
It’s coming up to quarter-day, when rents are due and Harry’s entrusted his affairs to a steward who doesn’t understand the intricate interdependencies of rural life, and is retiring soon anyway, so doesn’t show the necessary degree of care for those who might soon lose their homes because they can’t pay the rent.
Which sadly leads to another death, when one of the desperate tenants splices together a makeshift noose with which to hang himself.
As if that body count wasn’t enough there is soon another corpse, found by coracle-men on the river, and there are links between this drowned man and Lizzie’s apparent death from natural causes.
In order to fully understand what’s going on Harry has to cut through the net of rumour that soon entangles the truth of whatever happened to Lizzie, which involves seeking medical opinion from Dr Benton Reckitt and not-so-medical opinion, in the form of the local dyn hysbys, one of the countryside ‘wizards’ or ‘cunning men’ who were once common in Wales, able to predict the future, prescribe herbal remedies, divine water and so much more.
In the case of Dr Cadwgan Gwynne he is not only a rural wizard but also represents a way of life and set of beliefs that exist cheek-by-jowl with church and chapel.
The whole rural economy is threatened with change, as there are plans to build a woollen mill, full to the brim with new-fangled machines, which would take the place of individuals quietly making wool at home.
The railway is on the way, too, with plans to connect Carmarthen with Cardigan, where there are further plans to create a deep-water port and harbour of refuge. It’s all change.
Perhaps the biggest symbol of such upheaval and change is the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace where Harry’s trusty sidekick John Davies is found at the beginning of the novel, walking in wonder at the sight of the telescopes and elephants, the threshing machines and modern technology.
But along with wonder there is a sense of disquiet, too, as he imagines the impact some of these might have on the rural workforce:
“I tried to imagine the farms on the Glanteifi estate without their army of labourers and farm servants. With machines instead. What would happen to farmers helping each other – getting together to cut hay, to shear sheep? If it was all done with machines, everybody’d be on their own, wouldn’t they? No community at all. Just every farmer working by himself with his machines. It made me feel cold.”
Soon there are tensions between Harry and John, caused by the ill treatment of the estate’s tenants, to match those that hum around the death of Lizzie and the drowned man, who, it transpires, is one of her many admirers and an Englishman to boot.
But there is also work to do as they seek the truth by rural sleuthing and the more formal mechanisms of inquests.
These are often conducted in public houses where beer is served by pot boys even as the case proceeds, leading to increasingly raucous responses to both witness and evidence.
Not One of Us is the fourth in the Teifi Coroner series and is again superbly well-written and quietly gripping to a fault.
The fact I finished reading it at three in the morning should be evidence enough of that.
One of the book’s many pleasures – beyond the teasing mysteries of each death – is the felicity to the patterns, rhythms and calendar of life in rural Wales in the nineteenth century.
So we have the annual cattle-selling fair, Ffair Fegan which took place in Eglwyswrw on the first Monday after All Souls’ Day, complete with attendant debaucheries, or the custom of giving one’s betrothed a crown, coron fedw made of birch sticks as a token of one’s love and commitment.
Indeed, this novel might stand alone in having a plot twist which depends on Welsh love spoons and all these felicitous details add to the texture and atmosphere of the novel.
You don’t have to read the whole series in sequence and Not One of Us can be read very much in its own right, but one of the pleasures of reading the whole quartet is spending time getting to know the coroner as he faces his own trials and travails.
For as the cover blurb by Phil Rickman avers, here is ‘one of the most interesting historical crime creations of the year.’
There’s the suggestion at the end of Not One of Us that there are still more Teifi Coroner adventures to come and to enjoy.
This reviewer, for one will raise a full-to-the-brim mug of rustic cider to that fine prospect.
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