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CARPE LIBRUM: Gwenyfar discusses Elizabeth Peters’ ‘The Murders of Richard III’

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Wilmington’s literary community keeps gaining accolades (two National Book Awards nominees in 2015) and attention in the press. With multiple established publishers in the state (Algonquin, Blair) and new smaller presses gaining traction (Lookout, Eno, Bull City), and a pair of well-regarded literary magazines out of UNCW, it is timely to shine a light on discussions around literary publishing. More so, it shows the importance of communicating a truthful story in our present world.

Welcome to Carpe Librum, encore’s biweekly book column, wherein I will dissect a current title or an old book—because literature does not exist in a vacuum but emerges to participate in a larger, cultural conversation. I will feature many NC writers; however, the hope is to place the discussion in a larger context and therefore examine works around the world.

Elizabeth Peters
The Murders of Richard III
Harper, 1974, pgs. 262

“Seriously, Jock, I don’t understand why these books aren’t on endcaps in libraries across the world!”

“Well,” he chuckled, “librarians certainly are heroic.”

I had been regaling him with the plot of my current mystery novel by Elizabeth Peters, famous for the Amelia Peabody series. She has a couple of additional mystery series, including the Jacqueline Kirby books. Kirby is a beautiful, smart and infinitely capable librarian, who uses her skills and connections as a librarian to solve mysteries and turn the table on people who take themselves far too seriously for their own good. This particular volume involved the guilt or innocence of Richard III of England, accused of murdering his two young nephews in order to seize the throne.

Reams and reams of paper have been devoted to this question in the last 500 years. The people who believe in Richard’s innocence are passionate. In this particular volume, Peters imagines a gathering of Ricardians (as his supporters call themselves) at an English county estate for a weekend. This group believes they finally have found the letter written by Elizabeth of York (who would later marry Henry Tudor and end The War of the Roses), Richard’s niece—and the sister of the two missing princes—all the while professing her desire to marry him. Of the many charges leveled against Richard by the Tudor media misdirection machine, one was that he poisoned his wife, Anne, and intended to force his niece into an incestuous marriage. The premise of this letter is the marriage was Elizabeth’s idea, and she would not have proposed it had her brothers not still been alive. The existence of such a document would upend 500 years of speculation and suspicion.

So this document surfaces at the executive committee meeting of the Ricardians, where each participant is dressed in character as one of the players: King Henry VI, King Edward IV, King Richard III, The Duke of Clarence, Lady Anne, Elizabeth of York, etc. Jaqueline is invited along, allegedly to help authenticate the manuscript. Shortly after the weekend commences, people start getting attacked, in order and in connection with the deaths attributed to Richard III. When her date for the weekend, playing The Duke of Clarence, is found upside down in a wine barrel (Clarence’s legend centers around drowning in a butt of Malmsey wine), Jacqueline decides it is time to act. Someone has to get to the bottom of what is going on. Unfortunately, since no one has actually been killed—only injured and embarrassed—the guests and host refuse to bring in the police. The prank deaths continue and include two tableaux of beheadings that are realistic enough to require further investigation.

This is still the 1970s, so Richard’s body had yet to be found. The resurgence of interest in the Wars of the Roses generated by his discovery in 2012 and proper burial (and by the popular success of “Game of Thrones,” which is clearly the Wars of the Roses with dragons thrown in) had not gripped the Anglophiles and literature devotees of the world. Also, frankly, the world of academia in the 1970s was even more chauvinistic than now. So Jacqueline is pretty clear she is alone in this quest—neither her date nor any of the other men present will be allies. In the end, she does solve the mystery and avert the only real attempt at murder.

In real life, Peters had her fill of academia and the struggles of life in a male-dominated world that had no room for her. In these books, Jacqueline, the smarter, more capable researcher in the room, gets to save the day and win—even when all the men around want only to belittle her. Peters enjoys using Jacqueline to show off her research skills, having her drop references and cross-references in conversations and correct the misattributed or outright wrong statements of other characters. It is an interesting idea that, through a story firmly rooted in a time of male dominance, especially physically in battle, Peters manages to use the Wars of the Roses to explore second-wave feminism. Still, she doesn’t let her opinions get in the way of a good story—it is, first and foremost, a captivating mystery novel.

I also adore the soap opera that is the Plantagenets, and I can bore my friends to tears quickly with lengthy soliloquies about various players in the saga. So any book that brings their foibles to life in a remotely realistic and entertaining way has got my attention. As much as I love Amelia Peabody’s specific and powerful first-person narrator’s voice in her series, it is quite interesting to see how Peters views the tableaux of what was then (for her) contemporary academic life. On the one hand, it reminds us of how far we have come—and how far we have to go.

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