The Apothecary Rose


Candace Robb


Mystery / Thriller


Date Reviewed:

December 17, 2020

think that I picked up The Apothecary Rose because I read a recent glowing review for A Choir of Crows, which just came out this year. A Choir of Crows is book number twelve in the Owen Archer mystery series, so rather than begin with book 12, I went to the beginning and read the first Owen Archer book.

The Owen Archer mysteries are set in 14th century medieval England. I started to think about all the mystery series set in that era that I have read.

Mistress of the Art of Death - (5 book series) by Ariana Franklin. Set in the reign of King Henry II. I have read the first two of these, and they were great.

John Shakespeare Mysteries - (7 book series) by Rory Clements. Set in the reign of Queen Elizabeth. I have read the first book.

Brother Cadfael - (20 book series) by Ellis Peters. Set during war between King Stephen & Empress Maud over the right to rule England. I have read the first two.

Knights Templar - (An astounding 32 books in this series) by Michael Jecks. Set in the reign King Edward II. I have read two of the books, #20 and #21. No idea why I started reading so deep into the series.

Matthew Shardlake Mysteries - (7 book series) by C. J. Sansom. Set in the rule of King Henry VIII. I have read the first two books, and they were well done.

And now I discover the Owen Archer Mysteries - (12 book series) by Candace Robb. Set in the rule of King Edward III.

Obviously, I am not going to run out of novels featuring medieval sleuths. I am sure that if I went looking, I could find several more series set in medieval England. And if I expanded into Georgian or Victorian era, the number of mysteries would be huge. The great Sherlock Holmes is set in Victorian England.

The Apothecary Rose is set in fourteenth century England. Owen Archer is a former archer; since he was blinded in one eye by French assassins, he has given up the life of a soldier, feeling that he is no longer fit to serve. It is pointed out to Owen that archers close one eye when aiming, so his disability should be no hindrance to him remaining as captain of the archers. Yet Owen wants to do something else with his life.

John Thoresby, who has both the titles of Lord Chancellor and also the Archbishop of York (this makes Thoresby one of the most powerful men in England, just below the King himself), calls Owen Archer to a meeting. It seems that an important aristocrat, Sir Oswald Fitzwilliam, has died under suspicious circumstances. Fitzwilliam was on a retreat at the abbey of York when he sicked and died. The odd thing is, just a few days prior, a pilgrim named Geoffery Montaigne, died in the infirmary of the abbey of York. Both men showed similar symptoms before they perished. Were they poisoned? Sir Fitzwilliam was an important man, if he was murdered, then John Thoresby would like to know who did the deed and why. Owen Archer is sent to York as a spy, can he uncover the possible plot?

In York, Owen passes himself off as a former soldier who wishes to begin new career, even at this late stage of his life (Owen is in his mid-thirties, which is a well-aged man in medieval times). Owen wants to work as an apprentice at the York apothecary. An apothecary is like a medieval pharmacy. There is a big garden behind the shop, where healing herbs and plants are grown. If Fitzwilliam and Montaigne were poisoned, then the deadly potion most likely came from that shop. The York apothecary is run by Master Nicholas Wilton, his apprentice is his lovely daughter Lucie.

Arriving in York, Owen meets up with the abbot at the abbey, and then secures a room in the inn next to the apothecary. He begins his investigation talking to the despised Digby, who works as a Summoner. A Summoner is a medieval occupation - Digby's job is to sneak around York and if he spies a citizen in immoral behavior, that person will be "summoned" to the abbey to pay a fine as penance for his sins. Naturally, Digby is loathed by the residents of York, but to him it is better to work as a summoner than to live in poverty in a hovel like his mother does, in ramshackled hut near the river Ouse.

As far as mysteries go, The Apothecary Rose is not too surprising. The reader is told in the opening prologue who commits the deaths of Montaigne and Fitzwilliam. The story is more of a "why-dunnit" than a "who-dunnit". It felt to me that this book was written with the intention of establishing Owen Archer in York, and introducing the reader to various denizens of York who will, presumably, re-appear in future volumes in the series. The characters like Lucie, brother Wulfstan, the abbot, John Thoresby, the innkeepers Bess and Tom Merchert - I suspect they will be heard from again.

Robb's world building seemed authenticate to me, I didn't notice any glaring anachronisms. The people acted in ways that sounded medieval to me. One misdeed bothered me - the villain throws a torch through a window to start a fire. But Owen's room is on the third floor, that would have taken an rather incredible heave. Especially since the window must have been closed - the setting is York in midwinter, and the story often relates how bitter cold the north of England is at that time of year. I don't know if glass windows existed in the 14th century, but certainly there would have been a shutter over the window to try and keep heat indoors.

The story of Owen Archer is interesting enough that I might read the next volume in the series. Perhaps now that Robb has established her set of characters, the mysteries will be more complex.