Deborah Grabien’s Haunted Ballads series

Come in. . . .I’ll turn down the sound system slightly. Yes, that’s ‘Matty Groves’. No, not the one off the classic Fairport Convention album, Liege And Lief, from ’69, but rather one from a Dutch concert they did in ’75. And before that, you heard the Pentangle doing ‘Cruel Sister’ off their 1993 recording of the same name, and if you were listening some hours ago to what I was playing, you would also have heard Steeleye Span’s version of ‘The Weaver and the Factory Maid’ from Parcel of Rogues, one of their early albums. I think somewhere around here is also a recording of Martin Carthy’s original ‘Famous Flower of Serving Men’ which he did nearly thirty years ago.

Ahhhhh, a good mystery series for me is always an utter joy to read. It certainly doesn’t hurt, as you probably could guess from my opening remarks about what I was listening to this midsummer afternoon, that these are indeed English mysteries centered around folk ballads. And a good series with a premise like we have here is, in my opinion, a rare thing indeed!

Now over the years, I’ve been lucky enough to find some very good series. I have always started and been disappointed by more debut mystery novels than I really care to remember! Most were barely worth reading for more than fifty pages; some weren’t worth reading beyond the first chapter as they were truly horrid. Either the characters were uninteresting or, worse yet, the mystery itself was poorly presented. So even if a series has really good mysteries in its novels but, as I noted above, the characters were so uninteresting that they failed to engage me, I won’t read it.

Not so here — everything in this series works: the characters are distinct from each other, the writing of their conversations is quite fine, and the plot manages to move along without getting tangled up in itself, a situation that has ruined many an otherwise promising mystery. It is not a criticism of the Haunted Ballads series for me to say that the series is neither ‘deep’ nor ‘meaningful’, because it appears that it was never meant to be anything other than a well-written entertainment for the reader to take pleasure in experiencing, a ever-so-rare creature indeed!

Now if you’re used to Stephen King or George R.R. Martin-sized tomes which run to eight hundred or so pages (!) and require days of reading to slog through, these roughly two hundred page reads might seem a bit more than slightly slim. They would be if they weren’t mysteries. In my opinion, a good mystery is little more than a novella bulked up slightly to allow for more character development by the author as the very best mysteries are around two hundred pages in length and better not under any circumstances go much more than three hundred or so pages. In a mystery, I always appreciate tightness of writing which Grabien gets it exactly right.

At the center of these mysteries are Scots folk musician / folklorist / historian / expert house restorer Rupert Darnley ‘Ringan’ Laine and his lover, Penelope Wintercraft-Hawkes. Ringan has a well-respected and rather profitable group, Broomfield Hill Quartet, while Penny (as she prefers to be called most of the time) has a small touring theater group, the Tamburlaine Players. which is equally well-respected and as profitable. (When you read the novels, you’ll see why this is important. And do click on the links in the names of their groups as each name tells its own tale.) Though lovers of long-standing, they do not live together. (This also is crucial to the series.)

Both the Broomfield Hill and the Tamburlaine Players feel like real groups that I’ve worked with over the years. Ringan’s group has him on a guitar called Lord Randall and vocals, an Irish fiddler who also occasionally plays the pennywhistle, a female vocalist who’s also a damn fine flutist, and an accordionist who also plays the concertina and hurdy gurdy.

I must admit that the Tamburlaine Players made less of an impression on me as I’m really not a theater person, but they feel right. I’ve spent a lot of time around musicians over the years but very little time behind the scenes of theater groups, but it’s obvious Grabien has been around theater groups quite a bit.

Also worth noting is that the series is set in the present day though, of course, the hauntings themselves reach back centuries in time and, as our author tells it, were the result of the actual events that inspired the ballads we now know as ‘The Weaver and The Factory Maid’, ‘The Famous Flower of Serving Men ‘, ‘Matty Groves’, ‘Cruel Sister’ and ‘New Slain Knight’. Good ballads these are, with the only title that I find less than pleasing being ‘The Famous Flower of Serving Men’. (I’ve always liked one of its alternative versions which goes by the name of ‘The Border Widow’ but I understand why she didn’t use that version as it wouldn’t quite fit her plot.) Now we have really no idea quite when these ballads originated. For example, ‘Matty Groves’ is believed to have originated no later than the early 17th century with a probable allusion to the ballad in Beaumont and Fletcher’s play The Knight of the Burning Pestle published in 1613.

Keep in mind that, as Grabien said in an email to me, ‘Well the entire point of the so-called backstories on these songs is a song is never going to be able to give you more than one person’s POV, even if it wants to.’ Each novel takes a ballad and riffs off it to look at what might have really happened. As the woman in the Oysterband’s ‘Oxford Girl’ song laments ‘She says: I never had a chance to prove them wrong / My time was short, the story long / No I never had a chance to prove them wrong / It’s always them that write the song.’ So Grabien offers us a possible backstory to each of the ballads she uses as a plot decice.

The first in the series, The Weaver and the Factory Maid, sets up the premise of the series very nicely — ghosts are very real and many, many folk can experience their presence with that awareness being anything from being very, very cold on a hot midsummer’s day for no reason at all to seeing visions of the ghosts in their own time complete with smell, sound, and even touch being quite real. All of the myriad manifestations are geographically specific — one of the strong points of this series is that the locales, real or imagined, all are detailed enough to have a feel of reality as our author has a fine sense of place!

(Grabien, in an email to me says ‘She was actually born in Canada — I had one Brit parent, one American parent, and a Commonwealth (in those days; I was born in 1954) upbringing. I moved back to the UK in the late seventies and stayed in London until my daughter was a toddler, then moved back to San Francisco.’)

Like all of the novels in this series, The Weaver and the Factory Maid is a quick read. At 182 pages that’s not surprising! Grabien is quite simply a superb writer with plot, action, and characterization all happily co-existing. All of the characters, and particularly Ringan and Penny, come accross as decent human beings thrown in over their heads who figure out rather nicely what needs to be done in order that the restless souls can move on to where ever they should be. Oh, and there were just enough plot twists to surprise me from time to time. Each novel also has just enough of a different perspective, i.e.The Famous Flower of Serving Men shifts the story from being centered on Ringan to being largely focused on Penny, to show that Grabien cares about fleshing out her characters so that the series disn’t  get stale.

The series, at least for now, stopped with New Slain Knight as St. Martin’s, as publishers all often do, dropped the series before it finished. Hopefully we’ll see more novels someday.

(St. Martin’s Press, 2003 – 2007)

About Cat Eldridge

I’m the publisher of Green Man Review and Sleeping Hedgehog.

My current reading is the Wylding Hall novella by Elizabeth Hand, Simon R. Green’s Night Fall, and listening to Rita Mae Brown’s Crazy As A Fox.

I’m listening to a whole bunch of new Celtic and Nordic new releases but I’ll dip in my music collection for such artists as Blowzabella, Jay Ungar and Molly Mason, and Frifot as the weather stays nasty.