A clever detective novel set in Colonial America

colonial americaFor most Americans, the history of our country’s early years revolves around a set of iconic images learned in elementary school, most of which are at best misleading: the Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock (they didn’t); witches burning at the stake in Salem (not true); Washington chopping down the cherry tree (really??); and . . . well, you get the point. What actually happened, and what it was like to live in pre-Revolutionary America, is all a blank to the overwhelming majority of us.


The Constable’s Tale: A Novel of Colonial America by Donald Smith

@@@@ (4 out of 5)


Short of reading an academic cultural history of the period, which is likely to be unreadable, the best and for all practical matters the only way to get a fix on life during those times is through historical fiction. From Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans to Geraldine Brooks’ Caleb’s Crossing, talented novelists have re-imagined life in Colonial America, giving us a window on what is otherwise invisible. Now comes Donald Smith’s The Constable’s Tale.

Structured as a detective novel, Smith’s tale vividly brings back to life the time shortly before the American Revolution when our colonial forebears were all loyal British subjects. The action takes place in the year 1759 when what Americans call the French and Indian Wars came to a head with the British victory at Quebec City.

The constable of the title is James Henry (“Harry”) Woodyard, Royal Constable of Craven County, North Carolina. Harry lives in New Bern, the second oldest town in the United States, with his bride, Toby; his mother and grandfather live nearby on the family’s growing plantation. Harry, whose post as constable is a volunteer position, is called into service when a traveler comes upon the brutal murder of the Campbell family on a neighboring farm.

The sheriff, the chief justice of the peace, and seemingly all of the townspeople quickly conclude that the murderer is Harry’s old friend, Comet Elijah, an old Native American of the Tuscarora tribe who mentored him as a young boy. Harry is convinced that his friend couldn’t possibly have murdered his neighbors, the Campbells. Determined to set Comet Elijah free from jail by identifying the real killer, Harry soon uncovers evidence pointing to someone else — and his quest to prove the man’s guilt and bring him to justice takes him on a months-long journey. Following his prey, Harry spends weeks traveling to Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Quebec, landing him in the midst of the climactic battle in the war between the British and the French for the control of North America.

The Constable’s Tale is highly satisfying as a detective novel, suspenseful and surprising to the end, but its true rewards lie in its depiction of life as it was lived in Colonial America. The story is peopled with characters who illustrate the full range of Colonial class structure, from the pampered British aristocrats who rule the colonies to the wealthiest colonial farmers and merchants to the underclass into which Harry was born.

One charming aspect of The Constable’s Tale is the author’s use of excerpts from an 18th century book entitled the Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior In Company and Conversation to head up each chapter. Harry has virtually memorized the book and uses it as a guide to shedding his lower-class ways so he can rise into the elite. Here’s one great example: “Run not in the Streets, neither go too slowly nor with Mouth open go not Shaking yr Arms kick not the earth with yr feet, go not upon the Toes, nor in a Dancing fashion.”

Donald Smith is the author of at least five historical novels as well as other books about Scotland and Scottish history.

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