Drive to the far west of Wales and you’ll eventually get to the Teifi valley, officially designated as an area of “Outstanding Natural Beauty”.
As shown in None So Blind, however, this place of rolling hills, sparkling streams and grazing sheep was anything but idyllic in the nineteenth century.
The middle of the century saw a period of rural unrest as tenant farmers – often dressed as women and with blackened faces – rose up in protest over rising rents for farmland at a time of falling prices for sheep and cattle.
They called themselves ‘Rebecca and her daughters’, taking for inspiration a passage in the Bible where Rebecca talks of the need to ‘possess the gates of those who hate them.’
The Rebecca rioters vented their anger against toll gates which they viewed as the manifestation of high taxes. They also enacted retribution against members of the community felt to have transgressed its expected standards of behaviour, using the tradition of the Ceffyl Pren (“wooden horse”) in which offenders would be paraded around their neighbourhood tied to a wooden frame.
The time of the Rebecca Riots provides a background for None so Blind, the first of the Harry Probert-Lloyd Mysteries, a historical mystery series by Aiis Hawkins.
It begins with an unnamed narrator who is a secret witness to an event, the consequences of which will not become apparent until seven years later when a set of bones are uncovered beneath a fallen tree.
Harry Probert-Lloyd, son of the local squire and county magistrate, believes they are the remains of a servant girl he loved and was forced to abandon. When an inquest delivers a verdict of accidental death, he determines to seek out the truth for himself. His quest brings him into conflict not only with his father but with people who were once Rebecca rioters.
Harry’s training as a lawyer helps him penetrate half truths and lies. He has one significant problem however: his sight is failing and he is slowly going blind. He enlists the services of a law clerk, John Davies, to be his “eyes”.
We’ve become accustomed in recent years to fictional ‘detective’ figures whose characters are flawed in some regard. Harry’s blindness is considerably more than a mere literary trick to give him more ‘character’. It changes how people react to him and how he has to conduct his investigation, making him far more acutely aware of nuances and gaps in what people tell him.
… I had not appreciated just how much of what we say is dictated by what we observe; a look of embarrassment causing a change of topic, a flush of enthusiasm and a bright eye egging one on … confusion prompting a clearer explanation…
It also becomes central to Harry’s relationship with John Davies. They begin as employer and hired servant but evolve into friends whose mutual desire for justice and the truth enable them to cross the divide between their respective status in society. As they warmed to each other (despite some misunderstandings at times) I found myself equally warming towards this pair.
The plot is well constructed and the feelings of guilt experienced by Probert-Jones that he didn’t do more to help his former girlfriend, give the novel some emotional depth. But the real strengths of None so Blind lie in its historical context of the Rebecca Riots. I knew of the riots through history lessons in school. They were always portrayed as a kind of working class hero campaigners, the poor men willing to stand up and say “no more” .
It was fascinating to learn through None so Blind that the rioters became a force feared by the very people they had set out to aid. As Harry’s father explains, farmers took to hiding in their crops to avoid being dragooned by the rioters into joining their cause. Whatever genuine grievance compelled the rioters to take up their weapons, was lost as the protest gained momentum. Even Harry recognises that:
… once people unaccustomed to power have felt its potency, they are apt to begin wielding it indiscriminately, with results that are usually far from quaint.
None so Blind has a lot to say about justice, responsibility and the treatment of the poor. It does so in a way that was entertaining and engaging. The dynamics between Harry and John work well and the use of an unidentified narrator adds a further level of mystery to a tale which contains many secrets. The historical background was also well managed – Alis Hawkins avoids the mistake (unforgivable in my eyes) of many a writer who, having done their research, feel compelled to include it within the text. Instead we get an introductory note about law and order, and the roles of police and coroners in nineteenth century west Wales, plus a lengthy explanation about the Rebecca Riots.
This weaving of history and fiction reminded me of two other series I’ve enjoyed in the past: the highly successful series by C. J Sansom set in Tudor England that features the hunchback lawyer Matthew Shardlake and the series by Bernard Knight about a coroner in King Richard’s reign. Maybe the Harry Probert-Lloyd series will become another of my favourite series.
None So Blind by Alis Hawkins: Footnotes
Alis Hawkins grew up on a dairy farm in Cardiganshire, Wales (part of the Teifi Valley). She trained as a speech and language therapist but spent three decades variously working in a burger restaurant, bringing up two sons, working with homeless people, providing support to children and young people on the autism spectrum.
Her first novel, Testament, was published in 2008 by Macmillan and was translated into several languages. It has recently been acquired for reissue, along with her medieval trilogy of psychological thrillers, by Sapere Books. Alis is a founder member of the Welsh crime writing collective Crime Cymru.
None So Blind, published in 2017, is the first in a series featuring Harry Probert-Lloyd. Later books in the series are: In Two Minds (reviewed here ), Those Who Know and Not One Of Us.
Alis is one of the authors featured in my Meet A Welsh Author series. She shared insights about her approach to historical research and her favourite writing space.
This review was published at Bookertalk.com in 2019. This is an updated version with formatting changes to improve readability and upgrade to the WordPress block editor platform. It is re-published in support of #throwbackthursday hosted by Davida @ The Chocolate Lady’s Book Review Blog.