Tuesday, August 26, 2014

That Rings a Bell...Donna Fletcher Crow

Several months ago, (April) author Donna Fletcher Crow was my guest and talked to us about her latest mystery, A Jane Austen Encounter. It is a fabulous read and I highly recommend it to any Jane Austen fan. Today Donna is back for a visit and shares some fascinating information about bells. As Donna states, the bells are something of a theme in her latest Monastery Murder, A Newly Crimsoned Reliquary. It has my interest already.

Please join me in welcoming Donna Fletcher Crow back to More Agreeably Engaged. I am so happy you decided to stop by again.

That Rings a Bell

I’ve always been fascinated by church bells. I love the angelic sound turning one’s thoughts to heaven or calling one to worship. I especially love the unique English method of change-ringing, done by pattern rather than melody— like a silver waterfall of sound cascading down from on high.

But that’s not all church bells are used for. Bells can give an alarm, warn of danger in case of fire or war. Bells can tell of sorrow and death when they are tolled, often half-muffled, at a funeral or the commemoration of a death.

And the somber warning is exactly what the bells token for Felicity, heroine of A Newly Crimsoned Reliquary, when she returns to Oxford for the first time since her undergraduate days. The Quarter Boys on Cornmarket began striking the hour when suddenly:

. . . the sound of bells drowned out everything else as all across Oxford, from seemingly every tower, a glorious cacophony called everyone to stop and look upward.

Felicity  stood stock still in the middle of the pavement and raised her face to the blue sky above the tower. The bells had been one of the things she had missed most about Oxford. At the monastery they had a single bell, rung to call worshipers to prayer, but nothing like the glorious change-ringing from Oxford’s numerous towers that sang out over the city for every Sunday, holiday and civic occasion.

Somehow, though, this sounded different from the glorious change-ringing peals that Felicity remembered. This was no sprightly silver shower that lifted the spirits, but a measured tone sounding like an ominous warning with only half of each stroke ringing brightly, the backstroke a muffled echo.

Then began a stately, single toll of the deep-toned tenor bell. Almost subconsciously Felicity counted as the tolls came with perhaps ten seconds between each ring: two slow tolls, then a longer pause, the pattern repeated three times. When the final echo of the last muted knell faded Felicity again turned her steps along the High Street, but this time without the joyous spring that had carried her forward before.

How odd that her return to Oxford should be met with a muffled toll.


Bells, especially half-muffled bells symbolizing death, are something of a theme in my latest Monastery Murder, so much so that my working title for the book was “A Muffled Tolling.” But in order to write about bell ringing, as with everything else I write about, I had to experience it first. So high on the agenda of my research trip, was a session with the Oxford Society of Change Ringers.

The Rev. Peter Groves, Rector of St. Mary Magdalen’s in Oxford, had kindly helped me with research for earlier projects and at my request he put me in touch with the society that regularly rings at St. Mary Mag’s. Simon Bond, their leader, gathered ringers Kirsty, Helen, Mark, Stephan, and Rozy and brought a selection of muffles to demonstrate for me high in the ringing chamber of the tower.

Having read Dorothy L Sayers’ classic The Nine Tailors, I was familiar with the concept of bells changing places in the ring according to a numerical pattern, but seeing the intricacies performed in front of me was dizzying. My non-mathematical brain could never follow that, no matter how much it delighted my ears. With Simon’s careful tutelage, however, I soon got the feel of the downward pull, then letting the rope slip back through my hands on the upward swing, while holding to the sally (fuzzy grip at the end of the rope). And I was able to pick out the variance in sound on the bells Simon had half-muffled— just as Felicity, standing on an Oxford street corner was able to do.

I loved my bell ringing lesson, but unfortunately, I had another appointment that prevented my joining them in the pub after practice— another cherished bell ringers' tradition.

 A Newly Crimsoned Reliquary  is book 4 in The Monastery Murders:

In spite of Antony’s warning her not to get into trouble when she sets off to do a spot of translating in an Oxford convent, Felicity just can’t seem to avoid danger. But it’s hardly Felicity’s fault that severed body parts start showing up in ancient holy reliquaries. Or that Felicity and one of the nuns is assaulted. Could the Medieval Latin document Felicity is translating for the sisters have anything to do with the repeated attacks?

Martyr's Monument

When Antony arrives in Oxford with a group of students he is cool to the news that Felicity has forged an uneasy friendship with his sister Gwen, whom he hasn’t seen for years. And any family reconciliation is further complicated by Antony’s obligation to rush to the bedside of his dying uncle in Blackpool.

The exultation of All Saints’ Day plunges to the anguish of grief on All Souls’ when Felicity encounters yet another body. Who will be the next victim of the murderer stalking the shadows of Oxford’s hallowed shrines?


Donna Fletcher Crow is the author of 43 books, mostly novels of British history.  The award-winning Glastonbury, A Novel of the Holy Grail, an epic covering 15 centuries of English history, is her best-known work.  She is also the author of the clerical mysteries The Monastery Murders: A Very Private Grave, A Darkly Hidden Truth and An Unholy Communion as well as the Lord Danvers series of Victorian true-crime novels and the literary suspense series The Elizabeth & Richard Mysteries. Donna and her husband live in Boise, Idaho.  They have 4 adult children and 13 grandchildren. She is an enthusiastic gardener.

To read more about all of Donna’s books and see pictures from her garden and research trips go to: http://www.donnafletchercrow.com/ 
You can follow her on Facebook at: http://ning.it/OHi0MY

Donna, you gave me just enough information to make me want a lot more! Getting a lesson on bell ringing must have been quite a treat. I hope you will tell us more about the bells another time. I have always loved murder mysteries and this one sounds excellent. Best wishes with its release. 

Donna Fletcher Crow has kindly offered an eBook of A Newly Crimsoned Reliquary, (mobi or pdf) as a giveaway and the giveaway is international. Thank you, Donna. We want to hear your share in the conversation so leave a comment to be entered in the giveawayBe sure to include your email address in the comment. To prevent unwanted spam, put your email address with an (at) instead of @. Winners will be chosen in a random drawing. Giveaway ends at midnight on September 1, 2014. Good luck to all.


  1. I never gave bell ringing much thought until I saw a BBC mystery program with that as the back drop. I would love to sit down and watch bell ringers in person even a practice session would be impressive. It's all fascinating. Your story sounds fascinating too.

  2. I've always loved the bells, sop;hia. I wonder if the mystery you watched was Dorothy L Sayers' THE NINE TAILORS by any chance--that is the classic in the field. Thank you for your comment.

  3. P.S. I see that comment published as coming from stan Crow--my husband. We are out of town and I'm using his computer.

  4. What a fascinating post. Bell ringing is not something I think about a lot and yet it is something so ingrained in our history we take it for granted. The book sounds superb. The sort of book I would love. Thank you. w.jones64(at)btinternet.com

  5. Thank you for stopping by and for entering the giveaway, Wendy. Can you imagine Sunday morning in England without bells?

  6. Yes - quintessentially English, but when you live 100 yards from the church it can get a bit much, especially when they have ringing practice. (Every Tuesday evening, in case you're interested.) The book sounds interesting - a reliquary was at the heart of one of mine, too!

  7. Lesley--how lovely to hear from you! I have read some of your books--love them!