Book Review: Robert McCammon’s Speaks the Nightbird

Posted September 17, 2012 by Kathy Davie in Book Reviews

I received this book for free from the library in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Book Review: Robert McCammon’s Speaks the Nightbird

Speaks the Nightbird


Robert McCammon

historical fiction, suspense in Hardcover edition on September 1, 2002 and has 726 pages.

Explore it on Goodreads or Amazon.

First in the Matthew Corbett historical suspense series revolving around Matthew, a judge’s clerk. This story takes place in Fount Royal, Carolina in 1699.

In 2004, Speaks the Nightbird won the Alabama Author Award – Fiction and the Independent Publisher Book Award (IPPY) for Historical/Military Fiction in 2003.

My Take

Wow, talk about a trip to the past. And an amazing example of psychological terror affecting the ignorant.

McCammon does an excellent job of conveying the atmosphere of the time from the food to the traveling conditions. The bathing and clothing options. And most especially the ignorance. It certainly made me happy to have the fridge, microwave, and bathroom handy! Not to mention our current standard of healthcare!! EEEEEKKK!

It was an appalling trial with even worse detection. Definitely an excellent example of how much policework and law has improved since 1699. What they considered acceptable evidence in those days…oh, lord. It was just maddening how the powers-that-be treated her. All they wanted was an official stamp making what they wanted to do acceptable. Nor can I understand Woodward’s accepting this! Then there are the crimes that they think are acceptable! Beating one’s wife so badly that bone shows and an arm breaks. The abuse of one’s children! Ahh, such fine Christian people. Gag.

I really don’t understand why Woodward refuses to listen to his clerk when he claims to have such esteem for him. It’s Matthew’s ache for the truth that has him following strangers in the night, diving into the depths, breaking into people’s privacy, and finally, breaking the law.

These people are such hypocrites. First they claim that all Rachel has to do is say the Lord’s Prayer or swear upon the Bible and as soon as she touches the Bible and proclaims her innocence, they turn it around to claim that her Master has done something to enable it.

We do finally learn why the waistcoat means so much to Woodward. I just wanted to cry.

Well, I expect that Eben Ausley will be one of the interests in Queen of Bedlam.

The Story

Magistrate Kingsbury disappeared on his trek to Fount Royal, hence Woodward’s journey into the primitive conditions prevailing between Charles Town and the new town of Fount Royal.

Its leader is anxious to retain the stamp of legality to ensure that his town will rise above this taint of witchcraft. But Bidwell’s desire for a good reputation wars greedily with his desperate need to rid the town of the disasters that have befallen it. Disasters he attributes to the witch, Rachel Howarth.

I’d like to think that if Woodward hadn’t fallen so desperately ill that he’d have listened to his clerk and not been so easily swayed to Bidwell’s version.

Almost every single person in town is demanding that Woodward hang the woman. That there’s no need to actually speak to her. She’s obviously guilty.

And they wonder why Rachel refuses to speak to them…

The Characters

Matthew Corbett is Woodward’s clerk. Rescued by him some five years ago from the asylum he’d landed in when his parents died. Matthew has always been curious. Curious enough to want to learn all he can and enough to not cease questioning those around him. Magistrate Isaac Woodward is a judge sent to Fount Royal to learn what happened to Kingsbury and to preside over the witch’s trial. He looks upon Matthew as a son.

Rachel Howarth is the accused witch. She’s beautiful and dark-skinned due to her Portuguese-English ancestry, which is enough to set many against her. To embrace the charges of which she’s accused. It doesn’t help that her husband Daniel was brutally murdered.

Robert Bidwell is a very wealthy, arrogant, obnoxious, bullying shipbuilder who worked his way up from nothing. Now, he has a dream about building a major port city in Fount Royal, Carolina. A dream that is crashing about his ears. Emma Nettles is his scared, yet angry, housekeeper. Edward Winston is Bidwell’s accountant and the primary reason his business is doing so well. John Goode is a slave, a very observant one. His wife May prefers to keep to herself. Or run.

Bidwell’s particular cronies include:
Nicholas Paine, with his hidden past, is the leader of Fount Royal’s militia. Alan Johnstone is the Oxford-educated schoolteacher. Dr. Benjamin Shields tends the sick as well as the rum bottle.

Hannibal Green is the gaoler. He’s an interesting mix of some compassion and greater brutality. Lucretia Vaughan is a piece of work! I’m surprised they didn’t make her out to be the witch. I for one would have cheered! Ooh, that didn’t come out very nicely…I’m being as nasty as the others… She earns money for the family by baking goods while her husband Steven is a carpenter. Seth Hazelton is the very perverse blacksmith. Gwinett Linch is the town’s very whiffy ratcatcher.

The witnesses against Rachel include
Elias Garrick, a slow-witted farmer; Jeremiah Buckner is an old geezer; and, Violet Adams, the young daughter of one of the townspeople.

Running the only inn between Charles Town and Fount Royal, Shawcombe is a petty tyrant with a very shortsighted view of the future. Girl, Uncle Abner, and Maude are the family that he uses to run the place.

Exodus Jerusalem is an itinerant preacher who can save any woman as long as she’s willing to lie with him. Any one who disagrees with him, is obviously corrupted by Satan. Phillip Brightman is the founder and principal actor of the Red Bull Players. David Smythe is another of the actors and tells Matthew about a Mr. Jonathan Lancaster and his peculiar talents.

The Indians
Nawpawpay leads this tribe of Indians. Their place of worship will provide the final clue.

The Cover and Title

The cover is vague with its blur of white face and animal-like yellow-orange-black eyes. A ribbon of fire cuts diagonally from left to right through the lower-middle and the whole is grounded in black.

Woodward believes that Matthew is affected by the nightbird. The parable about the merchant who becomes so enthralled by how Speaks the Nightbird that he neglects his business, his health, his life.