Ancient Law and Opera? Behind the Book: SONG OF THE DAMNED by Sarah Rayne

song of the damned

A macabre liturgy. A mysterious carving. An intriguing 200-year-old mystery for music researcher Phineas Fox to solve.

Having undertaken an assignment at Cresacre Abbey School, researcher Phineas Fox discovers that curious legends about the school’s past still linger, including the fate of a group of nuns who disappeared 200 years before. What happened to them? And who is the mysterious Ginevra, the shadowy figure whose true identity has never been known?


In this fascinating feature, author Sarah Rayne explains how old laws and modern opera inspired the plot of her intriguing new mystery, SONG OF THE DAMNED.

I wasn’t expecting to find I had combined an ancient law and opera for a book, but Song of the Damned, published in July 2018 UK and 1 December US, turned out to have both elements at its heart.

It’s not, of course, so very rare for opera and the law to meet up.  In Lohengrin Wagner invokes the laws of the Holy Grail as part of the plot, while, at the other end of the spectrum, Gilbert & Sullivan light-heartedly satirize the legal system for Trial by Jury, spattering it with cheerful quarrels over breaches of promise.

But it was a far older law and a much more modern opera that inspired the plot of Song of the Damned.

In 1953, Frances Poulenc composed an opera called Dialogues of the Carmelites.Sarah Rayne1

It relates the grim and emotionally-charged, true story of the imprisonment of sixteen Carmelite nuns during the French Revolution. They were captured because of their religious beliefs, and subsequently executed. The execution seems to have been an extraordinary piece of theatre – of which Poulenc makes full use. The nuns were forced to form a queue for the guillotine, and to mount the scaffold one by one, with the most junior novice being first.  As they waited for death, they re-affirmed their religious vows aloud, and sang various hymns (reports vary as to what the hymns actually were depending on which source you use).  The singing was punctuated by the relentless fall of the guillotine for each nun, their voices gradually diminishing as each was beheaded, until, at the last, only the lone voice of the Mother Superior was to be heard. And then there was silence.

This was a scene that had considerable impact on me. The dreadful inevitability of the massive guillotine blade swishing down – the helpless progression of the nuns towards it.  But then – as is frequently the way with novelists – I began to wonder whether there might be a plot to be found in the story.  Poulenc had already made use of it, of course, and so had one or two other people. A writer called Georges Bernanos wrote a screenplay around it, and the text of that was based on an earlier short story – The Last at the Scaffold written in the early 1930s by Gertrud von le Fort.

So it looked as if the fount had been squeezed dry. Or had it?  Supposing a plot could be woven from the left-overs? Supposing those original nuns could be given links with other nuns – maybe a small convent community in a rural corner of England… And supposing Phineas Fox, the music historian whose fourth outing this was to be, found a lost medieval ritual within a locally-written piece of music – a macabre ritual and a piece of music that could be traced back to those nuns…?

So far so good.  What about the setting, though?  As anyone who has read any of my books will know, I’m keen on atmospheric settings and I’m very keen indeed on houses and buildings with intriguing histories.

It was at that point in the deliberations, and in the early and difficult stages of drafting a plot, that I came across a fragment of a very old English law.

It happened by purest chance.  One afternoon having become lost in the depths of the countryside, I drove past a field with a sign on the gate saying, ‘Infanger’s Field’.

Infanger’s Field?

The English countryside is, it must be said, liberally strewn with strange and intriguing names.  Quite near to where I live is a village called Coven.  It’s an extremely nice place, but its name is always very deliberately pronounced ‘Coe-Ven’.  Purists carefully point out that the name derives from the Anglo-Saxon, cofum¸meaning either a cove or a hut, but despite that, there are occasionally dark mutterings suggesting that the place once had witchcraft associations, and that the pronunciation was politely slurred to hide that fact.

Then there are all those instances of Glue Works Lane and Slaughter Yard. There’s Pudding Lane where the Great Fire of London reputedly started in a baker’s shop. On the other hand, there are places whose names are open to interpretation, such as Cockshutt in Shropshire, which, despite sounding like a venue for a Carry On film, is likely to derive from fowl hunting activities.  Other names are satisfyingly rooted in the past: Oxford has Brasenose College and Brasenose Lane – supposedly from the Brazen Nose door knocker of the original sixteenth century Hall.  Incredibly, though, the city also once had the now-lost Shitbarn Lane, c.1290, which ran between Oriel Street and Alfred Street.

But Infanger’s Field? 

I dashed home to scour bookshelves and the internet.  The bookshelves yielded several indignant spiders, dispossessed of their homes, and a couple of dictionaries and encyclopaedia with ageing pages but legible information.  The internet provided several alternative spellings for the word and about 3,000 search results.

And it seems that the word comes from the Old English infangene-þēof ‘Thief seized within’ or ‘in-taken-thief’.  Infangenthief or infangentheof, no matter how you spell it, was, an Anglo-Saxon arrangement, supposedly from the time of Edward the Confessor – c.1003-1066, and one of the last of the royal House of Wessex.

It apparently permitted the owners of a piece of land the right to mete out justice to miscreants captured within their estates, regardless of where the poor wretches actually lived.  On occasions it also allowed the culprits to be chased in other jurisdictions, and brought back for trial.  The justice that was meted out was often extremely severe – there was no cheerful Gilbert & Sullivan principle of letting the punishment fit the crime in those days.

The privilege of exercising this law was granted to feudal lords, and inevitably to religious houses.  And later, when the Normans came barrelling in they made cheerful use of it as well.  It helped keep the rebellious Saxons in their place. The law fell more or less into disuse in the fourteenth century and all-but vanished from England’s history.  Except for the occasional name here and there.  Like Infanger’s Field.

Sarah Rayne3

I have no idea if it was a fragment from the past I encountered that day – perhaps a shred of some long-ago feudal baron who had named a field as a warning to miscreants.  And I’m doubtful if I could find the field again.

But there it was.  A long-ago storyline involving a group of nuns in the French Revolution and a macabre musical ritual.  And there, too, was the potential for an atmospheric house that could be given the name Infanger’s Cottage.  A house whose present-day occupants might find themselves forced to make use of the ancient law to guard the secrets that dwelled in the cottage’s foundations – secrets that stretched back to those long-ago nuns and the ritual that had been part of their mysterious story.

SONG OF THE DAMNED is published 31 July in the UK and 1 November in the US. Read more here.




July UK/November US Editor’s Pick: THE SAVAGE SHORE by David Hewson

This month’s Editor’s Pick is from Kate Lyall Grant, Publisher.


After a seven-year gap, we are delighted to announce that bestselling author David Hewson is picking up the reins again with Nic Costa, the Caravaggio-loving young Roman detective who first made an appearance in 2003’s A SEASON FOR THE DEAD. In THE SAVAGE SHORE, the 10th in the series, Costa and his team are taken far from their urban comfort zone when they’re sent to infiltrate the mob in a remote part of southern Italy.

Costa has been sent undercover to Italy’s beautiful yet remote Calabrian coast to bring in the head of the feared ‘Ndrangheta, who has offered to turn state witness for reasons of his own. Hoping to reel in the biggest prize the state police have seen in years, the Butcher of Palermo, Costa is aware the stakes are high. But the constant deception is taking its toll. Out of their depths in a lawless part of Italy where they are the outcasts, not the men in the hills, with their shotguns and rough justice, the Roman detectives find themselves pitched as much against one another as the mob.

A wonderfully vivid and absorbing read, steeped as it is in the rich culture, myth, history and geography of southern Italy, and brutally exposing the dark underbelly which lurks beneath the seeming rural idyll of the mountainous Aspromonte region, THE SAVAGE SHORE, with its twisty-turny plot, kept me gripped and guessing right to the end as to exactly who was double-crossing whom as the grand game of deception played itself out.

From the vivid opening scene involving a shockingly unexpected shoot-out at the Zanzibar inn, through the tension-filled scenes featuring the waiting Roman detectives, restless, nervy, bored and bickering, and the equally nerve-wracking episodes involving their undercover colleague Costa’s struggles to maintain his façade as a trusted member of the mob – the committed vegetarian having to grit his teeth and bear it as he must first harpoon and then consume fresh, raw swordfish – I was kept on tenterhooks as I wondered what exactly would happen as the final confrontation with the feared Butcher of Palermo loomed inexorably nearer.

If you enjoy a stylishly written, morally complex and intelligent thriller, where nothing is quite what it seems, THE SAVAGE SHORE is for you.

Find out more here.

#BookExtract: HUSK by Dave Zeltserman


Classic contemporary horror from the Shamus and Derringer-winning author of Small Crimes.

Charlie is a Husker on the prowl in the New Hampshire wilderness when he falls in love. But loving Jill means leaving the Husk clan, with its gruesome cannibalistic rituals – a hugely difficult task. It’s only in New York City that the secret to ending his terrible cravings may reveal itself – if it doesn’t kill him and everything he has grown to love first. HUSK is guaranteed to leave readers shaken, stirred – and chilled to the bone.

Creepy mythology combined with romance and a fascinating lead character – award-winning author Dave Zeltserman’s brilliantly imagined, danger-filled tale is a horrifyingly compelling read. Enter Charlie’s dark world by reading the extract below . . .  

Jill had mentioned shortly after I’d picked her up that she was working on a graduate degree in psychology, and now she was telling me how she had almost majored in English literature, and that books were one of her early loves. This led to a discussion of some of her favorite recent books (mostly a one-sided discussion, but I didn’t mind.) I’d only read one of them. An allegorical fable about a man who takes on his ancestral duties of weeding by hand a field each day, believing if he doesn’t, the world will end. I’d gotten the book from a man I’d picked up while driving through Boston. He’d been walking alone on a darkened street, and I took the opportunity at the last second to swerve the van up onto the sidewalk, crippling him. In less than a minute I had him in the back with the others that I had already picked up, and less than three minutes after that I had him secured in a burlap sack and was driving away without anyone being aware of what had happened. Much later when I had gotten around to reading the book, I discovered from the photograph used on the book jacket that the man I’d taken was the author. Maybe he was walking around Boston with a copy of the book he had written because he was planning to give it to an acquaintance, or maybe he had another reason. Whichever it was, I never had a chance to ask him, same with missing my opportunity to question him about several things in his book that had left me wondering about their true meaning. I was so absorbed listening to Jill’s insights that I only half paid attention to her as she also directed me through a maze of streets once we entered Queens, and it took me by surprise when she pointed out the three-story brick building up ahead and on my right as where she lived . . .

Want to read more? HUSK is available now in the UK and from 1 September in the US. More details here.