I have to admit I approached Jeri Westerson’s series of books with some skepticism but I was ultimately, pleasantly, surprised. Sometimes the hook for a series is too good to be true. Here’s the hook: We have a female author writing about a male protagonist adventure’s in 14th century London. And since every great idea needs a good label there was this: it was dubbed “medieval noir.”
A mystery book discussion I belong to in Austin decided to read the first book in this series and we all, frankly, loved it. By the time I was halfway through the book I had decided I was not only going to encourage others to check out this series but I would also see about interviewing the author. Added bonus: The author lives and works in Menifee, Calif., less than an hour from where I was born and grew up and did much of my early newspaper work.
I was sent a copy of her latest novel, Troubled Bones: A Medieval Noir, and the most recent before that, The Demon’s Parchment, and she consented to the interview that follows.
I’ll let her describe the protagonist more fully (this comes from her website):
“I’m Jeri Westerson and I write medieval mysteries with an enigmatic, flawed, sexy, and very different protagonist. His name is Crispin Guest and he’s an ex-knight turned detective on the mean streets of fourteenth century London. You might want to think of him as a ‘Medieval Sam Spade,’ and these mysteries as Medieval Noir. That’s what makes my detective and these novels so different. They’re full of hard-hitting action and characters with dirty little secrets.”
How did you develop the idea to have a series of books in what you and others have been calling medieval noir? Was it always your hope to write it as a series?
Once I had switched from writing historical novels that I couldn’t manage to get published at a time when the historical novel was declared dead by Publisher’s Weekly — we’re talking the 1990s here — I knew I was going to be writing medieval mysteries instead. Mysteries were an easier sell, or so I’d been told, but my heart was still in an historical setting and my research was strictly medieval. I enjoyed the Brother Cadfael series by Ellis Peters, but I felt I wanted to write something just a bit different from that. I had also been a big fan of Raymond Chandler’s sleuth Philip Marlowe as well as Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade and the whole hardboiled milieu, and I began to think that someone who really was a detective — not just a monk or a nun who was asked to investigate a murder — would be a lot of fun to write while styling him after those hardboiled mugs of yesteryear. That was a book I wanted to read! Keeping it medieval would be the challenge but also the fun part, and so “medieval noir” was born.
Since mysteries are best sold as a series I never planned it any other way. Crispin, my ex-knight turned detective, would move through the real historical timeline, and that would take many books to tell all of his tale.
A mystery book discussion group at BookPeople in Austin I belong to recently read the first book in the series (Veil of Lies) and that is what sparked me to initiate this interview. So some of my questions stem from that discussion. For example, how did you decide which characters to carry over into the later books? I’m glad Jack, Crispin’s apprentice, was carried over.
Jack was never going to be an integral part of the series, funnily enough. But he was so well liked by my agent and others that I began to think that I could make him work on all sorts of levels. Usually the hardboiled detective is a lone wolf and for the most part, so is Crispin. But it’s always helpful to have someone there to bounce ideas off of, to have to rescue or to rescue you. And because the books follow Crispin’s life and life lessons, we get a chance to watch Jack grow up while at the same time observing how this alters Crispin’s outlook and seasons his maturing story. It turned out to be a godsend.
John of Gaunt was another character who was going to appear in the first book and walk away, but he just kept walking back into the room. Now I find he needs to make an appearance at least once a book, which is getting tough as each book progresses. By the time we get to the fifth book, Blood Lance (to be released in the fall of 2012), Lancaster is out of the country fighting in Spain for the next three years and consequently, the next three books. It’s not practical for him to show up or to write a letter to Crispin, so his usual appearance is understudied by his son, Henry of Bolingbroke. Which makes perfect sense since Henry will become more and more important to the current politics (after all, Henry becomes King Henry IV). Not only does the Muse move the plot but so does history.
As for the other characters, well, it takes a village to flesh out a series. Crispin’s circle of friends (the tavern keepers Gilbert and Eleanor Langton, John Rykener, Abbot Nicholas, Geoffrey Chaucer, Martin Kemp his landlord, etc.) and associates (like Lenny, Alice Kemp, and the parade of sheriffs) round out the cast. Some of these characters will stick around and serve as anchors, while some will disappear (or even die). Some are fictional and some are not. I think it helps to ground the reader in the familiar in book after book; it’s nice to see a familiar face. You never know who will pass through Crispin’s life just as you don’t know about your own life. It keeps it interesting.
Was it fun writing the dialogue, particularly the insults and exclamations? In our discussion we wondered aloud if some of them like “God’s blood!” were historically accurate or if you just made them up or what? No offense intended with that question.
Lots of fun! And no, I did my best to find accurate and authentic swearing. Most of it is something you’d expect your gray-haired granny to say rather than unloading the more expected four-letter f-bomb. Calling someone a cur or questioning their parentage seems tame now but it was an oath that could get you a knife in the gut. Scatological humor was also the norm (remember the Miller’s Tale in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales?) To really swear was to blaspheme just a wee bit by invoking God’s various parts and pieces — God’s blood, eyes, ears, teeth, bones, etc. Or by a saint’s body parts as well. So that’s spot on. There’s no need to make it up when the truth is so much better.
I just finished reading The Demon’s Parchment and Troubled Bones. How did you come up with the storylines for those two books?
With The Demon’s Parchment, I wanted to do two things: tell a serial killer tale and deal with medieval Jews. When I came upon the real life doings of a real medieval serial killer, I just had to incorporate it into a novel. And then I wanted to show how Crispin would deal with anti-Semitism; would he be prejudiced himself and how would he change his mind? He’s a real medieval man, and I wanted him to come to terms with it honestly and realistically.
As for Troubled Bones, ever since I conceived of the series I knew I was going to bring Geoffrey Chaucer in as a character, and what better way than to also bring in The Canterbury Tales. I’d grown up with Chaucer and that particular book of his, so it was a no-brainer for me. (It’s too bad you missed my presentation when I was at BookPeople in the fall of 2011. I did a whole presentation on Canterbury and my personal relationship with it). It had to be placed just so in the series for Jack to be of the right age, just as The Demon’s Parchment had to be. In fact, I wrote Troubled Bones before The Demon’s Parchment and realized I needed another book between Serpent in the Thorns and Troubled Bones. It worked out beautifully.
Was it fun including a famous great author, Geoffrey Chaucer, as a character in Troubled Bones? Any plans to include other authors in future books?
Geoffrey Chaucer was such an important author to the English language, being the first poet to write in English, the language of the people. Most stories and poetry at the time were in French or Latin. At this point in the fourteenth century, both the nobility and the regular folk are speaking English — Middle English — but English nonetheless where before the nobility only spoke French (we have William the Conqueror to thank for that. When he conquered England he cast out the Saxon nobility and replaced it with his own from France. For centuries the nobility spoke only French whereas the rest of the population spoke their own form of English. By the time King Richard II was on the throne, however, even he spoke English. It was the beginning of a whole sense of Englishness which was to culminate two centuries later with Henry VIII).
So I enjoyed bringing Chaucer into it and giving him that fictional relationship with Crispin. It just shows another facet of Crispin’s life and past. I really can’t think of any other relevant writer I would bring into the story. But Chaucer will show up again in Blood Lance. And who knows? We may not have seen the last of him at all.
Did you include the plotline in The Demon’s Parchment about Jews being forced out of England — something of which I had no idea — partly to educate the public? Or was that just an added bonus of sorts?
Perhaps a bit of both. I know that most people don’t know that about England. They only think of Jews being kicked out of Russia in the twentieth century but really didn’t know about how the history of the Jews in the Middle Ages led to the Holocaust of the 1930s. But it also makes for an interesting plot point and for Crispin’s inner life to develop.
Is it difficult at all writing from a male perspective? Is it fun to be a female writing about a period in which women had much less power, giving you the ability to tweak things if you want?
You can’t really tweak historical facts if you are to be true to your time period. But I’ve never had trouble writing from the male perspective. I prefer it, in fact. And woman had quite a bit of power in the Middle Ages, more so than in later periods. A woman could take on the job of her husband if he passed away. She could be a blacksmith if that’s what he did, or a brewster, a person who brews beer. I enjoy thinking like Crispin. He has more restrictions in that deeply tiered society in his present circumstances than does his friend Eleanor Langton, owner of the Boar’s Tusk.
What does research for these books entail? I believe this was already a period in which you were interested in, correct? Can you talk about your own work in educating people on medieval topics? Is it true you even bring medieval weapons with you when you go on book tours?
I already had ten years’ worth of research into the era when I started to write these medieval mysteries, but there is always something one has to research in particular. In Serpent in the Thorns I had to research archery, for instance, but in each book there might be a real historic person I have to delve into. John of Gaunt, Archbishop Courtney, Abbot Nicholas of Westminster Abbey, the sheriffs, some of the nobility of Richard’s court…plus all sorts of other seemingly mundane and insignificant things that don’t make a difference to the average reader. But to those who have a particular penchant for history, they would notice if something was out of place and time for the period.
I have never felt that fiction is a good place to educate people on real facts, but it is inevitable. A lot of people get their history from novels and so I feel a certain responsibility to get the facts as accurate as I can get them.
And that sometimes entails my delving into some hands on research. One of my talks is about the myths people harbor about the Middle Ages and audiences are always surprised about what is true and what they always believed to be true. I have cooked the food of the time period to know the tastes and smells of what they were eating; I’ve brewed medieval beer; I’ve sewn medieval clothing and worn it; and I am also particularly fond of medieval weapons and learned how to use them, so I do drag my cache of medieval weaponry around with me when I do talks and even demonstrate them. Who wouldn’t want to see an overweight middle-aged woman swinging a sword around?
For many people, myself included, when I think about people talking about medieval times we think about groups like the Society for Creative Anachronism, Inc. What do you think of their work?
I think they’ve done some very valuable work, especially when they go into schools to do demos. Kids especially need to be educated about how we got to where we are today, seeing the tools people used, the clothes they wore, the food they ate. Where the food (like spices) come from and the clothing they wore (silks, damasks) has an intimate relationship to commerce, to politics, the difficulty of travel, the crusades, and a flurry of other things. Everything is connected in some way and I think there is a big mistake when we teach history in a vacuum, separating the subjects so that kids have no idea how to relate to them. It all interconnects and it is those connections that I find the most interesting.
I never had time myself to be involved in the SCA, but I am a member.
What’s next for you? Or should I say “What’s next for your protagonist Crispin Guest? I’ll ask the same question that is currently the poll on your blog: What should Crispin do about his love life? Will you let the poor guy get a steady already? 🙂
Crispin has a lot to do. Each successive book from Troubled Bones on is now a year later in his life and there is a lot going on in London at that time. The next book is Blood Lance, to be released Fall 2012, and I am currently working on Shadow of the Alchemist, to be released Fall 2013. As for Crispin’s love life, that will develop along lines I had planned out for him a long time ago. In fact, I have his entire life planned out, at least for the next twelve books (seventeen in all). So, all I can tell you is to stay tuned.
Lastly, I’ll end with what I call my bonus question which is this: What question do you wish you would get asked more often? Here’s your chance to ask and answer it.
Everyone always asks if Crispin is like my husband, but they never ask how much is Crispin like me! As if a woman can’t be in the head of a man and vice versa. He’s pretty stubborn to the point of doing him no good and he’s made some pretty dumb decisions for so smart a guy, and I have to say I’m guilty as charged on both counts. I wish I was as brave and as chivalrous as he is. That’s the fiction.