Medieval mystery writer Jeri Westerson is credited with starting the sub-genre of ‘Medieval Noir’ with her first novel, Veil of Lies, which was released in 2007. The book featured Crispin Guest, a 14th-century knight turned detective, as the lead character. Veil of Lies has been followed by four more Crispin Guest novels, the latest of which, Blood Lance, hit the bookshelves in the fall of 2012.
We had the chance to interview Jeri about her books and the characters she has created:
You write what is called ‘Medieval Noir’ novels (in fact, you are credited with inventing the sub-genre). How are they different from the more typical medieval mystery stories found on bookshelves?
I took the tropes of your typical hard-boiled detective series—the lone detective with a chip on his shoulder–who is hard drinking, tough-talking, tough fighting character–the dark streets and dark doings of crime and subculture of criminals and intrigue, the femme fatale—and let them slide into the medieval era. They actually work quite well. My detective is a disgraced knight—he lost his title, his wealth, and his status and had to make it on his own on the mean streets of London. He reinvented himself as the Tracker, hired to find lost things and to solve the occasional murder. He’s distrusted by the court and the sheriffs but has earned the respect of the lower classes with whom he now lives. He’s hired to solve crimes, rather than your monk or nun who stumbles upon a body. He’s a wonderfully flawed and brooding character, and because it’s noir, justice comes in all sorts of packages.
It took you about fourteen years of writing historical fiction before your first novel, Veil of Lies, was published. How did your writing develop during this period to the point where publishers were willing to print your book?
It wasn’t the developing of my writing, but what I was writing that turned the tide. When I was writing historicals, I wrote about everyday people doing extraordinary things, not about the courts or of famous personages, and in the nineties and early 2000’s, that’s not what editors wanted to publish. Publishers Weekly had said back then that the historical novel was all but dead. “Great,” I thought. “What a terrific time to try to get out there.” But I persevered and took the advice of a former agent who told me to write medieval mysteries instead. Mysteries were a bigger market, what with their own indie bookstores, conventions, and author organizations. So I began to cobble together the idea of Crispin Guest, this hard-boiled medieval detective, joined Sisters in Crime, and learned about the industry. It took me two years of mulling over how to write a mystery and how to develop a series (since I’d only written standalones before) and in three years I had my contract.
Well, as I said, I wanted a hard-boiled sort of character and I sat down to think about what that would mean. I wanted him to have a certain skill set—able to fight well with weapons, speak several languages, able to move freely amongst the upper classes, but still be tarnished by circumstances—so I made him a knight and lord and then took it all away! Cruel me. It made for some really interesting backstory for him and bittersweet encounters, since London is a small world. Making him a knight and then having him commit treason for a good reason and have him fall from grace opened up more relationships for him. For instance, I made him serve as a household knight to John of Gaunt, the duke of Lancaster, so right away he is thrust into court politics and got caught up in a plot to oust Richard II, the boy king, before he took the throne and put in place Gaunt. And that also made him the best friend of Geoffrey Chaucer since Chaucer served in Lancaster’s household (whom we see in the Canterbury Tales re-do TROUBLED BONES, and again in the fifth novel BLOOD LANCE).
There’s also the added layer of Crispin’s involvement in each book with a religious relic or venerated object. When I was figuring out how to write a mystery and something different from what was already out there, I took my cue from THE MALTESE FALCON. The intrigue with the “Black Bird” and with the finely drawn characters really made that book, and so the McGuffin of a relic crept into the stories. Do they have the power people say they do? Crispin is a constant skeptic, but even he has to admit at times that something mystical might be happening.
Another character in your novels is Geoffrey Chaucer, the famous medieval writer. How has his writings, including the Canterbury Tales, influenced you?
I was influenced very early on in life by Geoffrey Chaucer and all things medieval. My parents were rabid Anglophiles and so we had all the books right there on our bookshelves; text books, histories, historical novels. It was easy to get involved. My mother had a record of an actor reading some of the Canterbury Tales stories in Middle English and I’d heard that as a youngster, intrigued by the rolling sound of this language that I could almost grasp. We also spent a lot of time at museums because in those days they were free. We often went to the Huntington Library in San Marino, California (and I am inviting readers to come with me for a Day at the Museum with the Author to the Huntington Library, where I will walk around specific exhibits and talk about the history and my relationship to them, ending with a tea at their tearoom. See the invitation here: http://tinyurl.com/alr3688). They have the Ellesmere Chaucer, a wonderfully illustrated hand-penned copy of the Canterbury Tales, where all the pilgrims, including Chaucer, are drawn. We had a child’s version of the Canterbury Tales at home—with all the racy stories taken out—and so I felt I knew Chaucer well. When it came time to write these books, I could have picked any number of interesting timeframes within the medieval period. But I wanted Geoffrey Chaucer to be there. I knew I would have him as a character in these books at some point and I knew I would also work in the pilgrims and Canterbury entwined with a murder. That book, TROUBLED BONES, garnered four nominations for mystery awards last year.
We thank Jeri Westerson for answering our questions. To learn about her books, including video trailers and Crispin’s own blog, please visit www.JeriWesterson.com. You can also check out her blog of history and mystery is www.Getting-Medieval.com.