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My cold weather reading: ‘After the Fire’ and ‘Those Who Know’

Pilk 51p9eUIXJ9LHere in the North West, we’ve had a sudden change of the weather from tropical to arctic, meaning my lockdown walks have been replaced by staying inside with a good book. Now my most recent novel is done, I’ve been able to let go of research reading, and read for my own pleasure.

My latest novel, Entertaining Mr Pepys, was set in the world of the 17th Century theatre, and whilst writing it I would never have read this book, ‘After the Fire’ , because it is set in a similar time and place, and I’d fear some of John Pilkington’s  world seeping into mine. But now my final Pepys book is out and done with, I can indulge my passion for all things 17th Century.

After the Fire by John Pilkington is a murder mystery that introduces us the the character of actress Betsy Brand, and she is a great character to root for. Impetuous yet astute, she is not afraid to enter the worst rookeries of Restoration London, or to confront danger when it arises. She is ably assisted by her doctor friend, Tom Catlin, who refers to her as ‘Mistress Rummager,’ and though sceptical initially about her sleuthing abilities, is able to make sense of the deaths, and throw light on what kind of poison might be employed. Their relationship is interesting, as she is the dominant character despite her lower status.

The plot hinges on events that happened during the Great Fire of London (hence the title), and just when you think the evil perpetrator has had his come-uppance, we find he is in fact part of a bigger conspiracy. The book is extremely well-researched with a wealth of historical detail. What better place for a murder to happen then during Shakespeare’s most notorious and murder-strewn play, Macbeth? This is rollicking good fun, and will appeal to both fans of historical fiction and mystery lovers.

After the Fire

Blurb: Before Jack the Ripper, there was the Salamander.
London, 1670. The Great Fire is all burned out. Now the city lies in ruins and a series of chilling murders is playing out on the London stage.
Betsy Brand is an actress performing in Macbeth at the new Dorset Gardens Theatre. Every night she watches Joseph Rigg, the company’s most dazzling talent, in the throes of death as Banquo. Until one night he stops playing.

Betsy watches in horror as Rigg collapses mid-performance, poisoned. London’s theatre world turns upside down as more deaths follow. The authorities are baffled. But Betsy is determined to get to the bottom of it all, even if it means solving the case herself.

Betsy hears rumours that a shadowy figure called the Salamander has returned. He had haunted London during the Great Fire and now he is wreaking revenge on his enemies. But her foe is more cunning than Macbeth himself. And time is running out. Can she unmask the killer before she becomes his next victim?

Alis 41ACoLB0rzLThose Who Know by Alis Hawkins

The other novel I have enjoyed this week is the third of a series, and I loved the other two, so couldn’t wait for this one to come out. I’ve been following the adventures of Harry Probert-Lloyd and his able assistant John Davies, and they are always a delight. Partly it is the two men’s voices – the posh self-deprecating Harry versus the much more down-to-earth wit of John, who is always trying to save Harry from himself.

Harry is partially-sighted, so John acts as his eyes. At the same time Harry acts as a kind of benefactor to John, who has ambitions to be a solicitor, but was born much lower in the pecking order.

After a school teacher falls out of his loft there is suspicion of foul play, and Harry is left to contemplate the verdict. Of course there are many who might have wanted to do the deed, and it all takes some unravelling. A man is convicted, but Harry is not convinced they have the right man. Adding to the difficulty is the forthcoming election for Coroner, where Mr Minnever the local Liberal wants Harry to canvas more actively to retain his post, thus involving him in politics which he could well do without. Naturally it is critical Harry should win the vote for re-election, not least so that John can remain in post, but his need to try to gain votes is constantly crashing up against what he needs to do to see justice done. There is also the complication of two women, Miss Gwatkyn the local lady of the manor, and Lydia Howell, recently employed as secretary to Harry, both of whom refuse to remain in the subservient roles Harry expects, not to mention the local doctor who is keen on dissecting any corpse that might come his way, to the horror of Victorian polite society.

This was a great book, and one that lived up to the previous two and more. Complex and interesting, with a well-drawn sense of time and place, and characters you can really get to know. I heartily recommend.

Those Who Know

Blurb:

Harry Probert-Lloyd has inherited the estate of Glanteifi and appointed his assistant John as under-steward. But his true vocation, to be coroner, is under threat. Against his natural instincts, Harry must campaign if he is to be voted as coroner permanently by the local people and politicking is not his strength.
On the hustings, Harry and John are called to examine the body of Nicholas Rowland, a radical and pioneering schoolteacher whose death may not be the accident it first appeared. What was Rowland’s real relationship with his eccentric patron, Miss Gwatkyn? And why does Harry’s rival for the post of coroner deny knowing him? Harry’s determination to uncover the truth threatens to undermine both his campaign and his future.

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Review: The Bleak Midwinter by L C Tyler

Bleak Midwinter

The fifth John Grey historical mystery

1668.

John Grey is now a Justice of the Peace and lives in the manor house he has inherited on his mother’s death with his new wife, Aminta.

As the village is cut off from the rest of the world by a heavy snowfall, George Barwell is discovered dead in the woods. Grey is called to examine the horribly disfigured body amidst the rumours that the attack has been the work of the Devil as the victim had been cursed by reputed witch Alice Mardike just days before his violent death.

As Barwell’s father-in-law leads the villagers into kidnapping Alice and throwing her into the millpond to see if she floats as a witch or drowns as an innocent woman, Grey agrees to investigate the murder: his main suspect is the very man leading the witch hunt.

But if Grey can’t solve the mystery of George Barwell’s death within a week, Mardike will be tried for witchcraft – and the sentence has already been decided . . .

My thoughts. . .

I love these John Grey Historical Mysteries. Not only are they set in an unusual period – the 17th Century, but they are also riddled with wry humour. This is a difficult balancing act to achieve – both historical veracity and laughs, but this book has both, along with an exciting plot that keeps you guessing until the end.

The theme of this one is that John Grey is trying to uncover who murdered a man in the snow, and won’t give up even when the villagers are convinced it is the result of a curse by local witch Alice Mardike. They are adamant she is to blame and, not content with a ducking, are keen to subject her to the witch’s usual fate. Grey has to prevent them and ensure justice prevails.

There is a lovely sense of hierarchy in the novel between the rich and poor, the upper and lower classes, and between women and men. This is delightfully turned on its head by Grey’s wife Aminta who comes up with the best leads.

Altogether highly recommended, especially for Christmas.

 

Bonus! Here’s the video of King’s College Choir singing the hymn.

If you are interested in the 17th Century, you might also like my posts this week on

Animals in the Great Fire of 1666

The First Women in the Theatre

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17th Century Witchcraft by L C Tyler

WitchesAccusations

In 1664, in Bury St Edmunds, the judge Sir Matthew Hale* – great lawyer but ‘as gullible as the simplest peasant’ concerning witches – had to sit on a case of purported witchcraft. A child had become ill and was taken to a ‘cunning man’, who advised the mother to wrap child in a blanket that had previously been in the chimney and to burn any object that fell out of it. A toad fell out and was immediately thrown into fire, where it exploded. A local woman named Amy Duny was later seen with burns on the arms and body. Nobody doubted what must have happened. Amy was accused of assuming the shape of a toad and bewitching the child. Another child then complained that Amy had visited the house and given him tummy ache. Amy was put on trial. When she touched the children they began to scream, had fits and vomited pins. But observers began to suspect trickery on the part of the accusers. They blindfolded one of the children and got somebody else to touch her. The girl still screamed. It was clearly a fabrication. But Hale condemned Amy to death anyway.

The seventeenth century was a bad time to be accused of being a witch. The Middle Ages had been relatively benign – at least in England. The church had not, of course, approved of witchcraft. After all, Exodus xxii 18 stated quite clearly: ‘Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live’. Nobody could say that the Bible celebrated excellence in sorcery. But in practice the punishments handed out were time in the pillory or penance. The first English statute against witchcraft was not until 1547, and that was not strictly enforced. The death penalty was introduced only in 1563.

Persecutions

That began one of the two intensive periods of persecution in England, which reached a peak around 1598-1607. The trial of the Pendle witches, hanged in Lancaster and York in 1612, is one of the best known cases from this first phase of witch persecution. The play Macbeth also dates from this time, Shakespeare pandering to the King James’s fervent belief in sorcery. James strengthened legislation against witchcraft and also wrote a book on Daemonologie, classifying demons into four groups and advocating witch hunting as a good thing.

MatthewhopkinsThe reign of Charles I saw a decline in witch trials, but a second wave of persecution occurred in the 1640s, led by Matthew Hopkins, Witchfinder General, who cut a swathe through towns and villages in the eastern counties. Between 1644 and 1647 he and his assistants were responsible for the deaths of about 300 purported witches. It was profitable for Hopkins, who reputedly charged the communities he visited £5 per successful conviction. His methods were the tried and tested ones. On arrival he would make enquiries about who was reputed to practice witchcraft. He would then attempt to obtain a confession by a combination of interrogation, starvation, sleep deprivation (the suspects were walked up and down to keep them awake) and the identification of the Devil’s marks on their person – any strange mole or blemish would qualify. Witches were supposed to have spots where they felt no pain, so the victims would be repeatedly stuck with pins until such a spot was found (or not). Any pet animal which came when called was assumed to be a ‘familiar’ who carried messages to and from the Devil. Suspects could also be ‘swum’ – thrown in a pond, often with their hands and feet tied, to see if they floated, survival proving their guilt. This last seems to have been regarded more a form of entertainment for the village than clear and unambiguous proof. Having been worn down sufficiently to admit their guilt, and finally get some sleep, the now self-confessed witches were encouraged to inform on their neighbours so the whole process could begin again. Evidence was also taken from witnesses though the standard expected was not high. Normally two witnesses are required in court, but since witchcraft was practised in secret and often from a distance, that could not be expected. One contemporary law book stated: ‘half proofs are to be allowed and are good causes for suspicion’.

Convictions

Though most of those accused were women, men were also convicted, including John Lowes, vicar of Brandesdon in Suffolk. He had made himself unpopular with his parishioners, above all through his defence of a local resident accused of witchcraft. They had tried several times get rid of him. Hopkins presented them with another chance. The chief piece of evidence against Lowes was not untypical of that which led to other convictions – he had given a mother half a crown to pay for the treatment of a sick child and the child had subsequently died. He was hanged in 1645 and insisted on reading the Anglican burial service over himself before his execution.

Hopkins died in 1647. Legend has it that he was himself accused of witchcraft and executed for it, but that is almost certainly wishful thinking. With his death, however, persecution of witches falls away dramatically. Neither the pragmatic Cromwell nor the easy-going Charles II encouraged witch hunts. By the 1660s most judges were sceptical of the existence of witchcraft. The gullible Hales was in this respect becoming the exception. The general public took longer to convince however and often put pressure on the courts convict. Sometimes, justices would give way and hang innocent women, just for a quiet life. One judge argued that it was better for an unjust law to be administered by the courts than for it to be left to the mob. It was not until the end of the century that public opinion swung behind that of the educated elite. The last trial for witchcraft in England was in 1717. The legislation against witchcraft was repealed eighteen years later.

Inspirations

Bleak MidwinterMy novel, The Bleak Midwinter, is set in 1668, shortly after the Duny trial. The narrator, John Grey, justice of the peace and lord of the manor of a small Essex village, is firmly of the view that witches are harmless and largely self-deluded. But when ne’er-do-well George Barwell is found murdered in the woods, having been cursed a few days before by the elderly Alice Mardike, the villagers are quick to accuse Alice of consorting with the Devil to bring about his death. For Grey, called in to investigate, this is a simple case of murder, albeit that the victim’s face has been mutilated after death. A lot of people in the village had good reason to want Barwell dead, including Alice’s most vocal accusers. But there is pressure on Grey to stand up for the villagers and condemn Alice. As the innkeeper reminds him, they give him their loyalty and pay their rent to him: ‘God bless you, Master John, they don’t resent that you were born richer than they were and can dress in fine clothes and drink Canary while they dig the frozen soil and drink small beer. They accept that that’s how things are and always will be. They just want you to do right by them in return.’ And that means hanging witches. But Grey insists on sticking to the law and, thereafter, the threats to himself and his family become more ominous. He is reassured by the fact that the authorities in London will support him, but then there is a snowstorm and the village is cut off from the outside world. Either he must find the real killer by Christmas Eve or hand Alice over to mob justice. And there’s a good pond for swimming witches right there in the village. You just need to break the ice.

As I note in the book, what made the persecution of witches so easy, at least for a while, was the willingness to set aside the normal rules for prosecution; the desire to believe the victims at all cost, however weak the evidence; the danger of speaking out against the accusers and the willingness of the authorities to go along with the prejudices of the mob. Once the juggernaut had been set rolling, the only safe thing to do was to travel in the same direction until, as all these things do, it lost momentum and ground to a halt.

But the fact that all things will pass should make us no less angry at the time – then or now.

*No relation of Supreme Court judge Lady Hale – or not that I know of.

BUY The Bleak Midwinter (UK)

BUY The Bleak Midwinter (US)

Len’s website 

Note from Deborah: I am thoroughly enjoying this witty mystery, review coming soon!

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Recent reads and reviews of Historical Fiction

Mrs YaleThe Doubtful Diaries of Wicked Mistress Yale by David Ebsworth

‘For is that not the secret of life? To keep open as many of our options as possible for as long as we may dare. And if my only remaining option to keep them alive…’

This is the first of a trilogy set in 17th Century Madras, India, a period and place which I am keen to know more about. David Ebsworth provides a wealth of information in this novel, a feat of painstaking research and historical detail. Taking the form of a private journal, this is the story of a woman who actually existed and is apparently well-known in and around the Wrexham locality, although most people will never have heard of her or her husband Elihu Yale. This is a shame because she was clearly a woman of great pragmatism. When her husband Joseph dies, leaving her with no means of support, she decides – in rather too much of a hurry for the gossips of Madras –  to re-marry Elihu Yale, a man with little obvious charm.  It is an arranged marriage in which they have agreed certain conditions ( I shan’t spoil the plot). Needless to say, things do not progress as smoothly as anticipated. The diary format and first person narration can tend to distance the reader from the action which is always reported but David Ebsworth handles this smoothly, and there are some great scenes reported in this novel – the age-old Tamil practice of a widow throwing herself onto a funeral pyre, the death of a child by snakebite, famine, rioting servants and the bloody betrayal by those Mistress Yale trusts the most. Ebsworth creates a convincing language for the time, peppered with Tamil phrases, which are helpfully given a glossary at the back. You will especially enjoy this book if you are interested in the East India Company and life in early Madras.

The book is beautifully produced with a lovely cover and interior design.

Where did I buy this book? I was sent a complimentary copy by the author for an honest review.

Silversmith's WifeThe Silversmith’s Wife – Sophia Tobin

“How do I explain it to her? he said.

‘Tell her the truth,’ she said. ‘That her husband wished her to marry a dead man; and that, since he is gone, her fate is to be decided by you.’

A slow burner of a book with rich historical detail of 18th Century London. The story begins with a murder, and at the outset you wonder who cut Pierre Renard’s throat and why. His journal entries are at the start of the chapters so you gradually begin to get an insight into the man, and why he might have been killed. Multiple points of view and multiple threads make this book hard to fathom at the beginning, but the quality of the writing guides you through until the plot begins to knit together. Mary, The Silversmith’s Wife of the title, has been so downtrodden by her abusive life with Renard that she is prone to sleepwalking and night terrors. When he dies, though, she is vulnerable, and the conditions of his will mean that pressure is put on her to re-marry. In this tense brooding atmosphere, the murderer is still at large, and this gives a dark edge to all the relationships in the book. I would have liked more detail on the actual silversmithing, because it was fascinating. I suppose what weakened the book for me was the fact that Mary was a victim from the start and her initial lethargy didn’t endear me to her. Other characters such as her sister, Mallory, were more interesting, but I did find the themes of deceit, greed, and control of others kept me turning the pages and I would definitely search out more books by this author.

Overall, this was a really well-written book and one I would recommend to historical fiction fans for its sense of brooding menace.

Where did I buy this book? I picked up the quality hardback, which has lovely endpapers, at my local second-hand bookshop (Carnforth Books)

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The Outlaw’s Ransom – the romance of Robin Hood

 

Outlaw's Ransom

I’m thrilled to welcome Jennifer Ash to my website today to talk about her new novella, The Outlaw’s Ransom.

Here’s a description of the book:

When craftsman’s daughter Mathilda is kidnapped by the notorious Folville brothers, as punishment for her father’s debts, she fears for her life.  Although of noble birth, the Folvilles are infamous throughout the county for disregarding the law – and for using any means necessary to deliver their brand of ‘justice’.

Mathilda must prove her worth to the Folvilles in order to win her freedom. To do so she must go against her instincts and, disguised as the paramour of the enigmatic Robert de Folville, undertake a mission that will take her far from home and put her life in the hands of a dangerous brigand – and that’s just the start of things…

A thrilling tale of medieval mystery and romance – and with a nod to the tales of Robin Hood – The Outlaw’s Ransom is perfect for fans of C.J. Sansom and Jean Plaidy.

Good to have you here, Jenny. What sort of books do you like reading? Could you share with us some historical novels you really enjoyed?

Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott, The Bishop Must Die by Michael Jecks, Kitty Peck and the Musical Hall Murders by Kate Griffin, A Conspiracy of Paper by David Liss, The Thief Taker by Janet Gleeson

I’ve only read two on that list, so I’ve some catching up to do! Tell me a little about how you first got interested in the medieval period, and the birth of this novella.

I’ve been a lover of all things medieval since I clapped eyes on an episode of Robin of Sherwood back in the 1980’s. Since then, I’ve had a fascination with the era; especially the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries which led to do a PhD in Medieval Criminology and Ballad Literature.

Despite five years of hard and intense study, my interest in the medieval legends continued, and when the chance came to indulge my passion in my fictional work, I grabbed it.

The resulting novel was Romancing Robin Hood; a part modern, part medieval romance and crime story.

Not only does the lead character in Romancing Robin Hood, Dr Grace Harper share my love of all things connected with the man in green tights (well, probably red hose actually), she also shares my love of the television show, Robin of Sherwood.  In fact, Grace loves medieval outlaws so much that she writes her own medieval mystery based on the life of a young woman called Mathilda of Twyford and her entanglement with an outlaw family called the Folvilles.

Mathilda’s story can be read within Romancing Robin Hood alongside the modern romance.

When Romancing Robin Hood was published so many people got in touch to tell me they wanted to read more of the medieval part of the story, that I decided to re-release it as a story in its own right.

Given the title, The Outlaw’s Ransom, Mathilda’s story was expanded a fraction, and published in its own right in 2015.

I’m delighted to say that Mathilda’s story doesn’t end with The Outlaw’s Ransom. I have recently finished writing the novel, The Winter Outlaw, which continues Mathilda’s adventures with the notorious Folville family. (Out Autumn/Winter 2017)

I can see the appeal of men in tights (!) but what appeals to you about outlaws?

Whether historical or fictional, there has always been something fascinating about these forced into- or who chose to adopt- the outlaw lifestyle. During the thirteenth and fourteenth century in England, there were periods of great political upheaval. As a consequence, many noble families took crime as a profession, and with it ruled their locality. Those outside the law often had more respect from the community than the representatives of the law did.

In fourteenth century Leicestershire, the Folville family had a mafia style grip on the county. But were they the good guys or the bad guys? Obviously it isn’t as simple as all that, the study of the exploits of this family- and those like them- is simply fascinating.

When you were writing the book, did you have a favourite ‘research moment’ ?

I have a small confession – I didn’t do any research when I was actually writing The Outlaw’s Ransom. My research was pre-done many years ago, between 1993 and 1999, when I studied for the aforementioned PhD on the correlation between medieval crime and the ballad literature of the fourteenth century.

It was during that time that I came across the Folvilles. There is a fairly convincing argument that this was family that the balladeers of the age – possibly- based their Robin Hood stories on.

Quite a few of the readers of this blog are writers too, I wonder if you would share a little bit about your method for writing a book? 

Left to my own devices I’m a panster. I much prefer handing control of the story over to my characters so I can let them dictate what happens. However publishers prefer (understandably), to have a guide that can give them an outline of the story they’ve just agreed to commission. As a consequence I tend to plot the first half out properly, and then wing the second half our in a much rougher plot form. Luckily my editor knows me well enough to know that the latter half of the plan I’m giving him will very probably change drastically by the time the story is actually written.

My writing career started 12 years ago when I started to write erotica as Kay Jaybee. In 2013 I became a contemporary fiction and romance novelist, Jenny Kane, as well. Then last year I took on the pen name Jennifer Ash- medieval mystery writer.

I try and write one book per ‘me’, per year. Two of these will be novels and one will be a novella, and then each different ‘me’ takes it in turns as to who gets the shorter work.

This year, Kay gets the novella, and Jenny Kane and Jennifer Ash get the novels!

Thank you to Jenny for sharing her thoughts with us, and now I’m sure if you’ve got this far, you’ll want to buy the book. Tap or click to download. US    UK

The Winter Outlaw which follows on from this book will be published in 2017. You can find details of all Jennifer’s stories at www.jenniferash.co.uk

Jennifer also writes as best-selling contemporary romance author Jenny Kane with books such as Another Glass of Champagne, Christmas at the Castle, and Abi’s House. (Accent Press) Jenny is also the author of quirky children’s picture books There’s a Cow in the Flat  and Ben’s Biscuit Tin (Hushpuppy, 2015) Keep your eye on Jenny’s blog at www.jennykane.co.uk for more details.

Follow Jenny on Twitter @JennyKaneAuthor or on Facebook 

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The Apothecary’s Widow – Diane Scott Lewis

 

Apothecary's Widow

A Lady’s Murder in Eighteenth Century Cornwall

When I attended the Historical Novel Society Conference in San Diego, one of the panels spoke of the future of historical fiction. They agreed that historical mysteries would remain one of the most popular aspects of the genre. I’d written a few historical novels up until then, so decided my next endeavor would be a mystery. Having bought a book on the history of eighteenth century Truro, Cornwall, I decided to set my mystery there.

A murder, a squire’s wife poisoned, the squire’s miserable marriage revealed, all formed in my mind. And of course, a diligent apothecary, a bold-minded woman who’d taken over her husband’s shop after his death. These two people, Branek Pentreath, the squire with a failing estate and resentment toward his arranged, childless marriage, and Jenna Rosedew, who prepared the tinctures for the ailing Lady Pentreath, would become the prime suspects in the lady’s death. Throw in a corrupt constable who has grievances against both of them, and the noose tightens around Branek and Jenna.

At first suspecting one another for the murder, an unbidden attraction forms between these two, but their places in society forbids their acting upon it—or does it? They must fight their feelings and rush to find the real killer before it’s too late.

Set during the war with the American colonies in 1781, the outcome which might ruin Branek, and the tension is rife in my historical mystery, The Apothecary’s Widow.

I delved deep into the history of the area, the eighteenth century (a particular interest of mine) and the detection of poison in a time when medical knowledge was just starting to come out of the dark ages—but was still primitive.

I also researched the apothecaries’ trade, and the medicine preparation which would have been used in the eighteenth century. The use of herbs and spices, along with more dangerous—not to mention strange—ingredients, was fascinating. My editor says she was impressed by my research.

I fell in love with these characters and hated for the story to end. So there might be a sequel—and another murder to solve.

I hope readers will enjoy this novel as much as I loved writing it.

For more information about me and my books, please visit my website:

www.dianescottlewis.org

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A Cruel Necessity by L.C.Tyler

A cruel Necessity

Historical Fiction Highlight

Just occasionally I highlight something new on the blog which I think looks particularly exciting.

I’m a massive fan of books set in the English Civil War and the 17th Century, so when I saw this new historical mystery series set in that period I knew I had to feature it.

Here’s the blurb:

The theatres are padlocked. Christmas has been cancelled. It is 1657 and the unloved English Republic is eight years old. Though Cromwell’s joyless grip on power appears immovable, many still look to Charles Stuart’s dissolute and threadbare court-in-exile, and some are prepared to risk their lives plotting a restoration.

For the officers of the Republic, constant vigilance is needed. So, when the bloody corpse of a Royalist spy is discovered on the dung heap of a small Essex village, why is the local magistrate so reluctant to investigate? John Grey, a young lawyer with no clients, finds himself alone in believing that the murdered man deserves justice. Grey is drawn into a vortex of plot and counter-plot and into the all-encompassing web of intrigue spun by Cromwell’s own spy-master, John Thurloe.

So when nothing is what is seems, can Grey trust anyone?

‘A cracking pace, lively dialogue, wickedly witty one-liners salted with sophistication… Why would we not want more of John Grey? No, I don’t know the answer to that one either!’

The Bookbag

www.lctyler.com

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The Art of the Elizabethan Murder Mystery

What does it take to write an Elizabethan Murder Mystery?
I asked the actor Jonathan Digby, whose novel, ‘A Murderous Affair’, is currently flying high in the UK Amazon charts, for some clues.
What appeals to you about Elizabethan History?
The Elizabethan Age is known as the Early Modern period in British history and I think that sums up what is so fascinating about it. It is the perfect crossover point between the medieval period and the modern age and quite a few seeds of our modern obsessions – trade, nationalism, self-made people, famous artists and so on – are sowed, to some extent, during that period. It was also a time of great change – the old world order had collapsed in England – particularly the power of the Roman Catholic church – and out of the ashes a whole new system grew up – I do find trying to pinpoint characters within that whole dynamic quite a fun challenge! There are also lots of great figures – Queen Elizabeth I, Burghley, Walsingham, Leicester, Francis Drake, Walter Raleigh, Christopher Marlowe, Philip Sydney (the list could go on and on) – about whom there is a lot of research and who are also fun to try and capture to some extent in the stories.
I also have a love of the period through being an actor and doing Shakespeare plays – Shakespeare is the pinnacle of an age of enlightenment in the arts, a bit like the Beatles in the 1960s. There was a whole movement of great playwrights during the period and the body of plays gives the modern writer an incredibly rich source of information to draw on.
Please tell me about your main character and what made him enjoyable to write.
John Lovat is an illegitimate son of a Lord. I chose this background for him because I wanted to have a character who could cross believably through the different tiers of Elizabethan society. In the Elizabethan world everybody had their place – their were even maps drawn showing where everyone fitted in from the Queen downwards – and so it presented a problem for a character solving crime amongst both rich and poor. Getting up the social ladder was very desirable but also very difficult. Lovat’s position gives him access to the upper-echelons of society, although his place as one of society’s ‘have-nots’ is never in doubt! To some extent, I also enjoyed making him an ‘anti-Elizabethan’ thus hopefully a prism through whom the wider Elizabethan world can be offset and glimpsed. It is also great fun putting him into difficult situations (as I imagine is the case with a detective from any era) and trying to help him solve them!!
What’s unique about sleuthing in the Tudor era?
I think this is a point where a certain amount of artistic license needs to be taken – there weren’t any ‘detectives’ during the period (they didn’t exist until the 19th century) and certainly very few of the methods that modern crime writers rely on – fingerprints, CSI, DNA etc – had yet to be invented. ‘Policing’ in London in the 16th Century was done by a variety of bodies – the constables who ensured that peace was kept in the different wards, the clergy who made sure that their flock were in church on Sundays, rich and influential individuals who had retainers to do their bidding, the army to a certain extent – it was all a bit of a mess and only loosely corresponded to an idea of justice!
I think sleuthing in the period partly comes down to a character having a unique point of view or insight and also being very observant – it also comes down to being someone who loves solving puzzles. Also, the character has to be compelled to solve the mystery – i.e. if he fails something bad will happen to him, and has to be in a position where he is asked to solve mysteries in the first place. In Lovat’s case he moves from being a retainer in his (legitimate) brother’s household to becoming a spy for Francis Walsingham. In the future, I’m planning on putting him other positions where he will have an opportunity to solve crimes with a distinct set of circumstances. For example, in book two he is heading to France and getting involved in the secession battles that tore the country apart in the later part of the 16th Century. In a later book I am planning on sending him to the English countryside where he will have to battle against people’s superstitions and a ‘conycatcher’ or wise man who the country folk look up to! But all that is for the future …
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The Attraction of the Highwayman Image – an interview with Henriette Gyland

Both Henriette Gyland and I have new books out about  a female highwayman. Fascinated by finding this out, I invited Henri to come and enlighten us about her novel. Henri’s novel is called The Highwayman’s Daughter.  I asked her:

Did you base The Highwayman’s Daughter on a particular highwayman?

This is a hard question to answer. Initially I would say “no” but the idea of the highwayman is firmly lodged in our collective consciousness that I probably did base it on a particular highwayman – or a conglomeration of several – without even realising it! In addition to that I wanted to work from the premise of an “ordinary decent criminal”, the otherwise upright character forced into a life of crime due to personal circumstances.

As a writer of romantic fiction it was important for me to maintain the myth and the romance of the highwayman. Of course, the reality was quite different – most highwaymen were ruthless thugs, and many were rapists and murderers too. Some even did it for kicks rather than necessity, like Lady Katherine Ferrers whose gutsiness I can’t help admiring despite her dubious reasons for taking to highway robbery (she was bored, apparently).

Yes, I agree. The myth and romance is what attracts readers to the idea. The reality may have been somewhat different! I had to think hard about how ruthless I wanted my female highwayman to be before I started writing, and I’m interested to know what you think makes a good female highway robber.

She has to be daring, but she can also be frightened. In the 18th century, who wouldn’t be scared of sustaining a wound from a victim determined to protect his (or her) property? Even if the wound itself wasn’t fatal, it could so easily turn septic, and our highway robber would die an agonising death. Then there was the risk of disclosure and being caught which would lead straight to the gallows, with only the rarest chance of a reprieve.

Like any other thief, our female highway robber would also have to be clever enough to dispose of stolen goods without drawing attention to herself and to blend in with everyday life.

From a purely writerly perspective, in order for her to be an effective female heroine, she has to have to have a Good Reason for committing her crimes. Even though she breaks the law and technically threatens innocent people into submission, she still needs a strong moral code.

Yes, I think you’re right – the motivation is everything. But with such a compelling female protagonist,  how can the hero compete?!

Good question! To avoid the gutsy heroine taking over the story, in my opinion the only way the hero can compete is by having his own strengths. By that I don’t mean physical superiority, although he would likely have that, or an I-must-conquer-this-female attitude, but an inner strength which leaves him in no doubt about who he is and his place in society. However, if he belongs to the upper echelons, he should never pull rank over those less fortunate than himself, including the heroine.

He must be noble, honourable, and even when he makes mistakes, he must possess the courage to admit to these mistakes and do whatever it takes to right those wrongs. Can he break the law too? Sure, but like the heroine he must have a strong moral code.

I have downloaded The Highwayman’s Daughter and I’m looking forward to meeting your characters. I’m hoping that our two heroines don’t meet on the road – or there could be a bit of a battle! Fortunately novelists are a bit more polite, and it’s been a pleasure to have you here, Henriette.

You can find Henriette Gyland on her Website

On Twitter: @henrigyland or on Facebook

You can never have enough books about Highwaywomen!

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