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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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