Monday, December 06, 2021

Interview with Jeri Westerson about The Deadliest Sin and wrapping up her Crispin Guest medieval mystery series

With her appearances on this blog during the publication of her Crispin Guest medieval mystery series, Jeri Westerson is coming full circle. Back in 2008, I'd published her guest post about Veil of Lies, in which Crispin made his first appearance in print, and this week the 15th and final book, The Deadliest Sin, will appear from Severn House. I've also reviewed a couple of the books here, including Cup of Blood (the prequel) and The Deepest Grave (book 11).  So including an interview with the author for this series finale seemed like a neat idea.

To briefly recap for newcomers: Crispin Guest is a disgraced knight turned detective on the streets of late 14th-century London. He had lost his noble title and fortune after joining with others to place his mentor John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, on the throne, thus committing treason against King Richard II. Over time, Crispin's successful pursuit of justice under the nickname "the Tracker" has gained him a certain level of renown.

In The Deadliest Sin, opening in 1399, Crispin is asked by the prioress of St. Frideswide's to investigate the deaths of nuns whose murders depict two of the Seven Deadly Sins. At the same time, the political scene is heating up: Henry Bolingbroke, his late mentor's son, is returning from exile abroad and aiming to secure his inheritance. 

So, there's a lot that The Deadliest Sin needs to do: solve a complicated murder mystery, present the historical backdrop and engage with Crispin as he decides whether to side with King Richard or Bolingbroke, and wrap up the whole series.  It accomplishes all three of these goals superbly.  Plus, we get to see a new side to Jack Tucker, Crispin's apprentice, and his former lover Philippa also plays a role. While I'm sorry to say goodbye to Crispin, Jack, and company, the series ends on a terrific note. If you wanted, you could start with this book, since each novel is self-contained, and the necessary backstory is laid out in the beginning of each.

Hope you'll enjoy this Q&A, and thanks to Jeri for answering my questions!

The Deadliest Sin
takes place in 1399, which followers of English history will recognize as a turning point for the country. This created a lot of anticipation as I guessed how that would affect Crispin and his loyalties. You’ve written that you’d known from the beginning that the series would wrap up at this time. That said, did any elements about the storyline (or series as a whole) play out differently than planned when you sat down to write it?

Well, I didn't have any idea what the mystery would be in the last book. That had to come in its time. And with all that had come before in Crispin's life. I had planned his lady love from the beginning, too, but not other details. As for the series as a whole, I hadn't intended Jack as a continuing character, but when my editor asked if he'd be in the next book because readers liked him so well, I was all on board. And serendipitous it was, because Jack stood in for the reader, asking the questions readers wanted to know about the plot, and being the person in Crispin's life who was able to change him for the better, just by his presence. After all, when Crispin reluctantly took in this street urchin and cutpurse (Jack was eleven at the beginning), Crispin had no idea he'd have to raise the boy; teach him to read and write, and begin to look upon him like a son rather than a servant, as close as they had become.

In some ways, St. Frideswide Priory is an unusual and pretty disturbing place for a community of nuns. How did you come up with the setting and the crimes committed there?

Cloistered life is always fodder for disturbing stories, especially for nuns, many of whom had had no desire to be there but were forced by parents because of circumstances; not being able to marry them off, etc. Some of these places were the making of these women, while others were dark and unwholesome places. The women only learned the rudiments of the prayers, some having no skills with Latin with no time to really teach them except for what they needed to know to get by. It seemed a natural place for crimes. And the Seven Deadly Sins...a no-brainer. But really...what is the deadliest sin? Probably not what you think.

You’ve clearly accumulated a vast array of knowledge about daily life and politics in 14th-century England. What new research, if any, did you have to undertake to write this last volume?

There's always something I need to concentrate on for each volume, whether it's the relics or biographies of the real people, and this one I certainly had to get right about both Richard and Henry. Richard had gone to fight in Ireland and later met up with a chronicler poet from France who was an unwitting witness to his downfall. And Henry amassed an army and didn't really meet any opposition when he decided to make for England from his exile in France. It was all very interesting. Originally, I had begun the book in chapters alternating between Richard's venture and Henry's across England as he returned to take back his lands and title and then start the mystery, but the powers that be didn't want that. I still think readers would have easily immersed in it, but... *shrug* All in all, I can see that point of view because though there is an arc of the characters' lives running through the series, each book can technically stand alone, and this could have confused new readers.

Aside from perhaps Jack Tucker, do you have a favorite secondary character (or characters) from the series?

Absolutely. I really got to like John Rykener, a real person from the late fourteenth century. We know about him from one document of his arrest. He was a cross-dressing male prostitute and serviced both men and women. He was arrested not for prostitution, but for dressing as a woman. A big no-no. When he wasn't plying his trade, he served as an embroideress. And really looking deeply at him between the lines of the document, it's possible he is an example of a trans person in a time when such a notion was entirely foreign. Of course, so was homosexuality. He did say in the document when he was embroiled in an altercation with another man about a gown, that he would sic his "husband" on the man. And it was only later that I decided he would get his husband in the person of my fictional lawyer Nigellus Cobmartin, one of my favorite names for a character. They got their own story in Spiteful Bones, the penultimate book in the series.

Different religious relics are another element linking the series together, and it’s always interesting to see how they’ll appear within the books. How did this idea originate?

I was originally writing historical fiction stand alones, with ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. But these were not the kinds of books publishers wanted to publish. They wanted recognizable characters in the courts and I just felt that was done to death. A former agent of mine suggested I write medieval mysteries, and it seemed that this kind of conceit worked better as a mystery, with fictional characters killing fictional victims amid the backdrop of real people of the time period. So I had to learn to write a mystery. And I didn't want your Brother Cadfael or nuns investigating, I wanted a man who had been set adrift from all that he had known, a knight who was banished from court and had lost it all. A hardboiled detective in a medieval setting, so I turned to one of my favorite books, The Maltese Falcon, and literally tore the book apart to see what made it tick; beat by beat, climax by climax, paragraph by paragraph. And during all that research, I really liked the idea of the falcon, the McGuffin that propels the plot and has with it its own mystique. In the fourteenth century, that translated to religious relics or venerated objects. They added a little something extra. It could be the center of the action, or something tangential, or even a red herring. We've had all sorts of things: the Crown of Thorns, the Virgin's Tears, Christ's blood, and even the Philosopher's Stone and Excalibur.

Over the fifteen books, the series has moved from Minotaur to Severn House with a dip into self-publishing for the prequel, Cup of Blood, and it’s great to see how well Crispin has survived today’s complicated publishing climate. What are some takeaways you’ve learned about the industry, given your experience? 

Yes, and I was lucky to be at that juncture when all was changing. After all, once upon a time when a big publisher dropped a series, that was it! It was done. But my agent felt there was still some life yet in it and I was definitely not done writing it. I knew it would take some time for him to find another publisher, so I picked up the real first book in the series that St. Martin's rejected--Cup of Blood--dusted it off, rewrote a lot of it, got it edited, and self-published it as a "prequel." My agent, of course, didn't want me to do that since he would have no stake in it, but it garnered two mystery award nominations and it had the added bonus of not letting a year go by without a Crispin book on the shelves. I always liked that story anyway, and it is where Crispin encounters Jack for the first time. So I'm certainly glad I did it. It got a boost because it belonged to an already established series, and I marketed heavily to libraries and knew it would still have the imprimatur of St. Martin's still attached to it. It's always done well and continues to do well. I can't necessarily say that for some of the others I have self-published, though they are in a different genre, that of paranormal.

Now that Crispin’s investigations have come to an end, at least on paper, what’s next for you in historical mysteries or historical fiction in general?

Well, I had just finished my gaslamp-steampunk fantasy series, the Enchanter Chronicles Trilogy, with the last book just released called Library of the Damned. That got me into researching the Victorian era (yes, even though it's fantasy, the era must be researched to give readers a foundation while they navigate all the paranormal things that are going on.) And so I didn't want to waste all that research and I got to thinking about a new Sherlock Holmes pastiche with one of his Baker Street Irregulars--all grown up--who starts his own consulting detective agency, with Holmes being one step ahead of him, and my detective trying to keep a step ahead of the law. It's a humorous mystery series where Holmes makes his appearance every now and then.

And then there is a Tudor mystery series that has been percolating a while in my head, and I finally completed the first in that series, Courting Dragons. Will Somers, Henry VIII's real court jester is the amateur sleuth. This also has a lot of humor, being in the pov of a court jester, and we see Henry through Will's eyes. It's called the King's Fool Mysteries and I hope my agent can sell it next year and to see the first published by the end of 2022 or in 2023. So I think I'll be busy for a bit.

Thank you for hosting me here. I appreciate the opportunity to talk about my Crispin series and upcoming series.

Wednesday, December 01, 2021

Zenobia Neil's Ariadne Unraveled: A Mythic Retelling presents a new side of the classical Greek myth

Best known in Greek mythology as the Princess of Crete who helped the Athenian prince Theseus escape the labyrinth and kill the Minotaur, her half-brother, Ariadne is given fresh treatment in this new retelling.

The prologue impressively evokes her despair and fury after waking alone on the shores of Naxos, abandoned by Theseus, her lover, after betraying her family for him. Neil first moves back and then forward from this low point in Ariadne’s life, giving her agency and showing her as much more than a selfish man’s discarded mistress.

Ariadne Unraveled primarily recounts the romance between Ariadne and her husband Dionysus, the god of wine and ecstasy, among other fun qualities, and how their life together is thwarted by the capricious jealousy of the goddess Artemis, Dionysus’s half-sister, whom Ariadne serves. (Theseus comes back into the picture midway through.)

Many different versions of Ariadne’s story exist, and Neil stitches a collection of them together into a coherent whole, all written in bright and energetic prose. Alongside their love story, we witness the ebb and flow of power: how Ariadne, a high priestess used to being surrounded by eager handmaidens, contends with the gradual loss of hers, while Dionysus, a new god, learns to control his divine abilities.

The writing style is anything but dry. The Minoans are an attractive, athletic, and sensual people, and the varied sex scenes will definitely steam up your Kindle. The special effects are fabulous, too: we have creative shapeshifting, wild drunken parties, gods making trouble, and grapevines that magically twine around things.

In contrast, the author’s portrait of the underworld is hauntingly plaintive. While Dionysus and Ariadne seem to fall in love instantaneously, their relationship grows in emotional richness over time. In all, an entertaining reinterpretation of a classic story.

Ariadne Unraveled was published in July by Hypatia Books, and I'd reviewed it from my own copy for November's Historical Novels Review.  As you can infer, this was a fun book to read, and a fun review to write. Ariadne's story has been a favorite of mine for a long time, ever since reading June Rachuy Brindel's novel Ariadne (1980) when I was in high school. I've also used it as a nickname on various online bulletin boards for years, including on LibraryThing. So of course I was going to read this novel eventually. I haven't yet read Jennifer Saint's Ariadne. Historical fiction readers who enjoy Greek myth retellings now have a lot to choose from!

Friday, November 26, 2021

Some beautiful historical novel cover designs

This is a post about the aesthetics of cover design: an appreciation of the historical novel, the physical object itself, as a work of art. 

I recently ordered a copy of Alison Weir's latest book, In the Shadow of Queens, from Book Depository. It's a collection that reprints the e-shorts (digital-only short stories and novellas) the author wrote to accompany her Six Tudor Queens books, a series of full-length historical novels about Henry VIII's wives.  The e-shorts, which reveal little-known accounts taking place in the shadow of larger events from Tudor history, were only sold in UK outlets, so I, as an American reader, wasn't able to buy them until now. Even then I had to buy a copy from overseas, since the book isn't being released in the US.  There are 13 tales in the collection.

It's not apparent from the image above, but the book doesn't have a dust jacket. Instead, the design is printed directly on the cloth, and it's an absolutely gorgeous package. 

Then I got to thinking about whether I owned any other examples like this, and found only a few on my shelves... not many at all.  It seems more common for genres like cookbooks, reference books, and picture books than for historical fiction (aside from graphic novels).

Five historical novels with printed designs

All but one of these above, the graphic novel/biography about Italian Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi at the center, was published by a British publisher. Moth by Melody Razak, at top left, a new release set during the Partition of India, has an elaborate cut-out design and a stepback cover featuring a woman's face.

Below are two other examples, older historical novels from American publishers. 

The Visionist and I, Elizabeth

Both of these feature art printed directly on the cloth and a near-transparent dust jacket with the title, author, and other elegant design elements. 

These beautiful designs represent a significant investment from their publishers. Can you think of any others like this?  I don't live within easy reach of print-and-mortar bookstores (other than Walmart and a few used bookstores downtown) so do almost all of my book shopping online, but if I saw any of these books on display, I'd be tempted to buy them for the covers alone!

Sunday, November 21, 2021

Eleanor Kuhns' Murder on Principle unravels a mystery in early 19th-century Maine

A man garbed in a bright yellow waistcoat, fawn-colored pantaloons, and red-trimmed Hessian boots is an unusual sight in the Maine woods, and the state of his body is even more so. The fashionable Mr. Randolph Gilbert lies dead, both strangled and stabbed.

In November 1800, Will Rees, weaver and amateur detective, is asked by Constable Rouge, his sometime rival, to help solve the murder, which was discovered by an elder from the nearby Shaker community. After Rees learns Mr. Gilbert’s purpose in town, he grows nervous. The man was seeking to recapture a light-skinned young woman and her baby who fled enslavement in Virginia, and Rees and his wife, Lydia, have just returned from that state on an abolitionist mission (as recounted in Death in the Great Dismal, the previous book).

The theme explored in this sharply rendered historical mystery, tenth in series, is a powerful moral question. “If the victim is a slave catcher, well then, I say thank you to his murderer,” Rees’s friend Tobias, a free man of color, tells him, requesting that he drop the investigation. Rees’s natural inclination to pursue justice causes him internal conflict, and his Black friends may not forgive him if he succeeds. Plus, he can’t help but wonder if they themselves are guilty. 

Kuhns devotes close attention to fine period details, from cooking implements to rural Shaker lifeways, while the contemporary relevance of some plot aspects is unmistakable. The late Mr. Gilbert was ill with smallpox, the pestilence is quickly spreading, and Rees moves to quickly inoculate his children using a doctor’s suggested methodology. Not everyone puts their trust in science, though.

The novel stands alone, though some characters’ backstories (the origin of Rees’s large, blended family, for instance) aren’t immediately obvious to newcomers. Recommended for readers enamored of early American settings.

Murder on Principle was published in 2021 by Severn House, and I'd reviewed it from NetGalley for November's Historical Novels Review.  The first book in the series is A Simple Murder, which won the Minotaur Books/Mystery Writers of America First Crime Novel competition in 2011. This latest book is the 10th in the series. The author, a fellow librarian, is the Assistant Director of the Goshen Public Library in upstate New York.

Friday, November 12, 2021

Housekeeper Mrs. Jeffries and her team solve another crime in Emily Brightwell's holiday-themed Victorian mystery

In Victorian London, Inspector Gerald Witherspoon of the Metropolitan Police Force has a reputation to uphold as a crackerjack crime-solver. But there’s a secret: he has help, and he’s unaware of it. Whenever he gets a new homicide case, his intrepid housekeeper, Mrs. Jeffries, calls meetings with her fellow servants and supportive neighbors, and they put their heads together. After Witherspoon comes home each evening, he relaxes over a glass of sherry with Mrs. Jeffries, telling her about the investigation, and she takes it from there. Even Constable Barnes, Witherspoon’s partner, is in on the ruse, which adds to the amusement.

This is the 40th book in Brightwell’s series, so their system clearly works well. The murders tend to happen around Christmastime, potentially mucking up holiday plans, so the pressure is on for a speedy resolution.

In this volume, the victim is Mrs. Harriet Andover, strangled in her home’s locked conservatory with a dressing gown sash. Harriet was an astute businesswoman who shored up her husband Jacob’s failing fortunes with her personal wealth, and none of her family or friends seem upset at her death. Inheritance swiftly rises to the top as the motive. “They are dreadful snobs, Constable, but like so many of that class, they’ve no money,” one character explains. Each suspect is hiding something, and as alibis are provided and tested, the story pokes fun at their ridiculous behavior. Harriet’s stepson Percy, for instance, is a real piece of work.

Mrs. Jeffries’s team is a motley bunch with different connections and talents. There are many clues of varying importance, and figuring out how they all come together makes for an enjoyable ride. The late Harriet was a sensible woman, respected by her servants; the one remaining mystery is why she’d married into such an unpleasant family.

Mrs. Jeffries and the Midwinter Murders will be published by Berkley on November 16th; I reviewed it for November's Historical Novels Review from a NetGalley copy.

For anyone worried about diving into a series in the middle (or at the end, in this case), let me allay your concerns; I had no trouble starting with this book. The series premise is neatly summarized.  This also makes me wonder about lengthy historical mystery series and if any others extend past 40 books. This one began with The Inspector and Mrs. Jeffries back in 1993, and it's stayed with Berkley as the publisher the whole time, which is notable in itself. 

Monday, November 08, 2021

Review of Paulette Kennedy's Parting the Veil, a Victorian romantic suspense debut

Paulette Kennedy’s debut, Parting the Veil, is a veritable Gothic feast. Romantic suspense is a genre the author clearly loves, and the novel’s stuffed full of its hallmarks and tropes: a single woman, a mysterious inheritance, a crumbling mansion reputed to be haunted, its broodingly handsome owner, a shocking Tarot card reading… and that’s just to start.

The fun is in recognizing which of these elements will play out as expected, and which will be given an unexpected twist.

In 1899, Eliza Sullivan and her younger, mixed-race half-sister Lydia, natives of New Orleans, arrive in the Hampshire village of Chesterbridge to take up residence at Sherbourne House, which had been left to Eliza by a great-aunt she barely knew. The terms of Tante Theo’s bequest, though, disconcert the independent-minded heiress. Eliza learns that to take possession of her fortune, she must get married within three months.

Malcolm, Viscount Havenwood, is the sole surviving member of his family after a fire three years earlier damaged his home’s south wing. An immediate physical attraction springs up between Eliza and Malcolm. She throws caution to the wind and – against the practical Lydia’s advice – weds him.

But married life perplexes Eliza. While ardent in the bedroom at night, Malcolm is cold and proper, even condescending, during the day. His behavior will have readers wondering whether Malcolm deserves a happily-ever-after with our heroine.

A profusion of mysteries drives the story along. What (or who) causes the rhythmic tapping Eliza hears at night? What happened to Malcolm’s Scottish mother, who was rumored to be mad? Why does he behave so weirdly? Why is Eliza haunted by painful childhood memories?
author Paulette Kennedy

The atmosphere is a piquant blend of Southern Gothic meets Jane Eyre. As Americans, Eliza and Lydia’s entrance into Hampshire society meets with curiosity; contrary to stereotype, though, they aren't treated like unwelcome outsiders. They form friendships with local women, including newlywed Sarah Nelson, whose candor is a breath of fresh air. There are hints of same-sex relationships in some women’s pasts, which add layers of intrigue. (One minor complaint: the pet name “darling” is overused.)

For readers on the fence about romantic suspense, the ambience may be overwhelming. But for those who adore it, settle into this compulsive read and soak it all in.

Parting the Veil is published by Lake Union this month; I read it from a NetGalley copy as part of the blog tour for Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours.

Blog tour banner

Friday, November 05, 2021

The Family by Naomi Krupitsky visits mid-20th-century Mafia families from the female viewpoint

Mario Puzo meets Elena Ferrante in Krupitsky’s dynamite debut novel, a decades-spanning saga beginning in 1920s Brooklyn. “There is no easy way to untangle what is Family and what is family,” her characters realize, to their chagrin and peril.

Daughters of influential Mafiosos, fiery Sofia Colicchio and her introverted best friend, Antonia Russo, know their families aren’t typical. Schoolmates avoid them, their mothers constantly worry, and on Sundays they attend a large Italian feast at their fathers’ boss’s home.

When Antonia’s papa tries to escape his profession, he gets “disappeared,” a terrible warning against future betrayals. Sofia and Antonia are resilient, multifaceted young women whose bond occasionally strains as they test the boundaries of independence, and their choice of husbands ensnares them further in Family business.

Depicting twentieth-century Mafia families primarily from the female viewpoint is a fabulous concept that Krupitsky carries out with aplomb. Perspective shifts are smooth, and the backdrops of Prohibition and WWII are superbly realized.

Italian American traditions (including delicious casseroles) are highlighted, and the unique immigration stories show why and how Italian and Jewish newcomers get pulled into organized crime. Fans of Adriana Trigiani and Lynda Cohen Loigman will inhale this tense, engrossing novel about family ties, women’s friendships, and the treacherous complications of loyalty.

The Family was published on Tuesday by Putnam in hardcover and ebook. I read it back in May and reviewed it for the September 1st issue of Booklist, and I'm glad my editor there decided to assign it to me!  

Also, am I wrong, or does the font used on the cover remind you of the one used for Mario Puzo's The Family, his novel about the infamous Borgias of 15th-century Italy, who he called the "original crime family"?