Monday, May 07, 2018

Interview with Susan McDuffie, author of The Death of a Falcon, a mystery of 14th-century Scotland, plus US giveaway

Susan McDuffie's entertaining latest Muirteach MacPhee mystery, The Death of a Falcon, brings readers to Scotland in 1375, as our protagonist and his wife, Mariota, a talented healer, pay a visit to Edinburgh Castle. While helping his superior with political negotiations, Muirteach finds himself enmeshed in a murder mystery as well as unexpected court drama which affects him personally. I was glad to get the opportunity to ask Susan some questions about her book... please read on!

What appeals to you about writing historical mysteries?

Thanks so much for hosting me on Reading the Past, Sarah. It’s such a treat to be here with you today!

I’d always been a voracious reader of historical fiction but never thought much about writing until my thirties, when I made a trip to the paperback book exchange to de-stress after a difficult day of work. I found some Harlequin romances (this was back in the 80s) and thought how easy it would be to write a book and get rich and famous! Was I ever mistaken. I first tried a historical romance (still unpublished) and also wrote a couple of Regencies, which were great fun. I guess I thought romance would be easier to write than mysteries. Eventually, however, I realized that the old chestnut is true, “You must write what you love to read.” I am not an avid romance reader, but I do love historical mysteries.

I think the sense of justice restored at the end of a mystery is comforting, while the historical aspect of it cushions it a bit, and takes the same old tired motives we hear about each night in the evening news—greed, anger, revenge, lust—back into the past bit, somehow cushioning things. It’s a little easier to deal with the cruelty of humanity when they are wearing historic costumes, and it all happened 600 years ago. Long ago and far away.

Another thing that fascinates me about historical fiction is trying to really get into the heads and psyches and attitudes of people in the past. How was medieval justice different? How did people view justice differently?

The Death of a Falcon takes place during a fascinating but less familiar time in Scottish history, with its bustling trade routes to southern Europe and the Norse lands, the Orkneys under Norway’s control, and Robert II’s lively, multilingual court. How did you choose 14th-century Scotland, or how did the era choose you?

The era pretty much chose me. When I was initially developing the idea for this mystery series, I realized I wanted to set it during the Lordship of the Isles, which lasted from about 1350 to 1498. It was a fairly settled time in western Scotland, less chaotic that the couple of hundred years afterwards, when the power vacuum caused by the end of the Lordship contributed to all the horrible clan feuding of that era. I thought, it would be fun era to visit in my fiction, and an opportunity to explore that less well-known period.

The McDuffies, or MacFies, were the Keepers of the Records for the Lordship, which was a confederation of Scottish clans in the Highlands and Western Isles headed by the MacDonald. “Keeper of the Records” sounded very exotic and mysterious to me when I heard about it from my great-uncle and my father as a child. Actually, it might have been less exotic and more an accounting of who owed whom how many cattle, but I thought a role as the Keeper of the Records would give my sleuth plenty of leeway to travel and investigate things on behalf of the Lord of the Isles. The final result is Muirteach. So far he’s investigated in the Hebrides, and in Oxford. Now he and Mariota are in Edinburgh, at the Royal Court. I think he’s had enough of court life, though, by the end of The Death of a Falcon.

author Susan McDuffie
Muirteach and his wife, Mariota, go through some marital difficulties, and while Muirteach is the protagonist, I often found myself sympathizing with and rooting for Mariota. What was the experience like, writing from his viewpoint during this challenging time?

Muirteach is a somewhat flawed character, perhaps more so in this book. When I first began writing the series I envisioned a fairly simple character arc over time with increasing wisdom and maturity, less drinking (he’s a bit of a lush in A Mass for the Dead, the first in the series). However, this book represents three steps backwards for him. When I was writing this I was reading Game of Thrones, and thinking, “Oh I really need to work on my plotting; my plots are far too predictable,” so maybe perhaps some of the credit, or blame, goes to George R. R. Martin. I wanted to break out from the typical predictable hero and ending.

In this book Muirteach also winds up repeating some of the less functional patterns of his father. Don’t we see that in families all the time? We’re all pretty flawed, really, and I like reading and writing complex characters. Although I do believe one of the reasons people like to read mysteries is that sense of justice restored at the end. I grew a bit worried, writing this book, that people would get so frustrated with Muirteach they would throw the book at the wall.

Have you gotten to travel to the places you write about in Scotland?

I have been to most of the places I’ve written about. I particularly loved the Western Isles. I need to go back soon; it’s been far too long!

Muirteach is amused and befuddled by the royal court at Edinburgh, especially the fashions. How did you research this aspect of Scottish culture?

It can be tricky researching Scottish dress before the 1600s. I’ve gone with the assumption that the Highlands and Islands had much in common with Irish fashion and culture of that era. One great resource for clothing is Old Irish and Highland Dress by H.F. McClintock. For the Lowlands, and the royal court, I’ve relied more on general medieval sources for fashion, style, and cuisine.

In the acknowledgments, you’d mentioned visiting the Santa Fe Raptor Center. What did you learn there about birds (and from Gandalf the hawk) that you might not have known otherwise?

Actually, the birds visited me, or visited my day job at a gallery in Santa Fe. During Indian Market the Raptor Center sometimes comes and sets up a display with a few of their friendlier birds in front of the shop. It’s always amazing to be in the presence of these other beings we humans share the planet with. Gandalf was a wonderful inspiration!

The idea of a lost medieval book is compelling, and a bit frustrating that it no longer exists! How did you first come across mention of the Inventio Fortunatae, and then decide to use it in your story?

I got so wonderfully sidetracked by research when writing this book. Initially I knew I wanted to include something about Prince Henry Sinclair, who may have visited North America around 1398 with the Venetian Zeno brothers. That led me to the book Irresistible North: From Venice to Greenland on the Trail of the Zen Brothers by Andrea di Robilant. But di Robilant’s view was that Henry Sinclair had only travelled to Iceland and Greenland. That led me down the Norse in Greenland rabbit-hole and I grew fascinated by their story. Where did they go?

One book that was a great reference was Erikson, Eskimos and Columbus: Medieval European Knowledge of America by James Robert Interline, and that particular book has a lot of information on the Inventio Fortunatae. The description of the giant lodestone at the North Pole, where indwelling currents sucked ships in and dashed them against the rocks, was incredibly compelling. Just imagining early exploration in this region is compelling, actually. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to find a copy of the Inventio someplace? Or even a bit of old parchment from it tucked into another binding? Or something! I guess we can always hope!


The Death of a Falcon by Susan McDuffie was published by Liafinn Press in paperback and ebook in March. This interview forms part of the author's blog tour, during which we will be giving away 5 paperback copies & 5 eBooks of The Death of a Falcon! To enter, please enter via the Gleam form below.

Giveaway Rules 

– Giveaway ends at 11:59pm EST on May 11th. You must be 18 or older to enter.
– Giveaway is open to US residents only.
– Only one entry per household.
– All giveaway entrants agree to be honest and not cheat the systems; any suspect of fraud is decided upon by blog/site owner and the sponsor, and entrants may be disqualified at our discretion.
– Winner has 48 hours to claim prize or new winner is chosen.

Death of a Falcon


  1. Lovely interview! So happy for you, Susan:)

    1. Thank you, Alana! And Sarah, of course--it was so much fun to be here!

  2. Liz V.11:43 AM

    So many of my favorite authors were Scots whose books were set elsewhere--Helen MacInnes, Mary Stewart, Rosamunde Pilcher. Would be nice to read a book set in Scotland. Thanks for the giveaway.

    1. Good luck, Liz! I used to devour Rosamunde Pilcher and Mary Stewart's novels when I was growing up.

    2. I hope you enjoy THE DEATH OF A FALCON, Liz, and good luck with the giveaway! Mary Stewart is a favorite author of mine--wasn't one of her early books set on Skye? WILDFIRE AT MIDNIGHT, I think.

  3. Thank you so much for hosting Susan & her blog tour, Sarah!

    HF Virtual Book Tours

    1. My pleasure, Amy, thanks for setting it up!

    2. Thanks so much to both of you!