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.

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