My guest poster today is Jeri Westerson, author of Veil of Lies, a “medieval noir” novel that debuts next month. I’m looking forward to it. You may have visited her excellent blog, Getting Medieval. Welcome, Jeri!
Crispin Guest—A Character Study
VEIL OF LIES; A MEDIEVAL NOIR, is the first in a series. It is my own subgenre of medieval mystery that I term “medieval noir.” It’s a hard-boiled detective set in the middle ages. Because of the darker themes, this called for an exceptional detective, one who would be compelling in book after book.
Enter Crispin Guest.
Now let’s back up a bit. When an author devises a detective for a series, they have to keep certain things in mind: will he be equipped to solve the crimes that come his way? In an amateur sleuth story, it has to be believable when the detective comes upon murder after murder. In something like a private eye story it is a given that the detective will know what to do and how to proceed when encountering the ultimate crime.
But set the story in the distant past where there is little in the way of forensic science to help you, a vastly under-funded and under-trained “police force”, coupled with the fear and superstition of a particular point in time, and you have special difficulties in allowing your detective to be able to solve a crime.
I needed a detective who was able to read and write. Not so easy in the middle ages when even some of the nobility could do neither. This is the reason that many medieval mystery protagonists are monks and nuns. The clerical class, for the most part, could read and had a bit of time on their hands.
But I also wanted someone who could move between the classes, someone who was well aware and even knew by name some of those in the upper echelons of society. He needed to be a man familiar with weapons so that he could fight his way out of any difficulty. He had also to be familiar with death so he could recognize an accidental death from a deliberate one, and a fresh corpse from an old one. This meant he had to be a man-at-arms, someone who had seen many battles and their aftermath. But it also meant that he could no longer be a part of the society to which he had been born. Forced to live among people that he never considered his equal, he would be imbued with ready-made angst and animosity. Throw in a sheriff who gives him grief at his change in station and we have the makings of a darker, character-driven morality play.
Crispin Guest was a man who had everything: a title, wealth, status at court. He was a possible candidate for Edward of Woodstock’s privy council when he became king. As the protégé under John of Gaunt the duke of Lancaster (Edward’s brother), Crispin had fought in battles and even led his own men. He had jousted in tournaments, and was well respected among the elite.
But when Edward of Woodstock (whom we know as the Black Prince) suddenly died and his father the king died soon thereafter, that left the throne in the hands of Edward’s son, Richard II. Crispin well knew that Richard’s uncle, John of Gaunt, was the better man and should be king. And when there were murmurings to place Lancaster on the throne instead of his ten-year-old nephew, Crispin threw in with that lot, well knowing his choice was dangerous but also knowing in his heart that this was the right choice for England.
But what he had not known, was that the plot was little more than a trap set to discover any conspirators to usurp the rightful heir. Caught in the web, Crispin was arrested. The conspirators that could be found were executed most brutally, but Crispin’s champion was John of Gaunt himself, who pleaded with the ten-year-old King Richard to spare his life. Richard did so, on the condition that Crispin lose all. Banished from court, stripped of his lands, wealth, and status, he was allowed to stay in London. But how to stay alive?
Men in similar straits took to highway robbery. But not Crispin. His honor would not allow it and he took many menial jobs before he stumbled upon the one that satisfied his pride if not his purse. He gained a reputation for finding lost objects—for tracking them down—hence, his new title as the Tracker…for sixpence a day, plus expenses.
Though Crispin is a character with a chip on his shoulder, he has a strong sense of honor coupled with great wit. He feels a certain sense of obligation toward the weakest in society, fulfilling his chivalric code even if he can no longer be a knight. He’s a lover and a fighter. And, of course, endlessly curious.
So now I have a detective equipped and ever willing to use his wits to outsmart the murderer, getting into scrapes and causing a few bruises himself. Then I build my mysteries within the framework of the politics, people, characters, and events of the late 14th century, taking it down a notch into darker territory, delving into the grit of London.
There is no end to the ideas.
Visit Jeri on her website to read an excerpt from Veil of Lies at www.JeriWesterson.com.