Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Hardboiled...But Other Things As Well

By Jeri Westerson

With my newest book coming out October 15 (SHADOW OF THE ALCHEMIST), I started reflecting on my Crispin Guest Medieval Noir series.

The great thing about writing my series seems to be the freedom it affords me to write pretty much whatever I like, as long as it still carries with it the "Medieval Noir" sensibilities. That means that my stories follow a hard-boiled detective model, even though they are set in the Middle Ages. It's my own little sub-sub-genre, my own little kingdom.

At the same time, though, I still get to play around with other genres while still getting the hard-boiled detective stuff in there. In my debut in 2008, VEIL OF LIES, I did the locked room scenario, but with the suspicious femme fatale and all the other tropes that made it hardboiled. In other words, it introduced the hard-drinking, hard-living lone detective with a chip on his shoulder. He is quick with his fists and his mouth, and gets knocked around for it. He is also a sucker for a dame in trouble, and trouble comes in the form of religious relics or venerated objects, something everyone either wants to get their hands on or can't wait to get rid of. Think Maltese Falcon and medieval Sam Spade.

In my second, SERPENT IN THE THORNS, I penned a medieval thriller, what I like to call my ticking sundial story. The king is in danger of an assassin and it's up to Crispin to stop the killer in time. But it was also about discovering who the assassin was and why a courier was killed. It lead to ideas about running around London that I would use in a later plot.

In number three, THE DEMON'S PARCHMENT, it's a serial killer story based on the life of a real medieval serial killer. But it's also the story of a monster, a golem stalking the streets of London, so maybe it's Frankenstein, too (As Pablo Picasso said, "Good artists borrow, great artists steal.") And on top of all that, it also does triple duty as a commentary on religious prejudice and Jews standing in for the contemporary topic of gays as our current pariah. How's that for packing it in?

Number four, TROUBLED BONES, was my Agatha Christie story, with a bunch of suspects all trapped together. But instead of a manor house in the country, it's a cathedral in Canterbury. Showing up and getting into trouble as well is Crispin's old friend Geoffrey Chaucer, who is later to be inspired to write his famous Canterbury Tales based on the people he meets in this adventure. I almost believe it myself. It's the Canterbury Tales only with murder.

The fifth, BLOOD LANCE, could be styled a psychological drama...with jousting! In it, a knight, a former friend of Crispin's, seems to have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I researched  and explored the nature and history of PTSD and wondered if knights could have been imperiled by it. In this story, one certainly is, as he is accused of cowardice and desertion from John of Gaunt's army and must perform a judicial joust to the death to prove his worthiness. Crispin goes through the usual soul-searching about what is right and honorable and at the same time must find a relic and solve a murder.

And my number six, SHADOW OF THE ALCHEMIST, due out October 15, is largely a treasure
hunt all over London, instigated by a Moriarity-type villain in search of the fabled Philosopher's Stone.

Number seven, that needs to find a home with a new publisher, THE SILENCE OF STONES, (in the outlining stages) involves no murder at all, but a twisting story of a missing "relic" of sorts that Crispin must find or Jack, held in captivity by the king himself, will die. Kathrine Swynford, Lancaster's longtime mistress and eventual wife shows up in this one, as well as three witches from Shakespeare's Scottish play.

In number eight, yet to be outlined, TEARS OF A MAIDEN, is a medieval courtroom drama, with Jack doing the investigating while Crispin languishes in jail. 

To be sure, each book still has the hard-boiled tropes of a detective down on his luck, a sucker for a dame in trouble, a hard-hitting action hero who's not afraid to use his fists. And they also have that elusive relic or venerated object, the McGuffin everyone is trying to get their hands on, either pivotal to the plot or just a red herring. Steeped in the time period of fourteenth century London, we can't help but get encompassed by the politics of the time as well. Corrupt officials, rich nobles passing laws in order to stay rich, the ultra religious faction trying to force its will on the any of this sounding familiar? Strange how the more I research the more it looks like little changes over time.

I've got other things planned for future books. How about a beautiful con artist and thief? That's coming up. A black comedy? That's coming up, too. The possibilities are endless.I have a definite timeline in mind and know where we are headed for Crispin. His story is by no means over yet.


Steven M. Moore said...

Hi Jeri,
There was a series of short stories in one of the SF magazines about an ET detective--he was both hard-boiled and funny. Isaac Asimov in The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun introduced us to Elijah Bailey, a hard-boiled Earth detective who could solve intergalactic murders. Both of these are at the opposite end of your timeline.
I'm convinced that hard-boiled and mysteries in general can be combined with many genres--paranormal mystery, romantic mystery (I guess cozies would be a subclass), historical mystery, etc. Say, wasn't the Name of the Rose similar to what you're alluding to?

Julia Buckley said...

Good to know things are still happening for Crispin!

Jeri Westerson said...

Steven, hard-boiled does work in any era, not just our recent past. The milieu of the loner detective striking out against a warped society works anywhere. William of Baskerville in The Name of the Rose might be considered a had-boiled detective of sorts, since he is called in for the occasional investigations, but Crispin is a bone fide character HIRED to do the job of a detective. He's on his own and has no other occupation or vocation.

Margaret said...

I am so relieved and excited to know there is more Crispin in the future.