MysteryPeople Q&A with Medieval Noir Author Jeri Westerson

~Post by MysteryPeople Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott M.

One of the great reader memories I’ll have of 2011, a year of many great ones, is discovering the work of Jeri Westerson. She has found a way to please both historical and hardboiled mystery fans alike with a style she describes as medieval noir. She literally uses a tarnished knight in the form of Crispin Guest, who walks the mean cobblestones of fourteenth century London. When I read the first book in the series, Veil Of Lies, it was a feeling of pure fun I had with every page. While Jeri gives a great history lesson and smart commentary on the private eye novel, her first duty is to entertain. I can not wait to have her come to our store in person to our store on October 30th to sign and discuss her latest Crispin Guest novel, Troubled Bones, as well as show off her collection of medieval weapons (another reason I love her)

I recently had a chance to ask her a few questions.

MysteryPeople: Since you basically invented medieval noir, can you define it?

Jeri Westerson: Medieval Noir is darker than your average medieval mystery. More Name of the Rose than Brother Cadfael. And while other medieval mysteries might have a monk or nun protagonist, or even a sleuth with some other occupation, Crispin Guest is the only one who is hired as a detective. He’s called the Tracker. He’s not an amateur sleuth. In fact, he’s the hardboiled variety on the order of Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade. So in the books, hardboiled stuff happens; even if justice is served he doesn’t always get the girl and it isn’t necessarily a happy ending.

MP: Crispin Guest is a very unique PI, since he used to be in the upper class and is struggling with being working class. Was the character created to fit the setting or was he pretty much a pure invention?

JW: It was all planned to the nth degree. I wanted to write a medieval mystery but not the typical one. I wanted my detective to be that and only that on the order of hardboiled detectives from the genre of the thirties and forties. But he had to be created to be a man of his time. He isn’t designed as an anachronism. It’s a “what if.” What if a man of his pedigree suddenly lost it all and had to reinvent himself? With his fighting skills, his facility with languages, his intense sense of honor and justice, what could he see himself doing for a living?

MP: You deliver a fourteenth century play on all the genre standards we love, even a version of gangsters. Did you have list of “I want this to happen” or did you find that the story dictated them?

JW: I have a list. I really wanted to explore some of those hardboiled tropes and make them work for the fourteenth century. That’s the fun of inventing your own subgenre, after all. In Veil of Lies, there is an Italian mob of sorts. The ruling classes of the city states of Italy acted more like the mobsters we think of today. So it’s a tiny stretch but all within the bounds of the history. Then there is usually a femme fatale who either wants to stall Crispin or needs his help. And there’s always a religious relic or venerated object, a sort of Maltese Falcon. It’s something everyone is trying to get their hands on or can’t wait to get rid of.

MP: To play with the genre like this, you have to be pretty knowledgeable. Who are some of the crime writers that influenced you?

JW: Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Dorothy Hughes, James M. Cain all in the hardboiled category.  In your more traditional mystery category I look to Dorothy L. Sayers. She didn’t write cardboard cut-outs. Her characters had layered backstories that were revealed slowly throughout the series. She was a pioneer of what authors do regularly in series mysteries today. And for the medieval, Ellis Peters, of course, with her Brother Cadfael series. She invented the medieval mystery. I discovered them quite accidentally some years back well before I even thought of writing a mystery myself.

MP: How much do you need to do research on a book? Was there more on Troubled Bones since you took him out of London?

JW: I wrote unpublished historical novels ten years before I decided to write a medieval mystery. In fact, it was a former agent who suggested I switch to mystery since straight historicals were a dead market at the time. So I had quite a bit of research already in my pocket when I started to write Crispin. But with each book there is always research to be done. There are real people to look at and some specialty like archery or jousting to get right. And the relics, of course. And I do have a lot of London research at my fingertips, but not so much when it came to medieval Canterbury. So yes, there was more to do at Canterbury. I usually take at least a month before I write to do some research and take notes and then I continue to pick up more research along the way while I’m writing. If I come to a point in the plot where I question something, I stop right there and look it up. I have found if I don’t do that right away, I could be in danger of having to really rework my entire plot, because when you write historicals you always change the plot to fit the history, not the other way around. Yes, it’s harder that way but that’s the fun of writing and reading historicals. Authors have to be careful to play fair with the reader. The reader expects to get good history with their fiction. They like to feel they’ve learned a little something along the way.

Jeri Westerson, sans knight helmet.

MP: In Troubled Bones, Crispin goes to Canterbury and encounters Chaucer, who writes a somewhat more whimsical version of your era. How did you go about mixing light and dark? Did one win out?

JW: I’ve had a love affair with the Canterbury Tales ever since I was a kid. I think I was the only kindergartener in Los Angeles who could recite a portion of the Prologue…in Middle English no less! I was disappointed as all get out when I got to the end of the (child’s version) of the Canterbury Tales and discovered that Chaucer died before finishing. Maybe I’ve been trying to finish it ever since. I’ve wanted to include Geoffrey Chaucer as a character in the books since I conceived of Crispin. And I knew just how he’d fit into Crispin’s story (in fact, he shows up in the next book, too, called BLOOD LANCE, for next year’s release).

As for your question, there is always a good mix of a little lightness, a little comedy amidst the darkness, else the darkness would be too much. Jack Tucker, Crispin’s sidekick offers a bit of that as well as some pathos. Jack is a good mix of light and dark and Jack even gets more to do in this book.

Though I call these Medieval Noir mysteries, they aren’t as noir as they could be, mostly because I know my audience. Geoffrey offers a bit of lightness to the proceedings, but always there is the undercurrent of something else, something that isn’t being spoken aloud.

MP: You have a collection of medieval weaponry, some of which you’re bringing with you to the event. What is the deadliest thing you have?

JW: Hmm. I suppose it depends on how you use it. Certainly the daggers are quite deadly, but so is the sword. And the flail can bring you low with one good well-placed swing. I suppose readers will have to drop by to find out.

Jeri Westerson will be joining us October 30th  at 7pm when we celebrate MysteryPeople’s One Year Anniversary. We’ll be doing our best to give our third floor a fourteeth century feel, so if you want to dess up in your ren-fair best, no one will laugh.

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