We are delighted to welcome Jeri Westerson, California-born historical mystery author, to the Severn House club. For any of you unfamiliar with Jeri and her hero, disgraced knight Crispin Guest, we spent some time with Jeri to find out more about her and her writing.
Jeri Westerson was born and raised in Los Angeles, where she lives with her commercial photographer husband. As well as seven previous Crispin Guest medieval mysteries, she is the author of a paranormal urban fantasy series and several historical novels. Her books have been nominated for the Shamus, Macavity and Agatha awards.
Tell us about Crispin Guest. How did you come to write about him? How did inspiration strike?
I had been writing historical fiction for some years about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. It was the kind of thing I liked to write, the kind of world where I liked to spend my creative time. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the kind of story editors wanted to publish. They preferred the doings of court – any court, but especially the Tudor court – and the rise and fall of all the familiar figures we’ve seen time and again. After struggling to get published for some ten years a former agent suggested, if I insisted on writing about the Middle Ages, that I turn my talents to “medieval mystery”. And I found when I looked into it, that the sort of thing I liked to write seemed to translate much better into the mystery genre.
I had read all the Brother Cadfael mysteries of course, and was familiarizing myself with some of the other series set in the time period, and I came to the conclusion that I didn’t want a monk or nun protagonist. I was looking for a little more action and adventure, something the readers could sink their teeth into. And thinking outside the box, I began to really delve into the possibilities. One idea was to build a protagonist with all the tropes of a Sam Spade or a Phillip Marlowe. And the more I thought about it, the more I worked on the idea of a cross-pollination of the medieval with the hardboiled.
The hardboiled detective is hard drinking, hard fighting, tough-talking with a chip on his shoulder, and a sucker for a dame in trouble. Those elements would easily translate into the medieval setting. I also wanted my detective to have certain skills. To be able to read, certainly. A facility with languages would get him in and out of court. And also the ability to fight with weapons; so I wanted a knight or lord, someone who moved easily in court circles. But because I wanted the hardboiled tropes, he had to be brought low, and so all of his noble privilege had to be taken away from him. He needed a good reason to lose it all, to have the angst and dark backstory I so wanted with this character, and through the research of the era, I decided he would have been a knight raised in the household of John of Gaunt, the duke of Lancaster.
When Richard II unexpectedly came to the throne when he was ten years old, the nobles thought his uncle Lancaster would seize the throne for himself. He had to swear that he would not overthrow his nephew and to dispel any plots. This to me seemed the perfect opening to insert my detective Crispin Guest into a conspiracy to put his mentor and beloved father figure, the man who raised him, on the throne. The scheme was discovered and before Gaunt could save Crispin he was swept up with the other conspirators and imprisoned, tortured, and put on trial. But instead of the horrendous execution expected for a traitor, Gaunt begged for the life of this favoured knight. Richard did spare him, but took everything else away; his knighthood, his lands, his means of support, and everything that defined who he was, and set him loose in London with nothing but the clothes on his back, separated from all he had known and from everyone he had ever loved,
Crispin struggled, but eventuall
y found his way and reinvented himself as the “Tracker,” a man who finds things for a fee. Though he no longer holds a title, he has a good heart and a dry sense of humor. He’s surrounded himself with a motley crew of priests and peasants – like his servant and eventual apprentice, the lovable young thief, Jack Tucker. Trapped somewhere between his old life in the king’s court and his new life
as the Tracker, Crispin struggles to survive, but not at the cost of what he holds dearest: his honor.
I also added another little twist to the plot. There is always a religious relic or venerated object at the heart of the storylines. Sometimes they are vital to the plot, and sometimes they are merely what propels the plot forward.
To learn more about Jeri & Crispin, here’s the second part of this interview.