Meet A Fourteenth Century Version of Philip Marlowe
Jeri Westerson's novel The Demon's Parchment got an enthusiastic Top Pick review, but the RT editors were scratching our heads on what to call the excellent tale. Certainly it has mystery and suspense, and it is historically set, but there is a lot more to the story. Thankfully, the author came to our rescue when she told us that she has labeled the new type of books that she created - Westerson calls it "Medieval Noir." Read on to learn more from the author about the evolution of this new subgenre.
Several years ago, when I sat down to write this series of a disgraced knight turned detective, I wanted something a little different from your average monk or nun protagonist. Author Ellis Peters invented the medieval mystery genre with her Brother Cadfael stories. And although my medieval sensibilities fell in love with her characters and plots, I wanted something with more adventure and more action, because I was also in love with the hardboiled detective fiction of the thirties and forties, the kind Raymond Chandler dished out with his hero, Philip Marlowe. It gave me an idea. What if I put a hardboiled detective, like Philip Marlowe, in a medieval setting? What if there were the same tropes—the sensuous femme fatales, the grunts with weapons, the cop slapping the detective around, the lone detective with a chip on his shoulder—what if I put him in the Middle Ages, cranked up the angst, made an interesting protagonist but kept him firmly in his time period? What if I did all that and made the stories just a bit darker, too? Well, you’d simply have to call it “Medieval Noir,” my own little subgenre of medieval mysteries. I was particularly lucky that at the time that the first novel, Veil of Lies, was released, noir was the new black, and the series took off.
Crispin Guest is my hard luck detective. A knight and protégé to the powerful John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster, Crispin fell into a plot to put the duke on the throne instead of the ten-year-old Richard II. But the traitors were all rounded up and summarily executed. When it came time for Crispin's sentence, the duke pleaded to the young King Richard for his life. It was begrudgingly granted, but all else was forfeit: lands, title, wealth were all stripped from Crispin and he was set loose in London with nothing but the shirt on his back.
With this kind of baggage, he was a shoe in for an angsty PI. And lo and behold, he reinvents himself as the Tracker, rooting out puzzles and finding the occasional murderer for sixpence a day…plus expenses
Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe was styled as a white knight with his own code of justice. And Crispin, too, follows the code of chivalry, though he is no longer a knight. It’s in the blood, he tells himself, and indeed, he cannot help but be the chivalrous knight, righting wrongs, helping the weak, and meting out his own kind of justice on the mean streets of fourteenth century London.
- Jeri Westerson