What’s an author to do if her setting has long been obliterated, leaving no handy historic sites to roam? My guest today, Jeri Westerson, faced that challenge when she developed her historical mystery series. Jeri seems permanently ensconced in fourteenth century England, writing about Crispin Guest, her hard-boiled medieval detective in her latest medieval noir, The Demon’s Parchment.
Why Write About England?
By Jeri Westerson
Mystery authors like to choose the locations of their stories carefully. I know authors who choose certain cities and towns intentionally so they can build in a readymade readership. Readers like recognizing the café they frequent or the hair dresser or the main street the protagonist finds the body.
Other authors will choose a place and change it subtly to work with the landscape they need in their stories. Santa Teresa is a stand-in for Santa Barbara in Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone series.
But I chose London. And not just any London, but a fourteenth century one. Now although London is a real place, the fourteenth century London is long gone. I know that we think of England as eternal and unchanging, but a city like London, even with its few remaining Dickensian streets, has changed a lot. Two great fires saw to that along with just the regular amount of tearing down and building up.
I have a few copies of maps from about the early fourteenth century and a stunning one from the sixteenth century. What enthralls me about these two maps is how much London grew in two hundred years and how much it also remained the same.
London began as a Roman settlement—Londinium—but even before the Romans arrived, the prehistoric natives had sporadically settled in the area. William the Conqueror, the last successful invader to England, secured the Anglo-Saxon walls around the city and built his keep within it. We know this keep today as the Tower of London. The walls of Anglo-Saxon London stretch from Ludgate and Newgate to the west, to Cripplegate and Bishopsgate in the north, Aldgate in the east, and Dowgate in the south. Over the centuries, farmland began to be gobbled up for more and more city dwellers, well outside the city’s original walls. And the Thames, once its own sort of border, became merely one more thoroughfare, cutting the city in two. The northside was where all the main attractions were and the Bankside in Southwark, was traditionally the place where the brothels and low life’s lived. Since actors were also considered low life’s, the southbank is also where they put the theatres in Shakespeare’s day.
By the sixteenth century, we can see how much the city had spread outward. The city of Westminster was only a few miles from the heart of London. But London encroached so much into the land between, that there is no telling where London leaves off and Westminster begins. And Westminster is where the kings had their palace, the footprint of which is covered today by the Parliament buildings where Big Ben’s Tower stands.
I am attracted to the long-lived history of England. And I gave a clue to that in a paragraph above. I stated that William the Conqueror was the last successful invader of England…and that was almost a thousand years ago. I don’t think any other country in the world can boast of that.
And it is that settled history that allows for traditions to carry on to this day. England had a brief period during their civil war in the seventeenth century where they abolished the monarchy (curse you, Oliver Cromwell!) but the people, having had enough of the Lord Protector’s puritanical attitudes, brought it back. There is a ceremony in the Tower of London where they perform to this day the oldest continuous military ceremony—something that they’ve been doing at the Tower for seven hundred years—called the Ceremony of the Keys, where a warder of the Tower locks all the castle’s gates in a procedure that takes ten minutes. And he or someone like him, has done this every single night for the last seven hundred years. The warder was only slightly late once during World War II when London was being blitzed by the Germans. A bomb fell close to the Tower and the warder and his guards had to duck for cover…and then they proceeded on with it. They sent an apologetic note to the king. Now that’s tradition, people.
And I love that. I love the continuity of the English. I love that they love their pomp and traditions and have maintained them for generations. There will always be an England, or so it seems. And it’s fun to write about it and have my fictional protagonist Crispin Guest wade into the real history and make a home for himself there. I love that I can look at a fourteenth century map of London and put his dwelling on a real street and then look on Google Earth and find that same street still there. I giggle with delight at such permanence because I live in southern California, where even the ground doesn’t stay in one place all the time. Oh for permanence!
Jeri’s hardboiled detective is Crispin Guest–ex-knight turned PI, solving crimes on the mean streets of fourteenth century London. Her Medieval Noir series has garnered nominations for the Macavity Award, the Shamus Award, and the Bruce Alexander Historical Mystery Award. The third book, The Demon’s Parchment, is due for release on October 12.