With Shadow of the Alchemist out this week, Jeri Westerson has written another thriller in a genre she calls “Medieval Noir” that is fascinating and fun to read. We have here an author writing about a male protagonist’s adventures in 14th century London.
I became a fan of Westerson and her Crispin Guest series a few books ago and have been promoting and publicizing her with each book since, including Troubled Bones and Blood Lance.
Crispin Guest is a detective of sorts during the medieval era, a man who was previously a knight. This fall from grace gives an opportunity to talk about class and changes in one’s life.
Jeri was nice enough to let me interview her again, including patiently explaining what was so exciting about alchemy. There’s a character in the book trying to make alchemy work.
MYSTERYPEOPLE: How did this particular story develop? How would you summarize it to our readers?
JERI WESTERSON: I like to mix up the styles of the books I write, while still keeping it a medieval mystery. It’s easy to fall into something formulaic — Crispin must find a relic, there’s a murder, a bunch of history, blah, blah, blah. So if I mix it up a bit, I keep myself interested as well as the readers. I wanted to write a treasure hunt story at the heart of it, with puzzles and riddles to figure out. But I also like the idea of thriller, of time ticking and running out. Which meant that this time, some chapters are in the point of view of the kidnap victim.And since I am including venerated objects along with relics, it seemed ideal to include the philosopher’s stone among Crispin’s adventures. Alchemy also brings to mind certain mystical qualities that could be woven into an intriguing story.
The blurb: Once a Knight of the Realm, Crispin Guest was stripped of his title and his lands and now must earn his living with his wits. In various corners of late fourteenth century London, Guest has become known as The Tracker, a man who can solve any puzzle or find any missing object — for a price. Because of that reputation, Guest is sought out by Nicholas Flamel, a famed alchemist. Both Flamel’s wife and his apprentice are missing, and he wants Guest to find them and bring them home.
Before he can even begin looking, Guest discovers that Flamel’s house has been ransacked. Ancient symbols start appearing on walls and carved into stones around London, and Flamel’s assistant turns up dead, hanging from the rafters with a note pinned to his chest by a dagger. It is a ransom note that promises the safe return of his wife in exchange for the Philosopher’s Stone, which is reputed to turn lead into gold and create the elixir of life. And the kidnappers aren’t the only ones after it. From the highest nobility to Flamel’s fellow alchemists, everyone is seeking the stone for themselves. With the help of his young apprentice, former cut-purse Jack Tucker, Guest must use all his skills and wits to unravel the mystery, rescue Flamel’s kidnapped wife, and find the stone before it falls into unworthy hands.
MP: If memory serves, you always do some research. This time did you do research on alchemy, both its history and how close they came to making it possibly work? What did you learn? Is alchemy going to be possible some day?
JW: Well, technically, on a molecular level, scientists are doing it now. Not necessarily changing lead into gold, but new elements have been created. Some lasting only milliseconds, but still. In the strictest sense, alchemy is the attempt of the medieval person to make sense of the world around them. It is the precursor to the scientific method, while at the same time making use of spiritualism, mysticism, numerology, astrology, and just plain imagination. The alchemist relied on the writings of those that had come before, including the Greek philosophers and Jewish documents of Kabbalah and mythology, that didn’t so much as experiment with science but merely proposed how the world worked, without the benefit of empirical evidence.
It was fun and interesting delving into the history of alchemy and who became its stars.
MP: Will Jack Tucker, Crispin Guest’s apprentice, get his own book or series? He’s become my favorite character.
JW: Jack will, in fact, get his own Young Adult series. They won’t be mysteries but will lean more heavily into the paranormal, taking advantage of Celtic folklore. It’s actually going back to my roots, what started me interested in writing when I was in high school lo these many years ago. I’m in the planning stages of a three-book series, the Jack Tucker Tales: The Dark Peace Series. The first is called The Changling Tithe:
Jack is thrown into a realm he could scarcely have imagined. The legends of faeries were not all golden tales of lovely maidens with butterfly wings. He was well aware of the traps and tricks these ancient souls could play, and how jealous and downright nasty they could be when crossed. And Jack crossed them. Oh how he crossed them! But he had only done the chivalrous thing and saved the life of a beautiful young girl who was going to be hanged by the sheriffs. She knows nothing about herself, how she came to be on the gibbet, where she comes from, and who she is save for her name: Fia. How was he to know he’d become the target of the wrath of the malicious realm of faeries from the Unseelie Court? Fia is in danger from more than the sheriff’s noose. He takes her on a desperate chase through the streets of fourteenth century London, reluctantly seeking the help from a trio of witches and a young monk, only to enter into the shadowy realm of malevolent faeries, gruesome redcaps, deadly kelpies, and the other denizens of legend, trying to save the girl’s soul, keeping the world of Man safe from the Devil himself, while at the same time trying to save his own skin from being swallowed up in the twilight lands, never to see his own home again.
I guess that’s what he does when Crispin doesn’t know where he is.
MP: What’s your writing regimen like? Do you write each morning, for example?
JW: It’s a job, like any other, and so I start in the morning and tromp into my home office and work to the late afternoon. Sometimes I don’t get much done in the morning hours and work better into early evening. Because I write full time I have that advantage. I try to get in a minimum of ten pages a day. But while I’m doing this I’m also promoting past books, prepping to promote the upcoming book before its release by writing blog posts for a blog tour, doing in-person appearances, and all the promotional blather an author has to do these days. When I can, I write seven days a week.
MP: How far out do you have this series planned? For example, do you have a certain idea how many books you’d like this to go, how you’d like things to end, etc? How far out have you written the series?
JW: I think any series can get stale if it goes on too long. I always had a last book in mind and know just what will ultimately happen to the characters. Since I am following the actual historical timeline, it turns out to be seventeen books in all, at this point. That means eleven more to go! Unless I decide to skip a few years, in which case there might be half of that to go. I’ll have to see what the immediate future holds for Crispin and publishers.
MP: Do you have any interest in writing a book outside of the Crispin series?
JW: I do. Lots! I’ve already completed the first in what will be a six book urban fantasy series, The Booke of the Hidden series. It’s got paranormal big time, humor, action, romance and all sorts of fun elements. The first book is called Booke of the Hidden.
Kylie Strange moves all the way from California to Maine to start a new life and discovers an ancient blank book called “The Booke of the Hidden” in the wall of her new herb and tea shop, Strange Herbs & Teas, and suddenly new worlds open up for the feisty young woman…and by that she means different plains of existence releasing dangerous creatures into her world ready to suck the life out of you! Who knew that she’d have to learn to use a crossbow before she figured out her wireless network? Local misfit Wiccans to the rescue! Sort of. But what about the tall, dark stranger who comes into town and can’t seem to stay away from her shop? And what the heck is the Booke of the Hidden anyway?
Plus, I continue to write my gay mystery series under my pen name, Haley Walsh. The Skyler Foxe Mysteries features a young high school English teacher who stumbles into murder and tries to solve them with the help of his fabulous friends and his police detective bff, while navigating the intricacies of romance and relationships, and what it means to be a gay man in this ever-changing cultural revolution. The books are funny, heartwarming, romantic, and fun. There are currently three in the series, with a novella of short stories. I am currently working on the fourth, Foxe Fire, for a fall or winter 2013 release. Details here.
There’s also my other medieval series, a medieval caper called Oswald The Thief. It’s Ocean’s 11 in the Middle Ages with thieves, con men, and loveable scoundrels. My agent is sending that one around, so we’ll see what happens there.
And, of course, the Jack Tucker series.
I keep pretty busy.
And I even have a few more up my sleeve. Not only is it tough getting published, it’s tough staying published and so authors can’t be afraid to branch out, try new things. In fact, it’s a must.
MP: Why did you decide to have a character who is deaf and mute? As someone who works with people with special needs I was excited and appreciative of that move.
JW: I always like Crispin to be faced with the prejudices of his era and have those entrenched ideas get turned on their ears with his personal experience. And Avelyn makes an intriguing romantic foil for him; unafraid, wise, clever.
I noticed this time,perhaps more than with others, just how often they drink wine, which seems to be something they do when they have a social occasion, when they get home, with every meal, etc.? If people these days drank as much as they would they be essentially functional alcoholics, right?
Probably. But I don’t think they drank even as much as our American Revolutionary forefathers. Those guys could put away the ale and rum! Go look it up. The problem was potable water. The Thames was no good for this. Too much waste went into the river. So cisterns to catch rainwater were set up all over London. Ales were not often not as strong, especially when you watered them down; they were sweeter and without hops as a preservative, would go bad quicker. Wine didn’t ferment as long and was less alcoholic as well. Cow and goat’s milk was made into cheese, something that had a longer shelf life with no refrigeration. And juices were for cooking at a time when expensive sugar was considered a spice. Even kids drank wine and ale.
MP: Where are you taking this series next?
JW: Well, that’s a good question on many levels. Ordinarily, I would already have the next one written and in the can. But without a publisher, I have put off writing the next Crispin (Shadow of the Alchemist is the last Crispin to be published by Minotaur Books). I am sad to say that it is not likely we will have the next Crispin in 2014. However, I do have it mapped out and will be writing it at the beginning of the new year. It’s called The Silence of Stones and concerns the missing Stone of Scone from the coronation chair in Westminster Abbey, three witches, a contingent of Scottish spies, and Jack Tucker in some very big trouble.
Copies of Shadow of the Alchemist and all of Westerson’s books are available on our shelves here at BookPeople and via bookpeople.com.