Tuesday, July 20, 2010

My mystery author guest: Jeri Westerson

As promised yesterday, mystery/suspense author Jeri Westerson is visiting my blog today, or at least her sleuth, Crispin Guest, is! Above is the cover photo for the second book in Jeri's Medieval Noir series, Serpent in the Thorns. The upcoming third book, The Demon's Parchment, will be released in October. If you haven't read the first two books in the series, Veil of Lies and Serpent in the Thorns, yet, I suggest you do it quickly, so you'll be ready to devour the third book when it comes out.

First, Jeri will give us an overview of the series, then Crispin will tell us about himself:

I write a medieval mystery series decidedly different from your average medieval mystery fare. My detective is no monk. Far from it, and these stories are situated not in the glittering halls of court, but down in the gutter of a dark and sinister city. This is the tale of a hard-boiled medieval PI as told by the man himself, Crispin Guest, ex-knight turned detective on the mean streets of fourteenth century London. Thirty years old in 1384, Crispin was cast out of the only life he had ever known, that of a privileged upbringing, with all the trappings of the wealthy and the ear of the King’s court. All that was lost to him when, seven years earlier, he committed treason for what he thought was the good of the country. When he should have been executed, his mentor the duke of Lancaster spoke up for him and instead of an ignoble and certainly painful death, Crispin was given back his life, though all else was forfeit; his lands, his title, his wealth—in short, everything that defined who he was. He found a new home on the Shambles, the pungent butcher’s district of London. He re-invented himself as “the Tracker,” a medieval detective, earning sixpence a day…plus expenses.

Crispin made friends of tradesmen and merchants, and, most notably, Jack Tucker, a young orphan boy who spent his time on the streets as a cutpurse and, much to Crispin's chagrin, insinuates himself into Crispin's life as his servant.

Crispin cannot help but think of himself as a knight even though he no longer wears a sword.

But let's let him tell it:

I am not an irreligious man. My faith is my own. And it is private. I believe in belief, for what it is worth. It is in a man's actions that has far more sway with me. What a man leaves behind, his legacy, can be material, but far greater can be his mark upon the world by his actions. This is the intangible, that which cannot be measured on a scale or in a money pouch.

When I consider myself in this scheme, I naturally do not see a legacy of coins to leave behind, or even an estate. That was forfeit long ago. No, what I see is a bit of myself...in Jack Tucker's eyes. Perhaps he shall be my legacy. Perhaps the name of Crispin Guest will not be spat upon the street in words of reproach, but in the whispered tone of respect and admiration. Here was a man, they might say, that rose above his past, his lot. Here was a man whose footsteps led to justice; who righted wrongs; who helped his fellow man...

Ah, but then. I look into the eyes of the sheriff, into the eyes of my fellow man, and I see only disdain and bitterness. These dark streets of London do not hold redemption for me. They hold only the stink of man's hatred for himself. His noble bearing straightens only so that he might kick a lowlier man. He looks away from the hunger and despair lying mere steps away in the bleak shadows. He uses his opportunity not to give charitably but to snip a money pouch or slit a throat, whichever is easiest.

My legacy, then, is a secret one. I will do what I must. And I will see no indulgence granted to me. No lessening of my Purgatory here on the Shambles. If God grants me peace, it shall be the long sleep in the cold ground of a London graveyard. If I am lucky, my name might be etched upon a stone paid for by the few friends I have managed to acquire. If not, well. Perhaps Jack Tucker will grow to his majority a man who once knew a former knight; a knight who taught him a bit of a rusty code that he took into his manhood like the blunted blade that hangs at his hip; used it when he could, and perhaps invoked the name of Crispin Guest not as a curse, but as a brief blessing.


Okay, readers, fire away! What would you like to know from a medieval former knight? Something about daily life in those times, about court politics, the code of the knight, or what? And if you have a question for Jeri, I'm sure Crispin will let her butt in, too. Please visit Jeri's website to read excerpts from her books and watch her really cool series book trailer.


Beth Groundwater said...

Hi Crispin,
I have a question for you. I'm always interested in food and different ethnic styles of cooking. What are some of the typical dishes that people would eat in your day? DO you have a recipe for one? And was chocolate available in your time? I don't think I could survive then if it wasn't!

Crispin Guest said...

I do not know what "chocolate" is but I must assume by context that it is a delicacy in your country. As to "recipe" I am only familiar with this term in the sense of a physician's alchemy. But if your query concerns food, then the fare I was used to at court differs considerably from that I can enjoy now. At court, I might have eaten a custard of dried fruits, parsley, and bone marrow. Now, on special occasions, I might be lucky enough to find a small cake drizzled with honey. At table at court, a venison stew or fruit and salmon pie were eagerly devoured, but now I am happy to consume roasted or stewed sheep's feet. Everyday fare includes bread and cheese, both the Shambles and at court. I recall stuffed loaves from my childhood. These were sweetened loaves of bread where the ornamental top was carefully sliced off and removed, the soft middle scooped out and crumbled and cooked with butter, fennel and poppy seeds in a pan, returned to the inside of the loaf, the top put back in place, and the whole baked till warmed. Very satisfying.

Jacqueline Vick said...

How do people hear about your services and hire you?

N. R. Williams said...


Since life is harsh, have you considered traveling to America? I've heard it is the promised land?

Anita Clenney said...

Hi Crispin. You're one of my favorite detectives, and I'm so excited that another of your adventures will soon be published. My question is are you interested in finding a lady and settling down anytime in the future, or do you prefer to go it alone, with Jack Tucker as your family?

Crispin Guest said...

Mistress Jacqueline, I have lived on the Shambles for seven years and have worked as the Tracker for four of them. And though London is a bustling city, each parish is small and word travels well. My clients are recommended by others who have benefited from my services or have heard of them by rumor.

Crispin Guest said...

Mistress Williams, I have never heard of this place you speak of. Promised land? Surely an exaggeration.

Crispin Guest said...

Mistress Anita, my life on the Shambles is difficult and uncertain. To bring a woman--certainly wise creatures--to such a place where my prospects are dim, is to condemn her. I have nothing to offer to her and my offspring. Though a priest may argue otherwise, it seems more prudent to eschew a wife.

Jack is a sensible lad. And clever. But I need no family and neither does he.

Beth Groundwater said...

What interesting questions and answers we've had so far! And Crispin, you're making my mouth water with that description of the stuffed loaves. Not so sure about the bone marrow custard, though...

I have another question. Where does your clothing come from. How do you obtain it? From a local seamstress perhaps, and what kinds of fabrics are available for those with funds and for those like yourself with fewer resources?

Crispin Guest said...

Mistress Beth, Since you are from another place and your customs differ from mine, I will be free with my speech. I am loathe to admit that I am wearing the same garments I was wearing when I left court some seven years ago, though I have had several different undergarments since (braies and chemise shirt, which are made of linen). They do not fair as well under repeated washings. The cotehardie I wear over my chemise, is made of sturdy wool as are most garments of the citizens you will encounter on the streets and countryside of England. They are not washed, but brushed and cared for in a different fashion than a washerwoman boiling linens. I was fortunate in that when I was captured, I was not in velvet finery, for a coat, gown, or houppelaunde made of richer fabric--velvet, satin, or silk would not have been as hardy or as servicable. The coat has been repaired and patched more times than I care to count, however, as have my wool stockings which have oft been replaced.

The monks and nuns of the local monasteries give away garments for the poor, but others must go to a tailor to make one's clothing or to, as you say, a seamstress, someone of close acquaintence who can sew servicable clothing from purchased woven cloth for a smaller fee or trade. I have not been above bartering my time for an exchange of goods.

My boots are of leather as is my belt, money pouch, and dagger sheath. These items, too, have been repaired and eventually replaced by purchase from a leather worker, but prices are dear and care must be taken to be thrifty when coin is scarce... which it often is.

Kathleen Ernst said...

Great post! Thanks.

Beth Groundwater said...

On Facebook, Jon asked:
Have you read "A Distant Mirror"?

So that makes me wonder what your research sources have been, Jeri.

N. R. Williams said...

How much fun was this. I need to read this series. It wasn't until later in the day that I realized, a knight would no nothing about America. Wrong time period. So there you have a glimpse into my current life. Long nights and early mornings trying to get everything done.

Jeri Westerson (Crispin's Author) said...

Beth, nonfiction books like A Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuchman, A World Lit Only By Fire by William Manchester, and the Ken Follet novel Pillars of the Earth are all eschewed by medievalists as being biased and inaccurate, so I try to stay away from them when it comes to research (well, especially novels. I tell people all the time. There are three places you should never get your history: Novels, Movies, and--God help us--The History Channel!)

I have looked to the suggestions by medieval scholars, historians, and professors. Which means spending a lot of time in my local university's library. Books on Chaucer, John of Gaunt, Richard II. Books about London, food, merchants and commerce, clothing, heraldry, weapons, Catholic theology. I have even read books on medieval senses--yes, that means the five senses and how they interpreted them in terms of their culture and religion. Then there is research specific to each book. In Veil of Lies, for instance, it was the wool market. In Serpent in the Thorns it was archery. In the upcoming The Demon's Parchment it was medieval Jews. The sources are as new and as vetted as one can get because since I don't read Latin or French, I can't go to primary sources. If your readers are interested in some recommended readable texts (because, believe me, I've read a lot of yawners), they might try Life in a Medieval City by Joseph and Frances Gies (and they have written quite a few accessible books on the subject) and Barbara Hanawalt's Growing Up in Medieval London. And, of course, to get a sense of the period, reading books written then is a good idea. Chaucer, of course, and Jacobus de Viragine's The Golden Legend.

I'm also in contact with folks "across the pond" in archives so I can ask questions about specific things (this is the great thing about the internet) and they have been more than generous to me, sending me snail mail stuff for free.

So, research your research, I guess is the word on that because readers of historical fiction really want the history right. I'm not saying I don't make mistakes but they are never intentional.

Eloise Hill said...

Throughly enjoyed meeting Crispin and learning about bone marrow custard (yikes!) and the Shambles. Looking forward to reading the series.

Jeri Westerson (Crispin's Author) said...

Here's that Lombardy Custard, first in Middle English, and then translated:
Custarde Lombarde
Take gode creme, and levys of Percely, and Eyron, the yolkys and the whyte, and breke hem ther-to, and strayne thorwe a straynoure tyl it be so styf that it wol bere hym-self. Than take fayre Marwe and Datys y-cutte in ij or iij and Prunes and putte the Datys an the Prunes and Marwe on a fayre Cofynne y-mad of fayre past and put the cofyn on the oven tyl it be a lytel hard. Thanne draw hem out of the oven. Take the lycour and putte ther-on and fylle it uyppe and caste Sugre y-now on, and if it be in lente, let the eyroun and the Marwe out and thanne serve it forth.

Lombardy Custard
Take good cream and leaves of parsley and eggs, the yolks and the whites, and break them into the cream. Beat the mixture until it is so stiff that it will stand by itself. Then take fresh marrow and dates cut into two or three, and prunes, and put the dates and the prunes and the marrow into a fair coffin made of fair pastry, and put the coffin into the oven until it is a little hard. Then draw it out of the oven. Take the liquid and put it into the coffin and fill it up and cast enough sugar on it. If it is Lent, leave the eggs and the marrow out, and then serve it forth.

I have cooked lots of fourteenth century recipes and the tastes of things are a bit odd, especially with the different herbs employed in some of the recipes. Definitely evokes a different place and time. Familiar yet not.

Beth Groundwater said...

Thanks so much for your additional responses today! Your readers should sure appreciate all the work you do to research the time period and make sure your setting is accurate.