My next fellow M.M. Bennetts Award finalist is Jeri Westerson’s Cup of Blood. This novel’s subtitle describes it as “medieval noir,” and that description gives you a pretty clear idea of what genre expectations are ahead.
Like the protagonists of the noir movies of the ’30s and ’40s, Cup of Blood’s main character, Crispin Guest, is a man with a past, wounded in love, tough on the outside but carrying a history he can’t quite get rid of. And like those noir heroes, he has a dicey relationship with the official representatives of the law, in this case the Sheriff of London and his minions. In classic noir fashion, the book opens with the discovery of a corpse, a discovery which quickly opens out into a web of intrigue that goes far beyond a simple murder, involving the royal court, popes and anti-popes, and a host of characters that vie for the title of “most disreputable.”
Westerson’s characters are creatures of the streets and taverns, and she does an excellent job of conveying the seedy warmth of these locations. The plot takes some twists that I can almost guarantee you won’t see coming – at least I didn’t! This was a very enjoyable read that kept me guessing as to the next turn in the story, with rich description of setting that makes medieval London come to life.
SW: Cup of Blood was my first introduction to your work, but I see that there’s a whole series of Crispin Guest mysteries. Which book would you recommend for someone as their first introduction to Crispin?
Since Cup of Blood is a prequel I would absolutely recommend it as the first. In fact, the only reason it’s a “prequel” now is that it was the very first I wrote in the series but couldn’t get it sold to a publisher. When we were looking for a new publisher to continue the series after six published volumes, I didn’t want a year to go by without a Crispin book on the shelves, so I dusted off this manuscript (that I always liked) gave it a bit of a rewrite, and called it a “prequel.” So it truly is the first book in the series. It explains where Crispin gets his adolescent servant/thief Jack Tucker.
SW: I gather that at least some of the characters in Cup of Blood are actual historical figures. What can you tell us about the “real” people who inhabit the novel?
The whole series includes real people of the time period, from King Richard II to poet Geoffrey Chaucer to famed alchemist Nicholas Flamel. The sheriffs of London existed, though since we don’t know much about them I was free to cut loose on my characterization of them. King Richard is the young king and despises Crispin for the part he played in committing treason against him, which threw Crispin into his current state as a poverty-stricken “Tracker,” a medieval detective. In later volumes, Crispin’s old friend Geoffrey Chaucer shows up to help and sometimes hinder him in his investigations, and there is also a cross-dressing prostitute by the name of John Rykener–a real person in Crispin’s London–who had helped Crispin learn the ropes of survival when he was first set adrift on the streets with nothing but the clothes on his back. It’s an interesting collection of people cast against a wide variety of events. Never a dull moment!
SW: What drew you to this particular era to set your novels?
I was raised in a household where English medieval history was king, with the numerous works of fiction and nonfiction on our bookshelves to choose from. Even discussions at the dinner table sometimes centered on English history. You paid attention and learned by osmosis. I can definitely name more monarchs of England–in order–than I ever can presidents.
SW: Your website features a quotation from Raymond Chandler, and certainly there’s a noir feeling to this book. Is it difficult to translate the noir sensibility to the medieval era?
It wasn’t difficult at all and I’m certainly glad I thought of it. The dark streets and alleys in London, the people waiting in the shadows with daggers at the ready, corruption from the highest of authorities, the secrets of the Church, and everyday ordinary greed, lust, and jealousy makes it prime for noir and hardboiled crimes.
SW: Your characters have, among other things, a remarkable vocabulary of oaths. What can you tell us about their swearing, and how on earth did you come up with all of them?
As much as we like using our own Anglo-Saxon swearwords, they weren’t really used as such then. True, humor tended toward the scatological, but swearing, oaths, were strongest when they had the tinge of blasphemy about them. Hence, swearing on the body and blood of Christ and his saints was usually where one went. So Crispin’s favorite oath, “God’s blood!” is entirely appropriate for the era.
SW: Crispin Guest seems to me to have both a medieval sense of the world and a modern one. Does that make sense to you? How do you envision Crispin?
He is definitely a man of his time, but there were men of that era that didn’t hold with all that the Church taught or that the majority of the lower classes and upper classed believed. His own mentor, John of Gaunt, the duke of Lancaster, had Lollard sympathies, that is, he was interested in reformation of religion and religious practices, not quite as common in that era as in the later Tudor period but it was still there. Naturally, Crispin emulates his mentor’s ideals. And since he is a man of intelligence (he is an Aristotle groupie) he can weigh the facts and make an intelligent decision based on the information at hand. And that means sometimes changing his mind about long held beliefs. Which is perfectly legitimate for the time period.
SW: What’s next for Crispin, and for you?
Crispin’s eighth outing, The Silence of Stones, will be released in the UK this November, and in the US next March. And I’m finishing up my steampunk novel, The Daemon Device, to hand in to my agent for shopping around. It involves a Jewish/Gypsy Magician who eschews his heritage but can really perform magic with the help of Jewish daemons..for a price, and that price may be getting too high. Then it’s on to the ninth Crispin, A Maiden Weeping. And hopefully by then, my urban fantasy series, Book of the Hidden, will have found a publishing home. So there’s a LOT to do.