My Five Favourite Historical Crime Novels by S D Sykes

Dark FireDark Fire by C.J Sansom

I could have filled this list with CJ Samson novels, but as I had to pick one, I’ve gone for ‘Dark Fire.’ Set during the reign of Henry VIIIth this novel brilliantly portrays the scheming politics of court, the vacillations of the church between Catholicism and Protestantism after the Reformation, and the grimy, bustling life of Tudor London. Sansom’s protagonist, Matthew Shardlake, is a lawyer at Lincoln’s Inn, employed to defend a young girl who has been wrongly accused of murder. Alongside this case, Shardlake is also engaged by Thomas Cromwell, in Cromwell’s last attempts to impress the King before his downfall. More than anything about these books, I love Shardlake’s character. He is intelligent and honorable in an age when integrity was often a bendable concept.

The Name of the Rose by Umberto EcoThe Name of the Rose

For me, the classic medieval murder mystery. Set in 1327, it follows a young novice Adso and his mentor Friar William, as they try to solve the mystery of a series of deaths at a monastery in the north of Italy. It’s brilliantly written, with a twisting plot and a truly gothic backdrop. The monastery is remote. Secrets abound. There are wizened priests, a beautiful village girl and a vast labyrinthine library. This is also a demanding book. Full of the politics of the time, and also the history of conflict within the Catholic church. A fantastic and absorbing novel.

The Devil in the MarshalseaThe Devil in the Marshalsea by Antonia Hodgson

This novel, published last year, is the story of a young man, Tom Hawkins, who is thrown into the notorious debtors prison at the Marshalsea in 1727. His only chance of release comes if he can solve the murder of a previous inmate, and win his pardon. Based on real descriptions of the prison, it is deeply shocking in places. The prison was split into two sides. The ‘masters side’ for debtors who could afford some level of board and keep. And the ‘common side’ where debtors were subject to the most vile and degrading treatment imaginable. Written with emotion, artistry and wit, this novel keeps the reader guessing until the very last pages.

The Little StrangerThe Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

The above three novels have been historical crime novels in the classic vein, with a murder, an investigation led by a detective, and then a solution. I’m including The Little Stranger, as it is has a historical setting, in the post-war years of the late forties, and it also has murder. As the old order in society changes, a great house, once staffed with many servants, falls into irreversible decay. The family cling on, but as time goes by, something, or some one wants them to leave the place. This book reeks of the gothic. A decaying mansion, doomed love, shadows, ghosts and a murder. I absolutely love it.

Company of LiarsCompany of Liars by Karen Maitland

Once again, not historical crime, in the murder mystery mould, but still full of history and death. This is the story of a gaggle of misfits who band together to escape the Black Death. As they travel through England, always keeping one step ahead of the Plague, they are picked off, one by one by a force that is more evil than the disease they are fleeing. Brimming with atmosphere and historical detail, this was the novel that convinced me to write about the 14th century.

S D Sykes’s debut novel Plague Land, the first in the Oswald de Lacey series, will be published by Hodder in paperback on 21st May 2015. Follow S D Sykes on Twitter at @SD_Sykes and find out more about Plague Land and the Oswald de Lacey series at sdsykes.co.uk.

For your chance to win one of five signed copies of the book, visit @CBBookGroup on Twitter between 18th and 22nd May and look out for one of our competition tweets.

Historical Crime Week: The Story Behind Plague Land by S D Sykes

0303_PlagueLand_Bpb (3)“If I could trace my novel Plague Land back to one point in time, it would be watching a television programme back in 2008, presented by Professor Robert Bartlett. The series was entitled ‘Inside the Medieval Mind’ and provided a fascinating insight into the ways that our predecessors made sense of their world – in an age before widespread literacy, printing, and where science and medicine were still dominated by the teachings of antiquity.

As part of the programme, Professor looked at the Mappa Mundi in Hereford cathedral – a medieval treasure that perfectly illustrates their interpretation of the world. There are countries that can easily be identified – but as the cartographers moved towards the edges of the map, rather than leave a blank to indicate the unknown, they invented bizarre creatures. There are all types of strange beasties on show, from the Blemmyes – a warlike creature with no head, to the Sciapods – who used their one enormous foot to shield themselves from the sun. But, for me it was the Cyncocephali who stuck in my mind. Strange and violent men with the heads of dogs. As is the case with many writers, I stored this image away… to be used at a later date.

The next part of the story is my love of the macabre. My inability not to look at something distasteful or repugnant. I can’t explain it really. I’m a fairly normal, balanced and rational person otherwise – but there is just something so gripping about the gruesome. (I know I’m not alone in this. If I could attempt to explain it, then perhaps it’s a comfort that the grisly event is somehow not happening to me. A kind of muted, sigh-of-relief-style schadenfreude?) So, if you read Plague Land, I can guarantee boils, filth, pestilence and plague pits. But, I should also say, it’s not just the macabre that informed my decision to write in this period. I was also drawn to the 1350s because of the dramatic effect that the Black Death had upon the history of our country. Namely the fact that roughly half the population died in the years of 1348-50.

In some ways it is surprising that civilization didn’t break down during this time. There were a few months of chaos, it’s true, but then the world limped back to a faded-out version of its former self. The long-lasting effects of the Black Death were more subtle, characterized by a shift in the balance of power from the nobility to the poorest people in society – the labourers and artisans. At last there was a chance for social mobility and even freedom from the constraints of feudalism. People could insist upon higher wages, and the lords, now chronically short of labour, were suddenly forced to meet these demands. There was an empowerment and new confidence to the poorer classes, which alongside the rise of the Lollards (a radical group, committed to reform of the Catholic church and equality for all men) gave rise to the Peasants Revolt of 1381. This was just thirty years after the Black Death.

I hope you can see why this was such an intriguing period in which to set a novel. And, of course, in the aftermath of such a plague, the medieval mindset was working overtime. What had caused such an apocalypse? Was it sin? A bad planetary alignment? Even immigrants, and especially the Jews? The Black Death gave rise to rampant fear and superstition, and suddenly I saw an opportunity for my dog-headed Cynocephali to come to life.

The last element in the story behind Plague Land was my interest in how people cope in dramatically changed circumstances. In many novels, these are changes for the worse. A disaster. A death. A loss of status and wealth. However, on the face of it, my protagonist Oswald, prospers from the Black Death. As the third son of the de Lacy family, he had always expected to become a monk. He was the ‘spare’ – not really needed by his family until there was a disaster. The disaster duly appears in the form of the Black Death. Oswald’s two older brothers die and suddenly he is called back to his family’s manor and expected to become the new lord.

It should have been an opportunity, but at eighteen, Oswald is not prepared for his new role. He’s not a natural leader. Instead, he’s a shy and studious introvert who struggles with the management of the estate and its workforce. This change of role must have been a very common experience in the 1350s, when the survivors of the Plague suddenly found they had an unexpected inheritance, or were thrown into positions for which they had no training or experience. This would have happened right across society.

To heap trouble on top of troubles for Oswald, there are soon two murders on his estate – crimes that he is expected to investigate. This investigation would once have been the role of the Constable, but the man is dead. Oswald goes about his task with rational diligence, but is soon thwarted by the villagers, who believe that Cynocephali are to blame. Empowered by a new, post-Plague confidence, the villagers are not easily quelled by Oswald’s weak authority.

However, this doesn’t stop Oswald trying – standing up for logic and reason in the face of ignorance. I wanted to put a voice into the novel that would question and counterpoint the superstitious attitudes of the time. In some respects, Oswald has quite modern sensibilities. But I did this deliberately. He is our voice in this story. Asking the questions that we would ask. Refusing to believe the rumours that we would also refuse to believe.

So these are the three stories behind the story of Plague Land. The medieval mind and its fearful and imaginative excesses. The decimation caused by the Black Death and its longer-lasting effects upon society. And finally, a coming-of-age story, about a young man who overcomes his own shortcomings to solve a murder. I hope it is for you.”

S D Sykes’s debut novel Plague Land, the first in the Oswald de Lacey series, will be published by Hodder in paperback on 21st May 2015. Follow S D Sykes on Twitter at @SD_Sykes and find out more about Plague Land and the Oswald de Lacey series at sdsykes.co.uk.

For your chance to win one of five signed copies of the book, visit @CBBookGroup on Twitter between 18th and 22nd May and look out for one of our competition tweets.

Historical Crime Week: Why I Love Historical Crime by S D Sykes

We’re handing over control of our blog to author S D Sykes for the next five days as we celebrate everything we love about historical crime. Look out for more exclusive blogs here throughout the week and don’t forget to follow @cbbookgroup on Twitter for your chance to win one of five signed copies of S D Sykes’s debut novel, Plague Land.

“Why historical crime?” we hear you ask…well, we’ll let our host will explain…

Colour head and shoulders crop“It’s historical crime week at the Curtis Brown reading group so, as host, I’m going to use this opportunity to shamelessly promote my own particular genre. Now, I know there are some among you who remain resistant to its charms. I sometimes meet you at book clubs or library talks, when you saunter over to me with an expression of embarrassment, even guilt, written across your face. You often won’t make eye contact as you then spill out your confession. ‘I don’t usually read historical crime,’ you admit, before leaning over conspiratorially. ‘But I did enjoy your book.’

So, how can I convince more of you to try it out? To become proud readers of historical crime fiction. Because the genre is home to some truly excellent writing. Firstly, if you love the cut and thrust of contemporary crime, then there’s absolutely nothing not to love about historical crime. Our novels bear all the same fundamental characteristics. In short, there’s a murder, an investigation and a resolution.

If there is a difference, then it’s this. The investigator, and I use this word rather than detective, does not have the tools of modern day policing at his or her disposal. Most novels are set before any sort of police force came into being, and there is certainly no forensic science to rely upon – other than perhaps an understanding of poisonous herbs or the characteristics of rigor mortis. Personally, I love this aspect of historical crime. The murder can only be solved by the deduction of clues. The cross-examination of suspects, and the scrutiny of personality. By logic, combined with sudden bursts of insight. It’s all the stuff of great novels… without a lab coat or DNA swab in sight.

There’s also the history to consider. I have a feeling that readers sometimes believe that historical fiction is not for them, as it says nothing about their lives. I tend to feel the opposite. The more I research into my own period of interest, the 14th century, the more I can identify with people from the past. Reading the works of Boccaccio or Chaucer, both written in the 1300s, I endlessly come across the same people I meet in my contemporary life. Humans remain what they have always been, a complex mixture of emotions, desires, neuroses and selflessness. I find this reassuring.

What’s different, of course, is the environment. But once again, this is another aspect of the genre to love. I’m reading a fast-paced, gripping crime novel, but I’m also running through a crowded street in 18th century London, or I’m sitting in the refectory of a monastery, and perhaps I’m discussing the politics of the Catholic church in the middle ages, or I’m just gossiping about the rotten food or the state of the latrines. There is a misconception that historical fiction is either about battles, the royal family, or involves the copious ripping of bodices. I’m not saying that these books don’t exist, but there is so much more. My own favourite novels tell the story of ordinary people, their struggles for survival in the days before medicine, education and democracy. And good historical fiction doesn’t throw the history at you in crude spoonfuls, instead it allows the world to gently envelop you and transport you effortlessly into the past. You learn stuff, without even trying.

So I say. Go on. Don’t be embarrassed. Give it a try.”

S D Sykes’s debut novel Plague Land, the first in the Oswald De Lacey series, will be published by Hodder in paperback on 21st May 2015. Follow S D Sykes on Twitter at @SD_Sykes and find out more about Plague Land and the Oswald De Lacey series at sdsykes.co.uk.

For your chance to win one of five signed copies of the book, visit @CBBookGroup on Twitter between 18th and 22nd May and look out for one of our competition tweets.

The Rocky Road of The Rocks by Peter Nichols

Some time ago, I felt washed up as a writer. I’d published five books: a memoir, a Peter Nichols imagenovel, three other books of non-fiction, all on maritime subjects—washed up, get it? I once lived aboard a small wooden sailboat, cruising between the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, England, the USA, making my living as a yacht captain, and I was steeped—marinated— in boats and the sea. But I felt I’d exhausted this material. I wanted to write something, preferably fiction, in a way that I never had, but always wanted to, without knowing exactly what that was.

I made many false starts. Bits of novels that inevitably seemed to veer toward water, like reverse evolution, before I abandoned them. I got very depressed about my writing career. I got very broke too.

After several years, I had six pages that I liked. They were unlike anything I’d ever written. It was a scene that happened—yes, on a rocky shore—in Mallorca, where I spent many summers when I was young, but I knew it really had nothing to do with the sea. It was about two very angry octogenarians, a man and a woman, Gerald and Lulu,  who met on a dirt road beside the sea, quarrelled, and had an accident so definitive that it seemed to be the end of the story. But it wasn’t even a story, it went nowhere. It only posed a big question: who were these two and why were they so pissed off at each other, after all this time?

I couldn’t go forward with it, so I decided to look backwards into their lives to see what had happened to them. Gradually, things filled in about Gerald and Lulu: they’d once been married, but long ago. They’d had children (by later marriages to other people), Luc and Aegina, and they seemed pretty pissed off with each other too. I saw distant episodes in all these earlier lives, as if from a long way off.

So I started writing backwards, in reverse chronology. I wrote towards those distant views —1995, 1983, 1970, and so on. I stopped and looked around when I got to each place. The episodes were each just a few weeks long at most. There was a compelling dynamic to this retroactive unfolding: the characters all grew younger, more innocent, more hopeful—they didn’t know what was coming. It was fascinating to see them ineluctably moving toward missed opportunities, heartbreak, the seemingly small mistakes that would resound through a lifetime.

Most of all, I wanted to see what had happened to Gerald and Lulu. What had engendered such bitterness that lasted more than half a century? I didn’t know for the longest time; only that it was something sad and awful that had rent and scarred their lives, and impacted everything and everyone around them until their deaths. I had to write all the way back to 1948 to see it unfold.

Eventually, I had a 500-page manuscript. I still wasn’t sure what it was—“a novel of manners,” one reader friend told me, “an emotional thriller,” someone else said. I sent it to my longtime agent, who had sold my all previous books—he’d represented me for 17 years. It was an unusually long time before he got back to me. This is what he said:

‘There is so much wrong with this book I don’t begin to know how to tell you to fix it.’

We had a short conversation in which he listed all the things that didn’t work for him. It sounded as if he was talking about some other book. It was devastating.

And he cut me loose.

Evidently I had succeeded—grandly—in my goal to write something different. I was no longer recognizable (or of interest) to my agent who had sold my books about maritime misadventure, sailors going mad in a boat race, whaleship disasters, and such manly fare. I had either reinvented—or destroyed—myself as a writer.

I was now in the position of many desperate writers: a manuscript and no agent. It didn’t help that I had published other books; these were looked at almost as liabilities. I was not new and unknown and therefore possibly exciting. I was like many writers with a stalled career, dropped by their agents, the gloss off, trying something different.

A friend in London, Kate Griffin, a partner at Profile Books, who had published all my books in England, sent my orphaned manuscript to Patrick Walsh, of the literary agency Conville and Walsh. He agreed to look at it.

Weeks went by. I had the gloomiest thoughts.

Finally, I heard from Conville and Walsh: “We’ve had a very good report on your novel from our reader. Patrick’s going to read it now.”

More weeks. Another email from Conville and Walsh: “We’ve had a second very good report about your novel. We’re printing it out now for Patrick to read.”

Very soon afterwards, I got a call from Patrick Walsh. We had a conversation about all the things that he liked so much about the book—a sort of point by point rebuttal of the call I’d had with my former agent. Patrick wanted to send it to a freelance editor he knew, Gillian Stern. Then he sent me Gillian’s email reply, which read, in part:

‘I haven’t enjoyed – derived so much pleasure – from a novel in a long while…what zest, what dialoge, what conviction, what a cast of characters, what an affirmation of all that a novel should be… How often do I send emails like this??!’

The rest happened fast, mostly through the skill and devotion of Patrick Walsh. He took the manuscript with him to Kenya and while there—on holiday—did a speedy and masterful line-by-line edit in hastily scrawled pencil. He asked me to come to London (I live in the USA) for 5 days to meet editors. When I got there, we had several offers, and he sold the book to Susan Watt and her own imprint, Heron Books, at Quercus Books. Patrick then submitted it to publishers in New York. Several offers there too, and it sold to the visionary Sarah McGrath, editor-in-chief (and editor of Khaled Hosseini) at Riverhead Books.

The Rocks—a novel about love, heartbreak and relationships—has been handsomely embraced on both sides of the Atlantic, especially by women. It has been featured in a chicklit blog. It is reviewed in the coming June editions of Cosmopolitan, Elle, O, The Oprah Magazine, and others. I have happily left harpoons astern and seem— for the moment, things can change fast—to have a new career as a novelist writing about the ineffable affairs of the human heart.

I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but I was lucky my manuscript was rejected by my former agent. I was luckier still that The Rocks found its way to Patrick Walsh, and now, to the Curtis Brown Book Group.

 

The Rocks by Peter Nichols will be published in paperback  by Heron Books on July 2nd 2015.  It’s already available in hardback and ebook. Follow Peter on Twitter at @NicholsRocks.

Motherland, a novel, by Jo McMillan

(c) Guy Batey

(c) Guy Batey

It’s election night 1979 and we’re having a party. My mum is drinking Bull’s Blood punch from a Meissen teacup and raising a toast to defeat.

Except it isn’t my mum.

It’s Eleanor, my fictional mother, and they aren’t the same person.

Motherland is a novel. It says so on the cover. But it didn’t start out that way. When I first sat down to tell the story of my communist childhood, it was going to be a memoir. The story was true. I’d lived it. I knew what happened. And I understood non-fiction. I’d spent a while in academia. Strange to think it now, but at one time, my favourite place was the British Library and my seat there never quite cooled. I was patient and forensic and I liked dissection. I spent my working life in a library, but it could just as well have been a morgue.

And the odd thing is, I did end up dealing with a corpse. My dad died for Motherland, and I killed him off. In 1978, when the story opens, my father – the real one – was not in a tin in my mum’s knicker drawer. He was in the middle of a tricky divorce. I wasn’t far into this memoir when it dawned on me I’d had a complicated life. In fact, I’d had two – one drama with each parent – and I couldn’t tell both in this book. I wanted my protagonists to live their singular story in the way my mother and I never did. So my father got terminal cancer before his child was born, Jo and Isobel became Jess and Eleanor, and Motherland became fiction.

I’d never felt more relieved. I was released from my duty to fact, and facts were proving thin on the ground. The first necessity for this story might have arisen in 1989 with the collapse of the Berlin Wall, but the End of the World as you’ve known it isn’t something you just sit down and write about. So instead, I forgot about it. And I did what everyone else was doing with the triumph of capitalism: I went shopping.

And then I went to China.

It was a long way from everything that had happened, and where millions of other people were buying their way out of their political past.

And in China, I had to reinvent myself. I wasn’t going to be a career communist anymore, so instead I became a sexologist, a Mandarin-speaking one – until I said some things the authorities didn’t like and Beijing banned me.

But by then, twenty years had gone by: long enough to face the End of the World, too long for the documents and witnesses I needed. I asked around Party circles, and papers had been binned, people had died, memories were slipping. Facts were not going to tell my story. The library wasn’t going to help. Instead, I had to look inwards. And it felt bruising, and oddly heartless, to tell emotional truths – harder still to commit them to paper.

But at least this was fiction. I wasn’t pointing fingers and naming names in the prosecution of my past. And that was important. Motherland was turning into a book about how we’d been engaged in the politics of abstracts, of people in theory, and we’d had no time for the real ones we actually knew. It was a book about empathy, about how much people mattered, so it needed to be an empathetic book. If Motherland had been memoir, the people I most cared about might never have forgiven me.

But they weren’t in it. I had fictional characters – flawed ones: self-righteous, ruthless, pliant.

And my plan was to set them in motion and watch their logic play out.

Only the problem was, it didn’t.

The biggest flaw of my flawed characters was they had no idea of the story. And neither had I. The possibilities seemed endless. I was free to make things up, but that meant I could make anything up. Real events had ceased to apply, so of the thousands of things that could happen next, which actually did? I didn’t have an agenda, a plan, a clue, it turned out. I read novels, of course, lapping them up, but I had no idea what made them tick. And now, here I was in charge of a novel, and I felt sick. I’d have given anything for certainty, for academia – at times even the morgue.

So I did what a mortician manqué would do: I got out the scalpel. I stopped consuming novels and started dissecting them. I took apart books on plot and pinned the walls with three-act structures. On the telly too: I watched dramas and guessed what would happen. Sometimes I even got it right. I became the spoiler on the sofa.

It took many drafts, but in the end, and several years after my father’s literary death, he is still alive and I have a novel. I wrote something kinder than a memoir, and a story wider than the specifics of my past. Through the made-up minutiae of Jess and Eleanor’s lives, Motherland looks outwards – at how we do politics, at how much people matter, at when to take a stand. And because politics doesn’t go away, the questions it raises still apply. There’s not that much difference between 1979 and 2015.

Motherland is fiction and my mum isn’t Eleanor (though Eleanor wouldn’t have been possible without her). After this election, I asked my mum how she’d seen it in. Wrapped up in her dressing gown, she said, because she feels the cold these days. And she’d raised a glass of Baileys, because that’s her tipple, and she’d toasted defeat. ‘And then I toasted the revolution,’ because my mum’s never defeated for long. And ‘because the revolution’s coming.’

‘In my lifetime?’

‘Of course in your lifetime.’ And then a pause. ‘How old are you now?’

Motherland by Jo McMillan will be published in hardback and ebook by John Murray on July 2nd 2015.  Follow Jo on Twitter at @JoMcMillan and find out more about Motherland and Jo by visiting her website jomcmillan.com.

Our May Books of the Month

Welcome all to the fifth month of our book group! This month we’ve picked two family dramas, spanning East Germany, the island of Mallorca and Tamworth. The first is a darkly comic love story with a twist, the other a mother-daughter tale of belief, doubt and loss of innocence – both guaranteed to get you thinking.

Look out for more exclusive blogs about both books over the coming weeks – not only from us but from the authors, editors and agents.

 

The Rocks by Peter Nichols

Set on the idyllic island of Mallorca, this is a double love story told in reverse.

Opening in 2005 with a dramatic event that appears to seal the mystery of two lives, the story moves backwards in time, unravelling over sixty years, amid the olive groves and bars, the boats and poolside parties, the lives and relationships of two intertwined families within an expat community of endearing and flawed characters.

As one story is revealed, another, sweeter one – a love story of a couple from the younger generation – arises in the wake of their elder’s failures.

The Rocks is a darkly comic, bittersweet, ultimately heart-breaking novel that slips back in time to reveal a shocking incident that marked and altered these lives for ever.

Follow Peter on Twitter @NicholsRocksThe Rocks will be published in the US by Riverhead Books on 26th May 2015, and will be published in paperback in the UK by Quercus on 2nd July 2015 (we love the hardback cover, but check out that paperback jacket!).

 

Motherland by Jo McMillan

It is 1978, Jess is thirteen and she already has a reputation – as the daughter of the only communist in town. But then, it’s in the blood. The Mitchells have been in the Party since the Party began.

Jess and her mother Eleanor struggle to sell socialism to Tamworth – a sleepy Midlands town that just doesn’t want to know. So when Eleanor is invited to spend a summer teaching in East Germany, she and Jess leap at the chance to see what the future looks like. On the other side of the Iron Curtain they turn from villains into heroes. And when Eleanor meets widower Peter and his daughter, a new, more peaceful life seems possible.

But the Cold War has no time for love and soon the trouble begins. Peter is dispatched for two years of solidarity work in Laos. Friends become enemies, and Jess discovers how easy it is to switch sides, and how sides can be switched for you, sometimes without you even knowing.

Motherland is a tragi-comic portrait of a childhood overcome with belief. It’s about loss of faith and loss of innocence, and what it’s like to grow up on the losing side of history.

Follow Jo on Twitter at @JoMcmillan, and check out her website, www.jomcmillan.comMotherland will be published in the UK by John Murray on 2nd July 2015.