A Rustle of Silk (The Gabriel Taverner Mysteries): Alys Clare Debuts a New Series
Alys Clare has a well-established fan base for her two medieval mystery series, the Hawkenlye and Norman Aelf Fen books. Yet she’s taken a different tack with her latest novel, A Rustle of Silk, which introduces Gabriel Taverner, a young naval surgeon, now land-locked and attempting to establish his first practice in rural Devon just as King James I ascends the throne. When asked about her choice of a new time period, Clare explains, “The reign of James I has received relatively little attention, and because of that it appealed. It was indeed a time of transition: exploration of the wider world had expanded greatly, with new products, ideas and even racial types arriving in England. The introduction of grammar schools had increased the literacy rate, so that a man or a woman with an independent and enquiring mind stood a chance of finding answers to their questions.”
Taverner himself exhibits such an enquiring mind, turning it to the mystery of a decomposed body found near a local quay, and the disappearance of his beloved sister’s silk merchant husband. In the pursuit of a murderer, Taverner is sometimes untruthful or engages in acts that, when viewed without the benefit of context, can seem less than heroic. When asked to describe her protagonist, Clare notes, “Gabriel demonstrates the reactions of a man who has seen brutal violence, agonising pain, danger and hardship and has toughened up accordingly. His instinct for self-preservation has been well honed, and he sees no sin in a ‘less than heroic’ act if it is to protect someone.” One of the ways in which Clare intentionally deviated from her previous work was to, as she says, “introduce a tougher edge to the central character, affording glimpses into a darker England.”
For the purposes of this novel, that England is one that is primarily rural, with occasional jaunts to the city. When asked about the choice of Devon and its sense of place, Clare explains, “In the previous series, I’ve located the books in places with significance to me. I live in the area where the Hawkenkye novels are set, and my maternal ancestors came from the Fens, where the Lassair series is based. Research into my family history also revealed ancestors from the Tavistock area of Devon, and this was a strong influence; it’s probably whimsical, but I like to think there’s some sort of a link between us and the places where our families originated. By using a rural setting yet allowing my characters to visit towns and busy ports, I can have the best of both worlds; I sense that Gabriel is a man who, while eager to enjoy the exhilaration of the city for a while, retires to his quiet rural backwater with a sigh of pleasure.”
Not everyone in that quiet rural backwater seems happy to have a new physician in the neighborhood, as evidenced when sinister “gifts” start turning up on Taverner’s doorstep. Yet there are also new acquaintances with friend potential: the local clergyman, Jonathan Carew, is a thoughtful man who seems to have a mysterious past, and the astute coroner, Theophilius Davey, is more than happy to partner with Taverner to mine the physician’s anatomical knowledge for use in the nascent realm of forensic science. Taverner also shares a deep relationship with his complicated sister, Celia. Clare’s priorities in establishing the building blocks of her new series were, first and foremost, time and place. But A Rustle of Silk is a character-driven mystery, so Clare notes the importance of “building up the main character, his personal history and that of his family (one of the early steps is always a very detailed family tree, including the dates and details of even quite distant relatives; it takes a while, but I find it’s time saving in the long run as all the information I need when writing is right there).”
Since Taverner is a physician, “building up the main character” required research into the medical theory and practice of the day. Clare says, “There was no one reference source for research, but rather an ongoing trail of pursuing the work of contemporaries such as Andreas Vesalius, Ambroise Paré and William Harvey. Gabriel having been a ship’s surgeon introduced the subject of how this role developed as Henry VIII reorganised the navy and its firepower. Again, it’s a time of transition; I didn’t feel it anachronistic to have Gabriel start to question whether the firmly-held and very ancient theory of the four humours, for example, might after all be wrong.”
The majority of the narrative is offered in the first person, through Taverner’s eyes. Clare explains, “I like the first-person narrative voice for its immediacy, but there are times when it helps to step outside it.” This Clare accomplishes through brief sections in the third person regarding characters such as Celia, since “The drawback of entirely first-person narration is, of course, that you as reader can’t see, hear or know anything not available to the narrator, and sometimes having an event related afterwards just doesn’t work, especially when the action heats up and a lot is happening at once.”
A Rustle of Silk drops certain hints that some secondary characters’ backgrounds might make their way to the forefront in future novels. When asked about what readers can expect from the next offering in the series, Clare is a bit coy: “Gabriel’s next outing will involve a back story, and at least one dead body.” But she relents, “Without giving too much away, I’m researching stained glass, revenge tragedies, iconoclasm and syphilis. The ‘certain hints’ about some of the characters are very much an indication that they would play a larger role in future novels, and the next book will indeed reveal quite a lot more about Jonathan Carew (although I will say right now that he most certainly hasn’t got syphilis). He has been introduced as a man whose intellect and sophistication make his appointment to a backwater of a rural parish a matter for wonder, and in the next book, The Angel in the Glass, we shall begin to find out why he fell from favour.”
A Rustle of Silk by Alys Clare will be published in hardback by Severn House in January 2017, $29.99/£20.99, 256pp, 9780727886569.
About the contributor: Bethany Latham is a professor, librarian, and managing editor of the Historical Novels Review.
Posted by Claire Morris