A Triumphant Return: Minette Walters’ The Last Hours

Lisa Redmond

After a gap of ten years, Minette Walters’ new novel is a game changer for the author once dubbed the “queen of British crime.” The Last Hours (Allen & Unwin, 2017) is an historical novel set in 1348 in rural Dorsetshire as the Black Death sweeps across England. I had the chance to put a few questions to the best-selling writer and ask what drew her to the subject matter. Walters says, “As a storyteller, I’m intrigued by everything, and the Black Death is a powerfully interesting subject. Six centuries on, it’s hard to grasp how devastating it was or how far-reaching its consequences.”

While it might seem an unusual step for a writer to move out of the thriller genre towards historical fiction, the author sees it as a natural progression: “The idea for The Last Hours kept knocking at my mind, and never to have written it for the sake of remaining in ‘genre’ would have been frustrating. In any case, I wonder if it is such a big change! The Black Death was the worst killer man has ever known. Which crime author wouldn’t want to write about it… and point fingers at the culprits? There are many worse criminals in history than there are in crime fiction.” Despite the apparent change of genre, Minette Walters’ talents as a thriller writer are still very much in evidence: with a cast of characters trapped in a confined space and growing fears about their own survival, the author ramps up the tension, particularly because, with this novel, she has created some truly memorable characters who will captivate readers.

Walters is a long-time resident of Dorset, and the locality and its history seems to have gotten under the author’s skin. She explains, “My husband and I moved to Dorset nearly twenty years ago, and one of the first things we learnt about our village was that it has a plague pit. No one’s entirely sure where it is, but the 12th-century church still stands, and visitors can still see the mounds that delineate the medieval settlement. The whole site is a scheduled monument, and it’s hard to rub shoulders with history without becoming fascinated by it.”

Living in an area so closely impacted by such a devastating event, it was probably inevitable that Walters’ writer’s brain would begin to ask “what if?” While the Black Death has been explored in fiction before, the fact that the novel focuses on the impact felt in a very particular location and among a small group of people makes it a unique and intriguing prospect for fans of medieval fiction. Walters says, “The Black Death became a particular interest when I discovered that its first port of entry into England was Melcombe (Weymouth), which is nine miles from where we live. Fourteenth-century chroniclers reported barely one in ten being left alive in Dorset by the time the pestilence passed. I wondered what that meant. Had some fled? Who were the ‘bare’ few who managed to survive? And how had they avoided it?”

Walters took a long break from writing; other than a horror novella, The Cellar (Hammer, 2015), she has not published in ten years. While she never gave up writing, she did take a step back, and with time to think, the idea for The Last Hours began to form. Walters explains, “I did indeed spend considerable time on research for The Last Hours but, once the idea crystallised in my head, the writing came easily.”

I’m sure her countless fans will be pleased she’s back, and she is likely to gather many more fans from those who enjoy the books of Sarah Hawkswood, Karen Maitland, and S.D. Sykes.

ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR: Lisa Redmond is a writer, currently working on a novel about 17th-century Scottish witches. She blogs about books, writing and women in history.

 


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