Launch: Jeri Westerson’s The Deadliest Sin

INTERVIEW BY JODI MCMASTER

Jeri Westerson’s new novel, The Deadliest Sin, is the fifteenth and last book in her Crispin Guest series, set during the reign of Richard II at the end of the 14th century.

How would you describe this book and its themes in a couple of sentences?

The nuns of St. Frideswide are dying in the manner of the seven deadly sins, and Crispin Guest is called in to investigate. He soon finds himself fighting for his very existence as he must choose whether to do battle for King Richard or with his enemies in this last tale of London’s Tracker.

What do you think are the strengths of reading any of the books in the series, particularly this one, as a standalone vs starting at the beginning of the series?

I designed them so they all stand alone except for perhaps this last one, but a reader would certainly get more enjoyment seeing where the characters began to where they are now. I look at a series as being the biggest novel evah! You can really stretch your legs with characters throughout fifteen books. Crispin starts out pretty angry all the time, bitter about how he’d been used and his current low status in that very stratified of social structures. But as the books go on, he changes, seasoned by his close relationship with his servant, Jack Tucker. I particularly enjoy writing Crispin’s and Jack’s interaction, especially those scenes with a lot of heart and pathos.

Were there any particular challenges approaching or writing The Deadliest Sin given that this is the last volume of a long-running series?

It’s definitely been bittersweet. I will miss these characters, particularly Crispin who got me published in the first place. I wanted to come up with a good story where he could go out with a bang, and I hope I’ve accomplished that. Though I had written numerous other books while writing the Crispin Guest series, I couldn’t quite move on with his replacement series until it was done. You might say I was Crispin-blocked.

Now that it’s completed, what have you been working on?

I was able to concentrate on the other historical mystery series I wanted to write, the King’s Fool Mysteries, featuring Henry VIII’s real court jester Will Somers as the amateur sleuth. The first one, Courting Dragons, is in my agent’s hands. And following all the research I did for the gaslamp fantasy about Victorian London (Enchanter Chronicles Trilogy), I put that to good use with another series I’m writing, a Sherlock Holmes pastiche where one of his Baker Street Irregulars grows up to open his own consulting detective agency.

The Deadliest Sin has an unusual structure as the mystery is encased in the political changes of the period. What inspired you to arrange the two plots this way?

I really didn’t know of any better way to bring them together. Crispin couldn’t be party to what was happening to Richard or with Henry, as Henry marched toward London. Crispin had to be out of that action as he was for the last twenty years having been ousted from court. It was definitely frustrating to him not to be involved in the upheaval as he should have been.

Was there some historical event, situation, or practice that you wanted to include but wasn’t able to work in? If so, what was it?

What I discovered about accidental deaths in London. For women, the majority drowned, which made sense because women did the water-carrying, the laundry, etc. But for men…it was falling out of windows. What happened was this: London was not able to spread out as it grew since those lands were privately owned outside the original Roman walls, at least some of it. They expanded upward, with two stories and sometimes three stories. Rickety ladders were often used for tenants to reach these second and third floors. You can imagine a man getting drunk, going to sleep, then awakening in the night to accede to a call of nature. And instead of traversing that rickety old ladder, they’d simply open the shutters of the window and…misjudge. Literally caught dead with their pants down.

Share something with us that you learned while writing this book, whether about research, writing, or the period.

Check and double-check sources. I was fortunate in that I belong to the oldest listserv on the internet, mediev-l, full of medieval scholars, professors, and historians. It was a wonderful resource to ask specific questions, mostly about the best books from which to get my research. The Victorians were very fond of this time period, and many medieval “scholars” of the time couldn’t find the exact info they needed and very often made it up. Even though in some things they were very meticulous, how was I to know the difference?

What life experiences shaped your writing most?

Living in my parents’ household where all things medieval were king, and having the opportunity to go to museums early on in life. It made me appreciate objects and books of another era, and to learn about the people that used such objects. I have a medieval coin—a silver penny—from King Edward III’s time, a little before Crispin’s story begins, and it’s so fascinating to me what could have been purchased with that coin and who could have touched it. Gives me shivers.

What research book have you pulled off your shelf most often?

Nigel Saul’s Richard II, no question. He writes like I wish all scholars wrote: the events in the right order, with plenty of footnotes and even Richard’s itinerary. Invaluable. Also Chaucer’s London by D. W. Robertson, Jr. with its chapters broken down into areas of London, what could be purchased down certain streets, how much it was, and how you got from here to there. Good stuff (including the snarky commentary by the last owner of the book).

What is the last great book you read?

Erin Morgenstern’s The Starless Sea.

 

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