A former university professor, Candice Proctor writes the Sebastian St. Cyr Regency mystery series under the name of C.S. Harris and thrillers as one half of C.S. Graham. She has also written historical romances as Candice Proctor.
Perhaps best known for her Sebastian St. Cyr series, however, the author brings Regency England alive with her St. Cyr–Viscount Devlin, heir to an earldom, a disillusioned Army officer, and a latter day knight errant. As Proctor notes on her homepage: “Think Mr. Darcy with a James Bond edge…” Publishers Weekly, reviewing the first in this popular series, What Angels Fear, called it a “riveting debut [that] delivers a powerful blend of political intrigue and suspense.” Booklist concurred, dubbing this first series installment a “fast-paced pre-Regency mystery” and prophesying: “Expect to hear more from Harris’ troubled but compelling antihero.”
Proctor, aka C.S. Harris, has lived up to that expectation, publishing five more installments since then, the most recent, Where Shadows Dance, just out this month. Proctor’s St. Cyr novels have earned starred reviews and further critical acclaim. Publishers Weekly describes the series simply as “quality historical suspense.”
Candy, I know you are in the midst of other promotion for Where Shadows Dance, so thanks for taking time to talk with us at Scene of the Crime. Your crime scene is both geographical and historical. Let’s start out talking about your connection to England and the Regency period.
I have lived in England in the past, but I don’t live there now. A historian by training (I have a PhD in European history), I spent years exploring places like the Temple and Hampton Court and the Tower of London. Unfortunately, so much of Sebastian’s London has been lost. Even the Thames is completely changed since the construction of the Embankment during the Victorian era. In that sense, London is very different from, say, Paris, where a student of the French Revolution can find so many important sites still there, largely unchanged. When I lived in Paris, my building dated back to the days of Henri IV and looked out onto the Palais de Justice and the Louvre. That’s much harder to find in London.
What things about this Regency London make it unique and a good physical setting in your books?
Imagine a million people crammed into a small geographical area without modern sanitation, and with new nineteenth-century buildings going up beside ancient medieval houses and Renaissance palaces that have now disappeared. Early 19th century London was at such a critical point of transformation, as England moved from an agrarian society to an industrial one. And the Regency era itself is such a intriguing period, with all the stresses of a twenty-year war, economic and social upheaval, and a profound shift in mores and outlook as the hedonism that typified the eighteenth-century slowly gave way to the prudery and religious solemnity of the coming Victorian era. And of course all the diplomatic maneuverings and espionage of the Napoleonic Wars provide a rich source for skullduggery and murder.
Did you consciously set out to use historical London as a “character” in your books, or did this grow naturally out of the initial story or stories?
I don’t know if I’d say I consciously use location as a “character” in my books; I was much more aware of doing that when I used to write historical romances with far flung settings–everything from medieval France to Botany Bay to the Victorian-era South Pacific. I am, however, very aware of my setting, both in terms of location and period, and I do everything I can to make my stories resonate with the period and to bring it alive for my readers.
How do you incorporate locations in your fiction? Do you pay overt attention to it in certain scenes, or is it a background inspiration for you?
I have grown increasingly interested in the details of historical London during the course of writing this series and, yes, I make a conscious effort to seek out interesting or different settings for various scenes. For instance, I recently wrote a sequence set at the construction site of the Strand Bridge–what would be called Waterloo Bridge when it was finally finished. But in the summer of 1812 it was only partially built and the ruins of the old Savoy–torn down to make way for the construction of the bridge–were still there on the riverbank. I have a series of maps from the first decades of the nineteenth century and lots of old period guidebooks and journals that are wonderful sources. I’m constantly pouring over them, looking for interesting new locales and even plot ideas. But I never indulge in description for description’s sake; it’s always there to establish mood, develop character, or move the plot.
How does Sebastian interact with his surroundings? Is he a native, a blow-in, a reluctant or enthusiastic inhabitant, cynical about it, a booster? And conversely, how does the setting affect Sebastian?
Like most men of his station, Sebastian grew up living at least part of the year in London, so yes, he’s a native. But he also spent six years in the army fighting from Italy to the West Indies to the Peninsula, so he views the city from the perspective of someone familiar with other cultures and other ways of living. He’s very much an early nineteenth-century liberal in his thinking, to the point that I’ve actually been criticized for making him “too liberal”. But my doctoral dissertation was on the intellectual history of this period, so I know it very, very well. I’ve never given Sebastian any thoughts or opinions I haven’t read in the works of far-thinking men and women of the era.
Has there been any local reaction to your works?
I have not sold this series to a British publisher, although the books are available in Britain. I’ve recently done an interview with a weekly British magazine, but if there has been a local reaction to my work, I don’t know about it.
Oh, of course I’ve made mistakes. In Why Mermaids Sing, I referred to a dog breed without stopping to think that it probably didn’t exist in 1811. It didn’t, as a helpful reader wrote to tell me (fortunately, I was able to change it in time for the release of the paperback). In Where Serpents Sleep, I was very pushed at the time I was doing the editorial revisions and I accidentally inserted a reference to a character I’d killed off in a previous book. That was probably my worst “oops”. But mistakes are inevitable, and in my experience generally fall into one of two categories: unthinking references (such as to the dog breed) or things I think I know but I don’t. There is always a reader out there, somewhere, who knows that the British Museum used to close during August and September, even if I don’t. But if I deliberately change something for the sake of my story, I try to remember to set the record straight in an authors note.
Of the Sebastian St. Cyr novels, do you have a favorite book or scene that focuses on the place? Could you quote a short passage or give an example of how the location figures in your novels?
Okay, this is probably gruesome, but I love the crypt in What Remains of Heaven. In my youth, I worked as an archaeologist and burial removal specialist, which left me with a rather morbid fascination with burial practices. The church in the story is fictional, but its crypt was inspired in both its design and the details of its rediscovery by the crypt of St. Wystan’s in Repton; the condition of the burials comes from the excavations of Christ Church, Spitalfields, and St. Pancras.
Here is the point where Sebastian first sees the crypt:
“Worn and cracked by time, the steps descended through a narrow stone stair vault, the light from the lantern playing over an arched roof plastered with limestone. The air was cold and dank, with an unpleasant, almost greasy quality that seemed to wrap itself around them as they reached the base of the steps.
“They found themselves in an ancient central aisle, its low vaulted ceiling supported by thick spiral columns topped with crude pillow capitals. Dating back to Anglo-Saxon times, the crypt was larger than Sebastian had expected, with rows of bays opening to either side. Yet the bays seemed oddly dark. As his eyes quickly grew accustomed to the gloom, Sebastian realized the bays were dark because they were full of coffins. Hundreds and hundreds of wooden coffins, some left bare, some painted, but most upholstered in moldering woolen cloth or draped in tattered velvet. Stacked row upon row, floor to ceiling, and curtained with massive sheets of cobwebs, they reached as far as he could see in all directions.
“’Good God,’ he whispered.”
My favorite mystery writers are James Lee Burke and Martin Cruz Smith. I love their use of language and their insight into character and the absurdities and contradictions of the human condition. But both are also known for their incredibly rich use of place–Burke’s Cajun Louisiana and Smith’s Russia. I recently made a trip to New Iberia, just to see the various places I’ve been reading about in Burke’s books all these years. It was a wonderfully fun trip. But I’m not sure I can say they influenced my use of place, because a sense of place has always been important to me, even when I was writing as Candice Proctor (and before I’d discovered either Burke or Smith).
What’s next for Sebastian St. Cyr?
I’ve just finished the manuscript for the seventh Sebastian St. Cyr book, Where Maidens Mourn. This book was inspired by Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott and by a very real place just to the north of London known as Camlet Moat. “Camlet” is actually a fairly recent (as in, the last few hundred years) corruption of the original name, which was Camelot. Today it is a deserted island in the remains of an old royal chase surrounded by an ancient moat and embankment, but at one time fairly substantial structures stood on the site, and there is evidence that it was inhabited during Roman times. So this is a mystery that involves the Arthurian legend and a family curse all wrapped up with some nefarious goings-on in August of 1812.
Candy–can’t wait for the seventh. It sounds a corker. And thanks again for visiting with us at Scene of the Crime to provide a stimulating discussion of the use of scene in your fiction.