American novelist Judith Rock has been a busy person. Before commencing her Charles du Luc series set in seventeenth-century France, she was variously a dancer, choreographer, actress, playwright, professor, police officer, lecturer, and researcher. “Each of those passions and adventures has deepened and expanded my writing.” she has noted.
The first Charles du Lac installment, The Rhetoric of Death, appeared in 2010. With rehearsals for a ballet in full swing, a killer is on the loose at the Jesuit college on the rue St. Jacques, and it is up to Charles to stop the killings. “Rock’s superb historical debut opens with 28-year-old Charles du Luc arriving in 1686 Paris to serve as a teacher in a Jesuit school…With an experienced writer’s ease, Rock incorporates details of the political issues of the day into a suspenseful story line,” declared Publishers Weekly in a starred review. Booklist offered a further starred review of this debut, noting that “Rock’s novel boasts a style all its own and is sure to satisfy those eager for a great new historical mystery.”
The second in the series, The Eloquence of Blood, came out this fall, and once again the critics offered high praise. In another starred review, Publishers Weekly observed: ” Set in Paris in 1686 during the Christmas season, Rock’s second novel featuring Charles du Luc is every bit the equal of her impressive historical thriller debut, The Rhetoric of Death….Readers will hope this energetic and engrossing sequel will be the first of many.” Similarly, Library Journal, in a starred review, found the novel “hard to put down,” and went on to comment: ” [Rock’s] historical accuracy resonates here, transporting you to 1686 Paris. Her intriguing plot and protagonists with whom readers are becoming good friends make this a necessary read for all who enjoy historical mysteries.”
Judith, it’s a pleasure to have you with us on Scene of the Crime. Let’s start out the interrogation with a bit of information about your connection to Paris.
I fell in love with Paris while doing my doctoral research there. I didn’t live there all the time, but made repeated trips. Now I go back to France as often as I can afford to–and love it more every time! The last time, I walked around with a 17th century map, while my husband pulled me out of the path of 21st century traffic.
What things about Paris make it unique and a good physical setting in your books?
It would take volumes to say why Paris is unique… I set my novels there because they’re centered around the 17th century Jesuit college called Louis le Grand. It’s still there, on the Left Bank’s rue St. Jacques, and is now a very prestigious state lycée (high school). My doctoral research was on the Jesuits’ use of dance in their 17th and 18th century college theatres, with a lot of attention to Louis le Grand, the flagship of the French Jesuit colleges.
I pay very close attention to the setting–both the place and the time. I want to take readers as far as I can into life as it was lived in Paris–and other parts of France–in the 1680’s. My fictional central character, Charles du Luc, is a half-fledged Jesuit from the southern Langue d’oc region. He grew up outside Nîmes, did his Jesuit novitiate in Avignon, taught at the Jesuit school in Carpentras, and then was sent north to Paris–for reasons which unfold in the series’ first book, The Rhetoric of Death. In Paris, at Louis le Grand, he teaches Latin and Greek rhetoric, the art of communication. Because the Jesuits–Christian humanists–considered physicality part of communication, their students learned to dance. Rhetoric teachers like Charles produced the student ballets, and his life in the college and work with the ballets are the “home base” of the stories. I try to make the mysteries he gets involved in, both in the college and in the city beyond, as true to their time and place as possible. In addition to the original doctoral research, I do continual further research. For example, I have a big late 17th century map of Paris in my office, and every time Charles leaves the college, I follow him on the map. Even if little or none of the route is described, I need to know where he goes and need to see the street life in my head as I write. Maybe because I was for many years a dancer, the physicality of a story matters enormously to me, both as writer and reader. Everything, after all, takes place in time and space…
How does your protagonist, Charles du Luc, respond to this setting?
How does Charles feel about Paris? He loves it–except during the gray cold winter, when he hates it! Charles being a newcomer to Paris is a great literary device. In his time, someone from the south of France was practically a foreigner in the north–even speaking a different language, the Langue d’oc. So Charles discovers Paris as a “foreigner,” and his English speaking readers–also foreigners–look over his shoulder and discover Paris with him, Paris as it was in the late 17th century. In each book, with each mystery, he gets to know a different part of the city, and a different social group and situation. Including what’s underneath the city, in The Eloquence of Blood! I think–I hope–that this helps keep his mystery solving interesting and varied, since the people and the setting shape and change what he has to do to find out the truth of each situation. Part of the third book, A Plague of Lies, which I just finished, takes place at Versailles. That setting gave me at least two interesting problems to solve: how to set a novel there without putting Louis XIV center stage; and figuring out how Charles could lay bare what’s really going on there, while moving within the tightly controlled “dance” of the court.
Has there been any local reaction to your works?
I’m hoping for a French publisher–there has been serious interest, but nothing definite yet. (I think the current euro situation isn’t helping.) But I’ve been invited to speak about the novels at The American Library in Paris on May 9, 2012. The American Library, on the Left Bank, isn’t far from Louis le Grand, and this invitation gives me a wonderful sense of “coming full circle,” since the seed of the novels was planted in Paris. (I’ve also learned that the legendary bookstore Shakespeare and Company, just down the hill toward the river from Louis le Grand, is carrying the Charles books!)
Have you ever made any goofs in depicting your location or time period? Please share–the more humorous the better (we all have).
Mistakes…well, so far, I’ve been saved from the worst ones by my patient and exacting specialist consultants who are early readers for the manuscripts. For example, the second book includes a smuggling scam involving chocolate, and originally I coated the stuff being smuggled with chocolate, not knowing that you couldn’t coat anything with chocolate in the 17th century…
Do you have a favorite scene that focuses on the place in your Charles du Luc books? Could you quote a short passage or give an example of how the location figures in your novels?
From The Rhetoric of Death, ch. 1:
“Charles leaned at the open window, gazing hungrily at Paris spread before him. Not that he could see much more than the faint outline of roofs, it being the dark of the moon and the sky thick with clouds still spitting rain after a wet day.
“A discordant concert of bells began, from the Carmelites, the Visitandines, the Jacobins, the abbeys of St.-Germain-des-Pres and St.-Geneviève, from Cluny, Port Royal, and all the other religious houses on and around St.-Genieviève’s hill…and as the bells ceased, Charles shut his eyes and mumured Matins’ opening psalm. But the approaching rumble of iron-shod wheels over cobbles scattered his silent words like blown leaves and he leaned farther out the window to see what was happening. The smell preceding the dung cart up the hill enlightened him…
“Below him, the small light of hand lanterns swung and flickered as a night watch squad passed, and a few candles burned in windows where Latin quarter scholars–the lucky ones who could afford candles–sat late over their books…
“…[Charles] felt as though the goddess Fortuna had picked him up by the scruff of the neck and set him down in ancient Athens or Rome. As though, at any moment, the revered ancients whose works he taught would gather under his window…Romans had lived where the College of Louis le Grand stood, just as they had in the countryside where he’d grown up. From the time he could walk, he’d climbed on their ruined statues and played around the broken fluted column leaning at one corner of his father’s olive grove… The Romans’ ghostly presence had fired his imagination and helped to make him a teacher of Latin rhetoric. So strong was his sudden sense of their presence here on the hill they’d called Lutetia, that he stood up straight and smoothed his cassock. But it was the reeking cart and its pair of muttering attendants that stood below him in the street, not Cicero and the rest. Laughing at his foolishness, he reached to pull the window shut, but before he closed it, he kissed his hand to sleeping Paris.”
Who are your favorite writers, and do you feel that other writers influenced you in your use of the spirit of place in your novels?
Always a hard question! Barbara Pym, Reginald Hill, Ellis Peters, Margaret Frazer, Jane Austen, William Trevor, Margaret Atwood , Lawrence Shames.
I enjoy the sense of place–and time– in the work of many of these writers. I read some of their books repeatedly, partly because I like to spend time with the characters they create, but also because I want to be in the place and time created/evoked/offered. I should also add Tolkien to this list. I discovered The Hobbit and then the Ring trilogy when I was in college, and read them over and over–mostly, I think, because the world Tolkien conjured is so complete and congruent. I could walk into the place itself as well as into the narrative. And I always love it when a book (especially a mystery) has a map at the beginning! As my second book, The Eloquence of Blood, does.
If you could live anywhere, where would it be and why?
I’d live in France and divide my time between Paris and the south. Though on some days I yearn to live in the English countryside, perhaps around Oxford. And on others in some quiet corner of the Caribbean…
What’s next for Charles?
The third Charles book, A Plague of Lies, will be out in the fall of 2012. I’m putting together the plot for the fourth book–the Dominican monastery nearly across the street from Louis le Grand, and the Jesuit novice house a little way to the west, outside the old city walls, may be part of Charles’s next mystery and new terrain.
Thanks much Judith for stopping by Scene of the Crime. Good luck with your excellent series.
For more information on Judith Rock, visit her homepage.