British writer Michael Jecks has been dubbed the master of the medieval murder mystery. His Knights Templar mystery series is thirty-one books strong and growing. These books feature Sir Baldwin Furnshill, a former Knight Templar,and his partner in crime fighting, Simon Puttock, the Bailiff of Lydford Castle. Jecks also founded Medieval Murderers, a group of writers who focus on historicals and historical mysteries. Jecks, along with fellow members CJ Sansom, Bernard Knight, Susanna Gregory, Philip Gooden, Ian Morson, and Karen Maitland, are available for speaking events, and have also coauthored six medieval mysteries.
Jecks’s Knights Templar series is set in the early fourteenth century and began with the 1995 title, The Last Templar. The prolific Jecks has produced almost two books in the series a year since that time. Of his thirtieth (!) in the series, the 2011 King’s Gold, Publishers Weekly thought that Jecks “brings early 14th-century England to life with his encyclopedic knowledge of the period,” while Library Journal noted that readers should “anticipate intricate plotting in Jecks’s latest entry in his action-packed medieval series.” Number thirty-one, City of Fiends, will be out in September, 2012.
Michael, a hearty welcome to Scene of the Crime. As per usual, let’s get things started with a discussion of your own personal scene of the crime and your connection to it.
I first got to know Devon because my family would come down here every Easter holiday. It was a place I grew to love. I’ve always been a country-boy at heart. I never liked living in cities or anywhere where there were lots of people. So, when I decided to start writing (a decision forced on my after thirteen jobs in thirteen years during the last recession), I knew I wanted to set the books in Devon, and many of them around Dartmoor.
The choice was simple: I loved the area, and I knew that people could come to the moors and imagine themselves transported back in time. I cannot imagine writing about a place I don’t know intimately, and it would be impossible to write about a place I don’t know. That’s why for my latest book I had to set it in Exeter. City of Fiends is determined in large part by the various locations in the city itself, from the cathedral to the South Gate, to the maze of alleys that used to define the whole place just inside the Roman wall. Exeter has such a wealth of old buildings still, and it’s easy to wander the alleys and imagine yourself back in medieval England – especially since, unlike so many of our cities, you can stand on the old hill and see about you the original landscape as Baldwin or Simon would have seen in the 1320s.
What things about Devon and Exeter make them unique and good physical settings for your books?
For me the city has a special atmosphere. Exeter has a vitality to it that is very much like the medieval city, but if you go away from the dreadful 1960s areas (the city centre was all but destroyed in Hitler’s “Baedecker” raid and rebuilt in 60s concrete), you can soon find the hidden treasures: the Priory of St Nicholas, the old Canon’s houses near the Cathedral, the Devon & Exeter Institution buildings, the Guildhall, the excellent castle and grounds – there is so much history when you walk about the city that it’s hard not to imagine our ancestors walking along those alleys and lanes with you.
Did you consciously set out to use your location as a “character” in your books, or did this grow naturally out of the initial story or stories?
Landscape for me is very important. I deliberately based many of my earlier books in Dartmoor because the moors hold an especial fascination for me. I love the rolling hills and granite, the splashes of yellow furze and purple heather, but that is only a tiny part of the countryside. The city of Exeter, perhaps because it is man-made, has a different appeal. It is harsher, a rougher environment, I feel, because it always holds the sense of business and competition. On the moors, there is a strong feeling of alienation, I find. I love it, but ye Gods, it’s a place you have to respect. I was walking the moors with my brother Keith in January, and we had a snow storm hit us for a day. The streams rose, and we could not cross where we had intended. Instead we had to walk many miles east, and then had a hard time of it finding a decent campsite, pitching our tents in flurries of snow and mist. On the moors you get the feeling quickly that there is no one to help you. But the city I find almost more alienating.
Last year I wrote a modern thriller set largely in Alaska (Pilgrim of Death, soon to be published as an ebook on Kindle), because Alaska struck me as a land like Canada, where the people are all so aware of their fight against the elements that they have agreed a truce against each other. In cities like Exeter, though, there is no truce.
How do you incorporate location in your fiction?
I think the most effective writing comes from not describing things in too much detail. I’ve always been struck by the novels in which I get the most compliments for my descriptive writing, because generally I think those are the ones in which I have made the least effort to describe anything. There’s a line between describing too precisely, which detracts from the pleasure of reading and inserting your own visions. But for me as a writer, I need to know where things are, what the line of the hills looks like, what the colour of the stone is like in a specific building. It all allows me then to work in my own mental space, and because I am confident of the scenery, it means readers have a feeling of confidence as they read – I think!
How do Sir Baldwin and Simon Puttock interact with their surroundings?
My two leading characters are very comfortable in their environment. Sir Baldwin de Furnshill is a renegade, one of the Knights Templar who was not in his Preceptory when the Order was arrested and tortured, but from his time as a Templar, he was used to visiting foreign countries, living in cities as diverse as Acre and Paris. His companion, Simon, I created as a countryman, rather like the nouveau riche serf of the Bishop of Ely from about 1300, Stephen Puttock. Stephen started out as a serf, more or less a slave, and by his own dedication and efforts, he became a kind of Thatcherite middle-class man, buying up and renting out cottages and pounds, building a portfolio of investments in sheep and farmland, until he became wealthy in his own right. He was happy in business, so he would have got on well in cities as much as the countryside.
But the period was harsh, and I always envisaged my characters as being happier away from the city (as indeed am I). So there is an extra edginess to the story of City of Fiends, I think. It reflects my own feelings when I write about living in a city.
Has there been any local reaction to your works?
I am delighted to say that the people who inhabit the areas I write about are uniformly kind about my books. Not only do the locals like the fact that my books bring in ome much-needed revenue for Dartmoor and Devon generally, they like to get involved. I’ve had people describing old country ways to me, and even a few suggestions for locations and stories. The Sticklepath Strangler title came from a pleasant evening in a pub with “Dartmoor Dave”, the blacksmith, and other people have helped with other aspects of the stories. Of course there is always the fascination with these weirdoes – authors – but I think that also people who live in an area and love it are always delighted to find others who do as well. And an author is an extreme fan of a location, I always think!
Have you ever made any goofs in depicting your location or time period? Please share–the more humorous the better (we all have).
My worst goof was to forget the name of a servant’s wife. Yes, it may not sound much, but when you have killed off a character and had her lover marry another woman, it is a little embarrassing three or four books later to realise that you’ve ditched his wife and brought back an ex. But I’m afraid that’s the only failing I can remember in all honesty.
However, I have been corrected plenty of times by those who have felt they knew better. My first “fan” letter was a series of rabid complaints about the facts in my first book The Last Templar. The very first comment was that I had the dates wrong for the siege of Acre. I had written about Acre being in 1291, with Muslims attacking the Christians, and the writer poisonously declared I was dreadfully badly misinformed. The siege took place in 1191, and it was King Richard attacking the Saracens of Saladin. He was right – and so was I. In 1291, Acre was finally taken back by the Arabs and the Christians thrown from their last toehold.
However the worst problems are always language. I once had a man complain that I used “alright” instead of “all right”, but my OED says either is perfectly alright (so there). A delightful lady wrote to complain that although she loved my books, she didn’t like to read modern words like “posse” because they detracted from the plot. Someone else disliked my use of “garbage” and “trash”. But they are all authentic medieval terms. It’s hard sometimes to know which is the correct word to use, but whenever possible, I do stick to the contemporary terms if I can.
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?
I love too many writers. Of my long-time favourites, I have to include PG Wodehouse, Conan Doyle, George MacDonald Fraser, and of course Tolkien. All of them have influenced me in different ways, most of all, perhaps Conan Doyle and Tolkien in terms of describing places and scenes. Tolkien is so precise about the actual look of a place. I’m in the middle of reading Lord of the Rings to my youngest, and it is astonishing how much landscape he managed to cram into his book. Conan Doyle was very different, a sketcher of scenery compared with Tolkien’s detailed paintings. It was his background as a short story writer that made him so concise, I suppose. Modern writers can have a brilliant ability to describe a scene too, I particularly love Michael Connelly. I always have the feeling I’m watching a TV show when I read his books, they are so perfectly depicted on paper.
If you could live anywhere, where would it be and why?
Italy, perhaps near Piacenza or in the city itself. I love the area there, close to the mountains so I could go skiing, but close enough to Italian cooking and the wonderful, friendly people of that area. I’d also be close to the abbey where Edward II lived his last days, and it would be good to be near him. If not, I’d have to pick Alaska, somewhere close to Anchorage. I was there about five years ago, and loved it. A beautiful country, with all the benefits of American life, together with the wilderness and beauty of northern Canadian life.
What’s next for Baldwin and Simon?
A very good question. I have just completed a new novel, Templar’s Acre, which is a prequel to the main Templar series, showing the hideous situation of the people of the city during that appalling siege – which I have to admit was great fun to write! I have a number of new directions in which I can take Baldwin and Simon, with plans that could take me all the way through to the plague, but for now I’m taking a break and writing a couple of books about the Hundred Years War. The good thing is, my period in history was so crammed full of events, I don’t need to look elsewhere, but when I want to, I have a series of other stories I want to write, such as my modern spy thriller, Pilgrim of Death, that will be available as an ebook shortly.
Many thanks, Michael, for taking time out from your busy writing schedule to talk with us at Scene of the Crime.
For more information on Michael Jecks and his books, see his homepage. http://www.michaeljecks.co.uk/