December brings many good things—Christmas, the first snowfall of the winter, a new Priscilla Royal mystery. Covent with Hell is her latest, set at one of the most celebrated of medieval shrines, and once again I am losing sleep as I steal time each night to re-enter her world. Most of you know that I am obsessive-compulsive about historical accuracy; I’ve never been able to decide if that is a blessing or a curse. As a result, I am really put off by novels in which the characters could be my next door neighbors; I think of these books as “The Plantagenets in Pasadena.” But that is never the case with one of Priscilla’s novels. Her people are firmly rooted in the Middle Ages. Readers never doubt that they are reading of men and women who live in thirteenth century England, and that is why we read historical novels, after all. We turn the pages to time-travel. So I am delighted to announce that Covenant with Hell is now out and I have persuaded Priscilla to stop by to talk about it.
Tell us about Covenant with Hell.
Covenant with Hell contains a hint of Canterbury Tales and a dash of George Smiley. While I was finishing Sanctity of Hate, I watched the two Alec Guinness portrayals of George Smiley, read John le Carre’s books, and fell in love with the character. I had never tried a spy story but knew it must have a firm medieval context. The spy system of the late 13th century was not as sophisticated as it was under Elizabeth I, but every historical era has its secret agents.
As I was prowling through Edward I’s activities in the year after Sanctity of Hate, I found the perfect setting for my story. Walsingham was one of his favorite shrines, and he decided to go there on Palm Sunday of 1277. (Being a practical man, he combined the pilgrimage with a trip to buy 200,000 crossbow bolts for his invasion of Wales.) Fortunately, this famous and very interesting medieval shrine is also close to where I have placed Tyndal Priory.
After The Sanctity of Hate, Prioress Eleanor has been deeply troubled over a rumor that she was found worthy to receive a vision of the Virgin Mary, a story she wishes had not gained credence but fears she might have fostered some way. Her concern led me to suggest that she might fancy a penitential pilgrimage to this lovely shrine. My prioress quickly agreed. What she and Brother Thomas didn’t know is that I planned for them to fall into the midst of an assassination plot against the king and a swarming of spies.
You have said that each of your books presents you with a different challenge. What was it in Covenant with Hell?
I do not want to write “costume dramas”, but I also acknowledge the universal nature of human experience. The more I read, the more I realize that many things we think of as modern enlightenments were found in more ancient times, although the manifestation would have been era-appropriate. The union of the twelve tribes of Israel, albeit under a king, bears resemblance to the union of the thirteen colonies that formed the United States. Athens practiced a form of democracy, and many monasteries elected their own leaders. And if no one in the past ever questioned the accepted beliefs (always called truths in any era), we would never have advanced our knowledge of general science, medicine, or the complex nature of the human creature. So I took a chance and introduced a character whom I believe would have fit into his time but who also resisted convention just a bit with a little quiet courage in the face of his own terror of consequences. To say more would be a spoiler.
What was the most enjoyable part of writing this story?
As is often the case, it is the research. The shrines of Walsingham have a remarkable story, one I have told in more detail in the Author’s Notes. Not only was it a popular medieval pilgrimage site, regularly visited by King Henry III, Edward I, and on a par with Canterbury and Santiago de Compostela, it was also highly favored by King Henry VIII—before he chose to destroy it. It was supposed to be the only place in England where the Virgin Mary appeared in a vision. She came to a local woman in a dream and took her to Nazareth where she showed the woman the house where the Annunciation occurred, then ordered the woman to construct an exact replica in Walsingham. Unlike most shrines, the house was kept simple, although the many gifts received were lavish. In addition, there were wells nearby that remained full, pure, and very cold despite the weather or any drought. These were also believed to be gifts of the Virgin Mary. Perhaps the most miraculous part of the Walsingham story is the fact that it has returned as a significant pilgrimage site. The Holy House has been reconstructed. The wells remain. It is visited by both Catholic and Protestant pilgrims today.
You have written ten books in your series. Do you now feel you have a firm grasp on the craft of writing?
The short answer is no! After I finished the first book, I realized that the second would have its own problems. That one felt even harder to write than the first. I will say that the third wasn’t as terrifying, but I have learned that every book is its own lesson in how to write unless you fall into a pattern. Sometimes I hate myself for making each book a challenge, but I am happier once it is written. Covenant with Hell was my attempt to be so devious about the killer that the herrings, red or otherwise, would be especially fun for readers. Even though I have always wanted to keep the solution secret for as long as possible, I admit that I often get caught up in character development, the question of acceptable justice, and the historical background. None of that is really a bad thing. We all read mysteries for different reasons. But good herrings were the craft lesson for me in this book.
What are you working on next?
Prioress Eleanor has been sufficiently successful as both a manager of priory recourses and a sleuth that she will have gained enemies. In the next book, someone has accused her of an unchaste relationship with Brother Thomas. Since the Order of Fontevraud was under the authority of Rome, the abbess in Anjou, who enjoyed unusual authority over her many daughter houses, would not have wanted any hint of scandal in her Order, one that many already believed to be unnatural because of female leadership over men. She would have sent a trusted priest of high social rank (to match that of Prioress Eleanor) to investigate so that she could assure Rome that innocence had been proven or due punishment ordered. Of course, Prioress Eleanor is innocent of acting on her lust for Brother Thomas, but nothing is ever simple for her. Murder happens. The innocent are accused. Subplots cause her additional angst. I confess that she will be pretty miffed at all I plan to put her through.
How can readers contact you?
Should anyone have questions about my books, they can reach me through my website at www.priscillaroyal.com. And I am one of several mystery writers blogging on The Lady Killers at www.theladykillers.typepad.com.
Thank you so much, Sharon, for inviting me to post on your blog. Not only have you taught me much about research, but your books have long been an inspiration. In fact, I learned something from one of them that gave me an idea for a character in Covenant…
And you are not going to tell me more than that, are you? You’re getting too good at keeping secrets! I am about halfway through Covenant and I confess I haven’t a clue who the killer is yet. There are a few hateful characters I would happily volunteer as other victims for the killer, though. And there is a very appealing young girl, a street urchin who will touch the hardest heart, reminding us that there were few safety nets for the poor throughout most of history. Thank you for agreeing to talk about Covenant. I do sympathize with Eleanor; she yearns only for spiritual peace and you keep dragging her into murder investigations. But as you say, “Murder happens, and we, the readers, benefit greatly from it.
December 4, 2013