Crispin Guest—A Character Study
By Jeri Westerson
THE DEMON’S PARCHMENT is the third Crispin Guest Medieval Noir, my own subgenre of medieval mystery. It’s hard-boiled detective fiction set in the middle ages. Because of the darker themes, this called for an exceptional detective, one who would be compelling in book after book.
Enter Crispin Guest.
Now let’s back up a bit. When an author devises a detective for a series, they have to keep certain things in mind: will he be equipped to solve the crimes that come his way? In an amateur sleuth story, it has to be believable when the detective encounters murder after murder (I don’t know about you, but I’m a little suspicious of Jessica Fletcher in Cabot Cove). In something like a private eye story it is a given that the detective will know what to do and how to proceed when encountering the ultimate crime.
But set the story in the distant past where there is little in the way of forensic science to help you, a vastly under-funded and under-trained “police force,” coupled with the fear and superstition of a particular point in time, and you have special difficulties in allowing your detective to be able to solve a crime.
I needed a detective who was able to read and write. Not so easy in the Middle Ages when even some of the nobility could do neither. This is the reason that many medieval mystery protagonists are monks and nuns. The clerical class, for the most part, could read and had a bit of time on their hands.
But I also wanted someone who could move between the classes, someone who was well aware and even knew by name some of those in the upper echelons of society. He needed to be a man familiar with weapons so that he could fight his way out of any difficulty. He had also to be familiar with death so he could recognize an accidental death from a deliberate one, and a fresh corpse from an old one. This meant he had to be a man-at-arms, someone who had seen many battles and their aftermath. But it also meant that he could no longer be a part of the society to which he had been born. Forced to live among people that he never considered his equal, he would be imbued with ready-made angst and animosity. Throw in a sheriff who gives him grief at his change in station and we have the makings of a darker, character-driven morality play.
Crispin Guest was a man who had everything: a title, wealth, status at court. He was a possible candidate for Edward of Woodstock’s privy council when he became king. As the protégé under John of Gaunt the duke of Lancaster (Edward’s younger brother), Crispin had fought in battles and even led his own men. He had jousted in tournaments, and was well respected among the elite.
But treason got in the way of his ambitions—treason for a good cause—and Crispin lost it all, but not his sense of intense honor.
Also, let’s not forget, that I wanted to write about a strong, lusty man, a man of his time. I mean, why else write him? He gets knocked around, sure, but he also gets to do some knocking. And slacking that lustiness, too, on the occasional femme fatale.
Though Crispin is a character with a chip on his shoulder, he has a strong sense of honor coupled with great wit. He feels a certain sense of obligation toward the weakest in society, fulfilling his chivalric code even if he can no longer be a knight. He’s a lover and a fighter. And, of course, endlessly curious.
So now I have a detective equipped and ever willing to use his wits to outsmart the murderer, getting into scrapes and causing a few bruises himself. Then I build my mysteries within the framework of the politics, people, characters, and events of the late fourteenth century, taking it down a notch into darker territory, delving into the grit of London.
There is no end to the ideas.
Read an excerpt of THE DEMON’S PARCHMENT on Jeri’s website www.JeriWesterson.com.