Tuesday, October 28, 2008

A Knight to Remember

(Editor’s note: Today marks the release of Southern California writer Jeri Westerson’s first novel, Veil of Lies, which introduces the character of Crispin Guest, a disgraced 14-century knight turned private detective of sorts in London. In association with that debut, we asked Westerson to give us an idea of where Guest fits into the pantheon of fictional gumshoes. She sent along the response below.)

My series protagonist, Crispin Guest, inhabits my debut medieval mystery in a most unusual way. The novel, Veil of Lies, is styled a “medieval noir,” making Crispin the first hard-boiled private eye in that time period. What does this mean?

If he were talking with Sam Spade, they might very well be discussing the same sorts of things in a similar setting--maybe a rough bar in a dingy part of town; the steps of a manor house; or the cold street, with the light from an open window casting long shadows across their cold-nipped faces.

Before Dashiell Hammett created Spade with the clack of a typewriter key, his ideal of a hard-nosed detective was the nameless Continental Op, who appeared in the magazine Black Mask before he made his novel debut (in Red Harvest).

But it was in 1929, also in the pages of Black Mask, that readers were introduced to Sam Spade. Memorable as a fully formed, rough-hewn private detective, he might be considered the template of the hard-boiled gumshoe, having influenced Raymond Chandler to create his own sleuth, Philip Marlowe. Spade was an original. In fact, he permeates the landscape of American crime fiction so thoroughly, it’s hard to believe he appeared in only one novel, The Maltese Falcon, which had first been serialized in Black Mask. Hammett himself said of his creation in the introduction to the 1934 edition of The Maltese Falcon,
“Spade has no original. He is a dream man in the sense that he is what most of the private detectives I worked with would like to have been and in their cockier moments thought they approached. For your private detective does not--or did not ten years ago when he was my colleague--want to be an erudite solver of riddles in the Sherlock Holmes manner; he wants to be a hard and shifty fellow, able to take care of himself in any situation, able to get the best of anybody he comes in contact with, whether criminal, innocent by-stander or client.”
Sam Spade did reappear in several short stories in 1932, and in two Hollywood movie incarnations (in 1931 and 1936) before John Huston made his perfect film in 1941 with Humphrey Bogart. He also showed up in numerous radio plays, but nothing measured up to that story with the “Black Bird.”

In Sam Spade, we have a lone detective, living by his own code and maintaining a keen eye for justice. In his work, he has seen the very wealthy and the lowest dregs of society. In both, he knows that no depths will go unplumbed for the greedy to get what they want.

Spade was of course my model for Crispin Guest. In researching the idea of a pulp detective in a medieval setting, I kept going back to the image of the lone wolf--the man who stands alone against the dirty and lawless of society. Maybe he was an idealist. Maybe he just knew right from wrong no matter what.

Hammett brought to life his detective from his own experiences as a Pinkerton agent. And yet, unlike many hard-boiled detective novels to follow, The Maltese Falcon was written in third-person. And so is Veil of Lies. Perhaps Hammett, like me, wanted just that bit of distance between character and reader, just enough to look a little beyond the protagonist’s shoulder into the dark and sticky gloom of a midnight street.

That’s who I wanted to write about, live with, agonize over. What better way to epitomize a character who holds to a chivalric code of seeking justice and upholding the law than an actual knight? Of course, this would have to be a knight who no longer held that title, a man who remains stalwart in his ideals, no matter the cost. When Crispin is exiled from the court of King Richard II and loses all that defines him, he must remake himself into a reluctant detective, using his wits and fighting skills in the only way available to him. Still regarded with deep suspicion by the sheriffs of London, Crispin must travel his own dark paths while keeping his tattered honor intact.

Both Spade and Crispin are taken in by a pretty face, but not for long. They will not cross their staunch code for any woman. No one and nothing gets in the way of that. They are both familiar with the use of violence to get out of scrapes, and their less-than-glamorous lifestyles inform their less-than-stellar relationships. In Spade’s world, San Francisco was the heartbeat of the plot. In Crispin’s world, it is 14th-century London. The British capital is just another character in the milieu of this medieval noir, serving as conscience and metaphor. The wealthy and the poor are not merely divided by a river, but by a gap beyond measure.

If Sam Spade had lived in the middle ages, he would have known Crispin. They might even have grabbed a bowl of ale together at Crispin’s favorite haunt, the Boar’s Tusk. They might have been friends. They’d certainly have understood each other.

READ MORE: Chapter 1 of Veil of Lies; Crispin Guest’s Blog.


Anonymous said...

Congratulations to Jeri Westerson on her fantastic debut - she's actually managed to temporarily pull me away from my incessant true crime reading and turned me back on to mystery stories with her clever "medieval noir" with religious-relic themes. VEIL OF LIES is fantastic, and I can't wait for the sequels!

Gary Dobbs/Jack Martin said...

Now this sounds interesting - is it published in the UK?

Jeri Westerson said...

Archavist, it is not currently published in the UK but it is available through amazon uk. Go figure.

Jeri Westerson