Dispensation of Death by Michael Jecks
September, 2007 - 416 pages - $24.95
Dispensation of Death takes place in 1325 England amidst turmoil caused in part by the troubled and uncontrollable King Edward II and his unpopular lover Hugh le Despenser. Life if court is already tumoltuous but gets even worse when one of the Queen's ladies-in-waiting is found dead along with the body of a mutilated man -- both found hidden behind the throne of the King. On the heals of Edward's demands to be avenged, Despenser hires investigator Sir Baldwin de Furnshill, Jecks' most prominent character. Can anyone find their way to the bottom of the intrigue and scandal?
Trained as an Actuary and then working as a computer salesman for thirteen years, Michael Jecks wrote his very first book in 1993. Since then he has been a prolific historical fiction mystery novelist, Dispensation of Death being is twenty-fourth novel.
Kelly Hewitt: Your website heralds you as "The Master of the Medieval Murder Mystery". I certainly think its true and that you deserve the title, but when did that happen? At what point did someone begin calling you 'the master'?
Michael Jecks: I couldn't honestly tell you when that started - it was such a long time ago now, and I'd have to go back and look through all my cuttings files. However I have been very lucky with the very kind comments that reviewers tend to give me. The only unkind ones I've received have been from people who tend to dispute my portrayal of medieval churchmen and woman. But that's hardly my fault!
The most complaints I've had for a single book came from Belladona Belladonna At Belstone, which was all about nuns. I showed them having sex with servants, keeping pets, ogling the local young priest, and being drunk. But all those came from the visitation records of Bishop Stapeldon and Bishop Grandisson. The cases I mention were all authentic at the time, in the two or three convents which lay in their diocese. Others have complained about my works, too, but generally they are about historical details, and I do spend an inordinate amount of time getting the details right. My books are all based upon actual events, generally, and I conduct much of my research by going through the court records, coroners' rolls, and local history books from the Devon & Cornwall Record Society.
I couldn't make up half the things I read about. In fact usually I have to tone things down.
Kelly: The story of how you became a writer is really interesting (and can be read about here on Michael's website -- link). When you began writing your first novel The Last Templar you were unemployed. You write that you had the support of your wife and family. What was that like? The moment when you told your wife that you were done with computers and were going to write?
Michael: My wife and I had not had a good time. When I began writing in 1994, I'd had a number of jobs and all the firms (bar the last) had gone bust. My wife had enjoyed a stable career, which was good for us both. But then, just after we moved house to a huge mortgage, not only did I lose my own job, she lost hers too. That was a terrible time, and we were forced to take on anything we could for a while. We could not even afford a TV, because we didn't have the money for the annual TV licence.
However, while I was working, I kept sketching out initial chapters as ideas for books. None of them came to much, but my wife was fascinated by them, and it was her enthusiasm for my work that really forced me to consider the idea of taking on the challenge of writing. If it weren't for her, I doubt I'd be writing now. She was enormously supportive, and took on the responsibility of all the household income while I tried to write, and luckily my long-suffering parents backed us up with a guarantee for our mortgage. They too were keen to help me get started as a writer.
So there was no specific moment when I told her I was going to be done with computers. It was more a sort of gradual slide into it, with me trying to write, and then losing another job, and both of us agreeing that if I didn't do it now, I never would. It was much more interesting telling my parents, because they had been abroad on holiday, and every time when they went away, one of their sons would lose a job or something . . .
Kelly: Your books really appeal to me because I study English history and have a real adoration for the landmarks in London and all throughout the country. You have written books that take place all over. Is there a particular region or landmark that you find inspiring or a pleasure to write about?
Michael: My main region is Devon and Dartmoor. All the earlier books - the first twenty one or so - are set in and around Dartmoor apart from a couple where I strayed on to a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. Dartmoor is enormously inspiring. It's unspoilt, all rolling hills and craggy rocks with small streams chuckling in narrow beds. There are few places in England where you can go and get a feel for how the land would have looked, smelled and sounded in medieval times, but this fabulous park has it. You can walk over the moors, and almost hear the voices of your ancestors in the old tin workings. There is nothing from the twenty-first century which can intrude. No cars, no planes, nothing. It's wonderful and very evocative, and whenever I want to write, I go to the moors for inspiration.
Kelly: For readers that are new to your novels, what can you tell us about your chief character, Sir Baldwin Furnshill?
Michael: Sir Baldwin de Furnshill was born when I went to a house called Fursdon. Fursdon has remained in the same family for some seven hundred years or more. A small manor house now, once the Fursdons owned vast tracts of Devon, with mining rights and involvement in the politics and law of the area. I went there with my wife in the year before I began writing, and saw a family tree, that showed the first of the Fursdons arriving in the 1200s. It made me wonder where on earth he'd come from. And then I read a book about the Templars, and was struck with the fact that many survived. Some were released into convents after their torture, where they lived out their days. Others were freed and lived as beggars in the streets of Paris, but a few were never arrested, and went to find new lives.
It was the two ideas that grabbed my imagination. I wanted to write about a man who was filled with rage at injustice. He had seen his friends captured for no reason, seen them tortured, some executed, and all because of a shallow and corrupt pair of men, the King of France and the Pope. He would be a man who would be forever looking over his shoulder, who would rail against injustice, and who would distrust politics and politicians, the Church and priests. And yet his own personal faith in God would be unshaken.
The other thing was, he would be an excellent investigator. Being educated, intelligent, well-travelled, he would have a good world-view and understanding of a variety of cultures. And he would be an excellent fighter.
While writing the first book, I knew I wanted to reuse the same character, and began to cast about for a role he could have which would allow him to use his skills. Almost immediately I hit on the idea of a Keeper of the King's Peace. This was a new position. The King had endured many problems with justice, and the old system of the Eyre had fallen into disuse. In its place a system of courts of "trailbaston" were implemented, but these were ineffective. So the Keepers were brought in. Unlike Coroners, who were there to record all the details of a crime for presentation at a later date in front of a court, the Keepers were there to hunt down felons "from vill to vill, hundred to hundred, shire to shire". They were the actual police of the time, and had authority to call out the posse of the county if necessary.
This seemed to me to be the ideal job for my man. And he must be good at it, because in book twenty four in the series, he's rewarded with being elected to the Parliament.
Kelly: Do you ever think that you might write a different genre or literature or a different time period?
Michael: Oh yes. My very first book was a modern day thriller based on a sniper. It had all the things you could want: fast women, tight-trousered men, guns, bombs, sex, drugs . . . and it was snapped up by a major publisher almost immediately. Sadly a couple of days later it was rejected in writing. Why? It was all about the IRA and they'd just agreed their first cease-fire. The second book I wrote was the first of my medieval ones, and I've been involved in them ever since. However I am working on a modern thriller again now, as well as a children's book about the Norman conquest, which may be fun.
Kelly: You latest book, Dispensation of Death, has the infamous King Edward II and his lover Hugh le Despensar. Both of these individuals, real characters in English history, are quite interesting. What's the most shocking thing you've learned about Edward or Hugh?
Michael: Sadly I don't have space to list their full series of crimes.
For the King, probably his worst crime was the punishment meted out to all those who took arms against his lover, Sir Hugh le Despenser. People loathed Despenser, because he was a murderous, brutal thug. When the Lords Marcher rose against Despenser, the King himself forced them to back down, and attacked them at Boroughbridge. And that led to his crime. His own cousin, Thomas of Lancaster, was there. He was led to his execution, shamefully, on a donkey. And from that moment the King went on a murderous spree, slaughtering knights, barons and even lords, up and down the country. It was said that not a town in the realm did not have two gibbets outside its gates with the rotting bodies of those who had incurred the King's wrath. Those bodies were tarred to cure them, so that they would remain dangling for longer. It was only the intervention of the Queen that caused them to be cut down about two years later.
But Despenser - ah, he was evil. One example: the King had a loyal Knight die while fighting for him. This man's widow, Madame Baret, possessed a little money and a small estate which Despenser coveted. He had her captured, and then held and tortured until she agreed to pass her lands over to him. All her limbs were systematically broken, and in
the end she was driven mad. He was not a pleasant character.
Kelly: Okay, you're a prolific writer. Looking down the list of books you've written since 1994 its easy to see that you've been quite busy. How is it that you write so many books?
Michael: I am lucky because my books follow from the history. I have a series of great events happening - Boroughbridge, the War of St Sardos, the escape of the Queen to France, the invasion of England - and my characters are living through these momentous occasions. So I have the background to the books set out. Then I also tend to use actual murders. My stories are culled mostly from coroners' rolls and court records. That is what many readers find hard to accept, that I am less a fiction writer than a translator of actual history. Yes, I do fictionalise things, and I do invent characters and traits for characters, as well as subplots, but what I am doing is embellishing stories which are there already. Such as Sir Roger Mortimer bribing a wizard to make waxen figures of the King and Despenser and try to kill them with black magic (The Malice of Unnatural Death). I didn't invent that story, it's all in the records! Similarly, when I write about the murder of Exeter Cathedral's Precentor, Walter de Lecchelade, that was true. It's all in the court records. My skill as a writer is to pull together the history, take certain fabulously interesting little events, and weave them together into a story. Luckily it's worked so far!
Kelly: Speaking of your prolific writing, what can your readers expect next from Michael Jecks?
Michael: Well, I've just finished the twenty-fifth book in the series, which will go under the title of Prophecy of Death (snappy title, huh!) and will come out next summer. Then there's the latest Medieval Murderers collaboration, "The Lost Prophecies" which will come out at the same time. But generally I'm working on another three Templar series books and one more Medieval Murderers. And then I'll be struggling on with the modern book and the childrens'. Hopefully I'll be able to find time for them . . . won't be easy until I've finished working on a judging commitment. I used to be chairman of the Crime Writers' Association, and one hangover from that is that I have to help judge the CWA, Ian Fleming Steel Dagger for the best thriller of the year. My last year doing that is finishing in March, so after that I'll be able to concentrate a little more!