It’s a Crime is pleased to welcome author S J Parris with a guest blog on publication of her novel Heresy. This is the author’s first outing into historical crime fiction which introduces the monk Giodarno Bruno, magician, scientist, and heretic in a new series. You may have read other work from this author for she is Stephanie Merritt, previously published in literary fiction and non-fiction, as well as a critic and feature writer in the media, currently writing for the Observer. What led her to the historical world of crime? Over to Stephanie, with many thanks for the article…
When I was growing up, I was a huge fan of detective fiction. My mother loved Ruth Rendell, PD James and Colin Dexter and had an extensive collection, so as a teenager I worked my way voraciously through her shelves. But then three years of a degree in English literature and almost a decade of working as a book reviewer solidified in my mind the artificial divide between ‘serious literature’ and the kind of books that people read for pleasure. Crime and thrillers were relegated and when I started writing myself, it was ‘literary fiction’ that I aspired to.
It was only after I’d written my third book, a memoir, that my thoughts turned back to crime fiction. I wanted to write something completely different, something that wasn’t about me and my own experience, and at first I thought of writing a straightforward historical novel that would allow me to enter an entirely different imaginative world.
I’d been fascinated by Giordano Bruno, the Italian heretic philosopher, since I’d first come across his story at university, and I’d always thought he’d make a fantastic character for a novel. So I started researching his life properly and discovered the theory that he had worked as a spy for Elizabeth I’s government during the three years he spent in England. At that moment it all seemed to fall into place, and I realised that what I wanted to write was a historical detective novel with Bruno at the centre.
Late sixteenth-century England proved a rich setting for a crime novel. Bruno came to England in 1583, half-way through Elizabeth’s reign and five years before the climax of the Spanish Armada. Tensions between the official Protestant religion and the many people who still secretly clung to the Catholic faith were running high, with the Catholic seminaries in France training up young men to be missionary priests and numerous plots fomenting to assassinate Queen Elizabeth so she could be replaced by her Catholic cousin, Mary Queen of Scots.
Oxford – both the town and the university – was a bastion of Catholic resistance. When Bruno is invited there to take part in a debate about Copernicus, Elizabeth’s spymaster Francis Walsingham asks him to find out what he can about these plots, but his mission is threatened by a series of gruesome murders.
The real Bruno was a multi-faceted and charismatic character, and it’s been an enjoyable challenge to bring him to life as a fictional spy. I’ve rediscovered my love of crime fiction and I hope readers of Heresy get as much pleasure from the book as I’ve had in writing it.