BLACK DEATH IS BROUGHT TO LIFE WHEN AN ACCOMPLISHED GREAT CRIME NOVELIST TURNS HER ATTENTION TO A TRAGEDY THAT BEGAN ON HER DOORSTEP, WRITES FIONA PURDON
Writer draws inspiration from the Black Death
When British crime writer Minette Walters discovered there may be a plague pit near her historic home in Dorset, she became obsessed with researching the Black Death.
The disease, which wiped out about 50 per cent of England’s population, was believed to have arrived in 1348 on a boat in the seaside town of Weymouth — less than 7km from Walters’ 56ha property — on England’s southwest coast.
Walters, 68, believes the pit — a term used to refer to mass graves of plague victims — is located within 100m of her 18th-century home, Whitcombe Manor, near a small 14th-century church.
Her fascination with the subject prompted her to write her first book in 10 years and make her first venture into historical fiction, The Last Hours — due out this month.
Walters is one of the world’s biggest-selling authors, with combined sales of 25 million copies. Her success was built on her stand-alone psychological crime novels, including her 1992 debut The Ice House, which won the Crime Writers’ Association’s John Creasey Dagger award for best debut novel, and The Sculptress (1993), which won the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Award.
But after churning out bestselling thrillers almost every year until 2007, Walters found herself at a crossroads. She could tackle another crime novel and please her vast tribe of fans — who still write begging for a new spinechiller — or give in to her powerful urge to research and write about the Black Death.
“People need to understand, you can feel restricted if you only write in one genre. The fact I had this idea of a Black Death book, it kept growing. I kept asking myself, ‘Why shouldn’t I do it?’ ’’ she says. “I knew it wouldn’t be easy but it kept working away in my mind and, in the end, you either want to do it or you don’t.
“How many comedians really would like to play Hamlet? To try their hand at something serious? Secretly in my heart, even though I love writing crime novels, I wanted to have a go at something else.’’
Also compelling for Walters was the fact the Black Death came into the country only a short distance from her home.
“Weymouth, where the 14th-century plague entered England, is four miles (6.5km), as the crow flies, from our house, and nine miles by road.
“It (the town) was called Melcombe in the 14th century,’’ she says. “The Black Death was such a dramatic time in history, there was so much change. People couldn’t run away from it.’’
Walters turned her formidable intellect, which once focused on creating psychologically complex characters and labyrinthine plots, to crafting a historical story with well-drawn characters and “page-turning suspense’’. She sets events in the town of Develish, which is fictional but is the former name of Dewlish, a village 26km northeast of Weymouth.
She found further historical inspiration with her characters and plot, especially the famous 17th-century plague town of Eyam, in Derbyshire, where people selflessly quarantined themselves to stop the plague spreading.
In The Last Hours, the villagers of Develish cut themselves off from the rest of the world to stop the plague from entering their community, with Walters giving her nunnery-educated heroine, Lady Anne of Develish, the intelligence, knowledge and sense to understand the importance of cleanliness and isolation.
Walters says the character was inspired by great medieval women, such as the Queen consort of England, Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204), who were capable of reading, translating and interpreting the Bible.
Lady Anne is married to oafish Norman Lord Richard, who has not bothered to learn to read and, while travelling from Develish, becomes a plague victim.
“It was important for the story that Anne could be working behind the scenes, helping her people when the Black Death arrives, which enables her to rise to the fore,’’ Walters says. “The serfs have a lot of trust in her.’’
Walters was interested in what would happen inside a closed community, especially one containing an unstable and headstrong character such as Lady Anne’s only child, teenage daughter Eleanor.
“Eleanor is a spoiled child, she’s impossible, and a not very bright girl,’’ Walters says.
Within days of Develish becoming a closed town, one of the teenage boys suffers a suspicious death.
Lady Anne’s key adviser is Thaddeus, a serf born out of wedlock but who is exceptionally smart and wellread. He takes a handful of the young murder suspects with him on a scouting mission to help replenish the town’s dwindling food supplies.
“I always concentrate on the characters, I get into the characters’ heads. I have to make sure the interaction between the characters makes sense,’’ Walters says.
She is now finishing a sequel, due for release next year, and has enjoyed having a break from publicity tours.
“I didn’t stop writing, it’s just my work-life balance is much better now,’’ she says.
“I have two grandchildren — they visit me a lot — and I have time to be a grandma. Their names are Madeleine and Martha, 2½ and 10 months old. I’ve dedicated the book to them.’’
Secretly in my heart, even though I love writing crime novels, I wanted to have a go at something else Minette Walters
put in place to cope with it. “That means jobs, more housing choices and the many benefits that do come from sensible density changes,” she said.
It also meant asking questions that planned for an ageing population, she said.
“(Questions like) Where do you want your children or grandchildren to live? Do you want them nearby for when you are old and need support? Where do you want them to find good jobs?” she said.
These are exactly the problems facing Jess Hansen and husband Dan as they struggle with $175-a-day childcare charges for their one-year-old son Hayden.
“We want to have another child and I just don’t think it will be worth bothering to go out to work with those kinds of charges,” said Ms Hansen, who lives in Naremburn on Sydney’s lower north shore.
Instead she and her husband are considering a move back to Newcastle to be near her parents and occasional childcare fees of just $100 a day
The Department of Planning expects 180,000 new homes to be built across Sydney in the next five years.
They include 1600 in Haymarket, 4200 at Mascot, 3400 at Zetland and 2900 at Rosebery.
Multi-generational living is the way of the future. One way the government is planning for this is medium-density housing NSW Planning Minister Anthony Roberts. We want to have another child and I just don’t think it will be worth bothering to go out to work with those kinds of charges.
Author Minette Walters at her home near Dorchester. Picture: Fabio De Paola
Jessica Hansen is planning to move with husband Dan and son Hayden from Naremburn in Sydney’s north to Newcastle to be near her parents because of cheaper housing and childcare. Picture: Carly Earl