Fiona Pur­don


The Daily Telegraph (Sydney) - - Saturday Extra - For an ex­clu­sive book ex­tract go to

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

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