About The Author
Minette Walters is one of the world's best-selling crime writers. She is the author of twelve novels, winning the CWA John Creasey Award for The Ice House, the Edgar Allan Poe Award in America for The Sculptress and two CWA Gold Daggers for The Scold's Bridle and Fox Evil. She lives in Dorset with her husband.
Her new novel, The Last Hours marks an exciting new direction for Minette. It is set in1348 as the Black Death grips England. In the estate of Develish in Dorsetshire, Lady Anne takes control of her people's future - including the lives of two hundred bonded serfs, who she brings inside the walls. With this sudden overturning of the accepted social order, where serfs exist only to serve their lords, conflicts soon arise and a dreadful event threatens the uneasy status quo.
Below, exclusively for Foyles, Frances Gertler talks to Minette about her first foray into historical fiction, the challenges of portraying 14th-century Dorset and why the idea that there were no rational responses to the Black Death is wrong.
Author photo © Fabio de Paola
Questions & Answers
What made you decide to turn to historical fiction?
As a story teller, I'm intrigued by everything and the Black Death is a powerfully interesting subject. Nearly seven centuries on, it's hard to grasp how devastating it was or how far-reaching its consequences. The idea for The Last Hours kept knocking at my mind and never to have written it for the sake of remaining in 'genre' would have been frustrating. In any case, I wonder if it is such a big change! The Black Death was the worst killer man has ever known. Which crime author wouldn't want to write about it... and point fingers at the culprits? There are many worse criminals in history than there are in crime fiction.
What were the biggest challenges?
Deciding how the landscape of Dorset might have looked 700 years ago. It’s quite difficult to stand on a hill, looking at tarmacked roads, managed rivers and neatly fenced fields and imagine it differently. It helped to walk along known drover’s routes which gave me a sense of a ‘wilder’ countryside.
Why did you decide on this particular story? Did you consciously look for a female heroine?
These are questions I can never answer. Ideas come to me all the time, and some are so insistent that I know I have to give them a try. They don’t always work, as the late and wonderful Terry Pratchett so ably demonstrated by asking for his unfinished novels to be crushed by a steamroller! That being said, the Black Death became a particular interest when I discovered that its first port of entry into England was Melcombe (Weymouth) which is 4 miles as the crow flies from where I live, and that 14th-century chroniclers reported barely one in ten being left alive in Dorset by the time the pestilence passed. I wondered what that meant. Had the others died? Had some fled? More importantly, who were the ‘bare’ few who managed to survive? And how had they avoided it?
How did your background writing psychological thrillers help with this new direction?
I would prefer to say my background as a teller of suspenseful stories is still in evidence. Page-turners are my favourite form of fiction - whatever the genre - and I hope readers will agree that The Last Hours is as compelling as anything else I've written.
Do you see historical fiction developing as a new strand alongside the thrillers?
I hope so. I’ve always loved history, and the whole process of writing The Last Hours has been a joy. I’m currently at work on the sequel, hence the trailers at the end of the book, which give readers a taste of what is to come.
Tell us about the demesne of Develish, where the novel is set. Was this based on a real location?
Not really. It’s an invented blend of many similar valleys and settlements in Dorset, with some aspects of my own village appearing. When my husband and I moved to Dorset nearly twenty years ago, one of the first things we learnt was that our village has a plague pit. No one’s entirely sure where it is, but the 12th-century church still stands and visitors can still see the mounds that delineate the medieval settlement.
Is Lady Anne based on a real character?
Only tangentially. I based her strength and determination on women like Eleanor of Aquitaine (12th century), and her dissenting mind on 14th-century scholars like John Wycliffe who believed that men could only know the truth about God if they read the bible for themselves. The idea that there were no rational responses to the Black Death is wrong. The ports of Venice and Dubrovnik introduced the idea of quarantine in 1348, refusing to allow foreign ships to unload their crews and cargoes for forty days, but it was another twenty years before the word ‘quarantine’ entered common parlance and became an accepted way of preventing the spread of sickness. A tragic, but influential fact in terms of how I conceived both her and The Last Hours, was that Jews were blamed in many parts of Europe for causing the Black Death. They were seen to suffer less than their Christian neighbours and this brought inevitable persecution. Reasons for their better survival rates are thought to have been their strong regimes of cleanliness, as laid out in the Old Testament, and their enforced ghetto isolation. I drew on both ideas – hygiene and isolation – for The Last Hours.
Your thrillers have to be plausible but how constraining did you find it to have to achieve historical accuracy?
The only conscious change I made in the writing of The Last Hours was to use words, both in dialogue and prose, that were current, or almost current, in the 14th century. This gave me a stronger sense of time. My readers also, I hope. It seemed to me it would be unnecessarily disorientating to come across ‘disorientated’ (etymology 1860) in the text rather than ‘confused’ (etymology early 14th century)!
Lady Anne flouts convention not only in taking charge as a woman but also in seeking to protect the serfs from the Black Death, thereby overturning the accepted social order. How likely, indeed possible, would this have been in reality?
Entirely possible, I think, considering the immense social changes the Black Death caused in England. Prior to its arrival, the help and education Lady Anne gives her people has to be given in secret; once her husband dies, she is able to operate freely. Nevertheless, how she chooses to operate is known only in Develish for all contact with the outside world is broken.