Romancing the Sword

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Posted July 1, 2010 in Feature Story

The Inland Empire has many fine things to recommend it, but it might not be the first place you think of when it comes to literary happenings. There are some exceptions, sure. The weird and talented Tim Powers has been living in San Bernardino (which was prominently featured in his last novel, Three Days To Never) for years now, and he is still writing his strange, beautiful novels of magic and bedlam. Chris Abani, the noted Nigerian expatriate and former prisoner of conscience has been teaching at UCR for several years when not writing edgy, languid novels that expand accepted ideas of sexuality (trannies as protagonists anyone?), freedom and identity. But neither of these fine writers has managed to bring the buzz of a genuine developing pop culture event like Menifee resident Jeri Westerson has done with her new series of novels.

 

The novels in question are the Crispin Guest “medieval noirs.” Veil of Lies is out in paperback and Serpent of Thorns in hardback, with a third, The Demon’s Parchment, on the way in October. These aren’t your normal medieval mysteries, people. Sure, it’s London in the 14th century, brought to vivid, stinky, fog-shrouded life with just a few deft strokes by Westerson, but with her main character she has done something really cool and unique. He’s a private eye, a tough guy shamus chasing dames, getting smacked around by cops and solving mysteries with laconic deftness. He’s a hunky, Fabio-like dude in chain mail with a following that puts Harlequin romance novels to shame—and makes female readers wonder what’s really underneath Crispin’s codpiece.

 

It’s an idea that is so brilliant that you have to wonder why it hasn’t been done before. But it hasn’t. And it adds a new layer to the traditionally stuffy medieval mystery. 

 

What a Big Sword

These books move quick like a noir and are populated with the violent action of a good hard-boiled yarn. It’s a weird hybrid—the brutal, fast-paced noir coupled with the elegant dialogue and chivalric concerns of medieval times—but it works. Another thing that Westerson has accomplished is in the creation of a truly memorable hero with Crispin Guest. Guest is a former knight who has been found guilty of treachery against the king. While he has managed to avoid getting his pretty neck chopped or stretched, his life has been reduced to the bare essentials. He lives in a hovel, in a piss-stench part of town with one ragged set of clothes, his ever present dagger (one can go a little Freudian here with thoughts of the noble knight losing his broadsword and now having only a teeny tiny dagger—but it’s not the size of the blade, it’s how you use it) and his still-sharp wits. There is something about seeing a former noble man fallen on hard times that gives the story some emotional heft and serves as a weird and effective mirror to our own harsh economic times.

 

Westerson also manages to bring in some of the trippy allure of the supernatural found in a Dan Brown novel, though she handles it much more deftly than he has ever managed to. Each mystery has a religious artifact at its core with some strange power to it.

 

But religious freedom—forget it.

 

Regarding “religion . . . you could be anything you wanted to be here in Southern California. You could be a couple of things,” reflects Westerson. “But, of course, in England at the time you were going to be Christian or Catholic, and especially in England at the time there the Jews had already been kicked out in 1290, so there were no Jews living in England at the time, at least not openly. Muslims, of course, were looked on as suspicious, and they did travel throughout Europe, but it was not advised, especially as the Crusades ended disastrously for the Christian kingdoms.”

 

Pants Down

In conversation, Westerson grows particularly animated about weird and compelling medieval facts she has uncovered in her research—erudite insights into daily life in medieval times that wouldn’t sound out of place coming from a department head in the discipline.

 

“I discovered [that] many men in London died from accidental deaths,” says Westerson. “A majority of them that died accidentally fell out of windows. Why did they fall out of windows? The number one reason was that there wasn’t any glass. Men were getting up in the middle of the night to heed the call of nature and didn’t want to go downstairs or down a ladder. They just opened the windows and misjudged. They were literally caught dead with their pants down.”

 

While her kinetic storytelling and grimy noir details add a modern element, the final appeal of the novels might rest in their escapist elements. The cold, damp streets of London circa 1384 seem the farthest thing from hot, traffic-congested, information overloaded 21st century Southern California.

 

And maybe that’s the appeal. If readers want escape, why not directly into books that present the exact opposite of their busy, hectic lives. 

 

London’s her L.A.

Jeri Westerson is a recent transplant to the Inland Empire (she misses having a coast), but she has made good use of the local resources—mainly the research library at the Tomas Rivera Library at UC Riverside. She grew up in Los Angeles and maybe that’s where she developed her love for the private eye novel.

 

 “When a city like L.A. is in your heart, you have to make it yours, whether in the writing or in your life,” wrote Westerson in her President’s Message in the March 2010 issue of Orange Herring, the Orange County Sisters in Crime newsletter. “I know that Los Angeles influences my medieval novels, making London my L.A. I just got reacquainted with my heart. What is that special pep rally for you? What gets your creative juices flowing? Is it a place? A moment? Tap into it and you’ve got gold.”

 

Her background is varied and impressive—stints as an actress, as a reporter for the Press-Telegram, and a long stretch as a graphic designer. She credits her reporting background as teaching her how not to “bloviate” with her fiction (which is both a crazy smart word to use in conversation and a useful one for a writer), and her graphic design background for being able to look at her books from a marketing and design angle, seeing her books as one more object in a crowded marketplace and being able to use her knowledge to achieve the desired aim accordingly.

 

“I was really making sure it was something special . . . [that I] was really working for something that would be quite different, so it was all by design,” says Westerson. “Eventually, and I say that quite ironically, it was really as a graphic designer that made me [decide] to really suss out what wasn’t going on in publishing.” 

 

Dark Night Begins

When she talks about her creation it is with refreshingly pragmatic candor. There is no talk of lightning bolts or muse visitations; she made a calculated assessment of the literary landscape about what was selling and what was dropping like a stone in the marketplace and thus medieval noir and Crispin Guest were born.

 

“Basically when you write something that you enjoy, you write something that you really want to read, but is it available on the bookshelves? I wanted to read something about a hard-boiled detective, and there was no such a thing, so that’s kind of my aim. There could be one of two reasons: one, there is no such thing, and two, it’s terrible. Luckily it was the latter, and I thought it was a brilliant idea. And what happened was that I was writing it.”

 

But the actress in her hasn’t left either: she never writes at any Starbucks or local coffee houses because she knows that they might get concerned when she starts swinging her sword around to act out the particulars of a battle scene she is working through. And there is work too in Westerson’s willingness to criss-cross Southern California making appearances for her burgeoning group of fans, to talk about and read from her work.

 

One afternoon she might be all the way up at Bee’s Mountain of Books in Idyllwild and the very next day she’ll be a hundred miles away in south Orange County chairing a meeting of Sisters of Crime. One senses that Westerson relishes both the chance to perform and the immediate gratification that comes from getting positive feedback from fans. On a recent visit to the Orange Library, she gratefully received a gift of full armor from the sponsors of her visit (though she took the time to note on her blog that the armor wasn’t period compatible with her works).

 

Beefcake and Broadsword

With the Crispin Guest books she has pulled together a wide fan base that might be uniquely her own—one that includes both teenage boys and the more traditional fans of mystery, mature women.

 

“I really enjoyed the glimpse into common life in the medieval era, and the use of a religious relic as a driving force in the book was very clever,” says adoring fan, Laura.

 

Westerson seems genuinely pleased that the most thoughtful emails she has received, the ones that show the most visceral connection to her books, are mostly from young men. She thinks part of the response of the young men comes from the fact the cover “looks like a video game.” One certainly sees echoes of Assassin’s Creed and other swashbuckling games in the artful covers that are part beefcake/part Dungeons & Dragons. Also, the character of Crispin Guest is not so very far removed from a traditional fantasy hero. He can be seen as a more pissed off, down on his luck version of that famous bad-ass stud muffin, Aragorn.

 

Her-storical Romance

As you visit online chat rooms or book review sites, it seems that these younger, testosterone-driven fans seem to dig her books a lot. Maybe it’s the thought of all those serving wenches bending over to serve ale, who knows. The ability to appeal to both matronly mystery readers and young men with quite opposite concerns surely is the sort of fan base any writer would be damn glad to have. At least for Westerson, it makes the experience all the more real, to meet people who love her characters as much as she does.

 

“I’ve gained and lost many times in my life,” replies Westerson on why her books have such universal appeal. “So I know how some of that feels, the emotions of the characters. You write what you know. That’s what draws readers. Feelings of humiliation, of fear, of love and hate, all the elements that humans feel.”

 

Westerson’s books are fun, quick reads with glimmers of something deeper both intellectually and emotionally. Her own story is equally compelling, one of those “local girl makes good” stories Americans are particularly fond of. A story worth knowing.

 

The sky is seemingly the limit when it comes to the commercial possibility of these books. Maybe even Hollywood will come knocking at her door someday soon. Maybe.

Westerson has obviously thought about it and when asked about who should play Crispin she’s got a quick and enthusiastic answer ready.

 

“I would love Hugh Jackman,” laughs Westerson. “Think of Wolverine, and all that anger there!”

 

For more on Jeri Westerson, go to www.jeriwesterson.com.


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