Thriller queen Minette Walters resurfaces in the disease-plagued 14th century

by Linda Herrick / 13 November, 2017
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Minette Walters. Photo/Fabio De Paola

Having been missing in action for a decade, British writer Minette Walters is back with a new book.

Minette Walters, we’ve missed you so. The British writer long dubbed by critics as the “queen of the psychological thriller” was once as regular as clockwork, producing 14 best-selling novels between 1992 and 2007, including what have become crime classics: The Ice House, The Sculptress and The Scold’s Bridle.

Five of her books were adapted for television. She also won three Crime Writers’ Association awards and the Edgar Allan Poe Award in the United States.

Rated alongside Ruth Rendell and PD James, Walters seemed as if her vocation as a clear-eyed dissector of dysfunctional minds was set to run on. But with the release of The Chameleon’s Shadow in 2007, she stopped writing, avoiding explanation.

So the news that the mighty Minette, 68, has finally published another novel is huge.

But in The Last Hours, she has stepped away from contemporary-thriller mode and gone back in time, way back.

It opens in July 1348, when the Black Death first entered Britain via the port of Melcombe, a few miles from the farm where she lives near Dorchester in Dorset. The property reportedly features a plague pit, exact location unknown.

The Last Hours may be set in the darkest of ages but it’s as thrilling and tense as anything she has written. She switched publishers to get it out. Publishers discourage best-selling writers from changing tracks.

“Somebody said to me, ‘Why did you stop writing crime thrillers?’” she says on the phone from the 18th-century home she shares with her husband, Alec, who breeds dorset down sheep.

“I don’t know if I have yet. So many authors would love to break out of the genre they are in and write something different – there is a lot of pressure to keep doing what the publisher knows will sell. But I loved writing this, it was fun. I hope it is as full of suspense as any crime novel.”

Like her thrillers, The Last Hours has a tight cast. Its central figure is Lady Anne of Develish, a seemingly pious 28-year-old married at the age of 14 to brutish drunk Sir Richard, 20 years her senior. But beneath Lady Anne’s modest mask lies a keen intelligence reinforced by a sound education she received from an advanced-thinking convent.

Walters. Photo/Fabio De Paola

She is a quiet subversive, upending the social order by teaching – behind her illiterate husband’s back – the estate serfs to read and write. She also questions the Catholic Church’s teachings.

“I did toy right from the start with the idea of having a man at the centre purely on the basis that an educated woman was so unusual in those days,” says Walters. “But I knew it wouldn’t work because a man would bring into play the normal social order. He would never make the same relationships with the serfs as a woman might be able to do, particularly one who has spent a decade in advance doing it secretly – the only way to do it while her husband was alive.”

“Was alive.” Sir Richard, who sets out early in the narrative to a neighbouring manor to settle their daughter’s marriage contract, catches the mysterious disease, and rides back to Develish. Fortunately, Develish is surrounded by a moat, with Lady Anne gathering in all the serfs and sheep, and ordering the bridge burnt.

With Sir Richard stranded on the other side, Walters casually sees him off. “Well, he had to go. I found him particularly vile – but he needed to be.”

Now the real drama starts: has the sickness already entered Develish? If not, will they eventually starve? With her husband gone, Lady Anne’s strength emerges. Although she is undermined by some, such as her psychotic daughter, her serf friends rally, most notably tall, dark, handsome Thaddeus Thurkell, a young man who doesn’t resemble either of his parents.

“When I was doing the research, I discovered that the serfs had such terrible diets they never grew very tall. But I made Thaddeus six feet tall,” she says, laughing.

Walters spent eight years researching the book, not an easy task. “It is virtually impossible to find records from that period in history centres. The last census that was taken was in 1086, in the Domesday Book. With the numbers dying, they stopped recording them, and the priests and clerics who were the scribes died because they were tending the sick. The names of the serfs were never recorded.” An estimated six million people perished from the Black Death in England.

She spent “an awful lot of time” looking at pictures from the period to get a flavour of the clothes, tools and weapons, and she and her husband drove around Dorset trying to work out how the landscape would have looked, based on historical maps. She uses that information when Thaddeus ventures beyond the moat in what she calls “the adventure part of the book”.

She also studied preventative methods employed by the cities of Venice and Dubrovnik when the plague reached their shores: quarantine and cleanliness, practices Lady Anne establishes in Develish based on Old Testament teachings.

But do they work? Let’s just say that, unlike her thrillers, which never featured recurring characters, she is writing a sequel.

“I felt I couldn’t leave everyone gasping,” she says. “The Black Death was sort of over by the middle of 1350; in two years, the whole of the British Isles had been affected and more than half of the population wiped out. The sequel is not taking place in 1349, but it’s not too far into the future, a continuation of the story, getting to a resolution.

“Human nature never changes,” she adds. “The seven deadly sins have been consistent with time. To assume that human nature was more barbaric back in those days than it is today is nonsense. We have laws that have made us more civilised, but the desire to club people over the head when they annoy us is still there.”

THE LAST HOURS, by Minette Walters (Allen & Unwin, $36.99)

This article was first published in the October 29, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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