Michael Jecks has written a few novels in his time. He is most famous for the Knights Templar series comprising of 32 books set (mostly) in Devon during the final years of the reign of Edward II. The lead characters, Sir Baldwin de Furnshill, Keeper of the King’s Peace, and Bailiff Simon Puttock, also appear in a collection of short stories, For The Love Of Old Bones, and in the Medieval Murderers collections that Michael has written for. He has also written a modern spy thriller, Act Of Vengeance, a trilogy set during the early years of the Hundred Years’ War and, with Rebellion’s Message, has just started a series concerning the rogue Jack Blackjack, set in the reign of Mary Tudor. There’s also another collection of short stories, No One Can Hear You Scream. He’s also put together a large number of YouTube videos on his books, the writing process and many other topics and maintains his own blog too.
I’ve reviewed a lot of Michael’s work on the blog and I don’t think there’s been a book that I haven’t enjoyed. He’s also been a firm supporter of the blog – makes sense as I keep saying nice things about his books – so I arranged to conduct an interview with the man himself.
Let’s start with your first books, the Templar series. What drew you to that location and that time period – Devon in the early 14th century?
The simple truth is, I have always been fascinated by the medieval period. When I was young, I was a very keen bookworm, and I would devour anything, but I particularly liked only one form of non-fiction, and that was anything to do with weapons and warfare. I read Basil Liddell-Hart on the two World Wars, Middlebrook’s “The First Day on the Somme”, Lyn MacDonald’s “Paschendaele” and many others while my contemporaries were still reading comics. When it came to novels, I’d concentrated on PG Wodehouse and Conan Doyle, but soon I discovered Agatha Christie and began my life-long love of crime.
When I started work it was in the computer industry. And I had a ball there. The only problem was, although I was a loyal member of staff (5 years and Wordplex; 5 years at Wang Laboratories) I soon learned that companies weren’t reliable. In other words, I clocked up 13 jobs in 13 years, all of them going bust. So early in 1994 I decided that I should think of a new career – and with my mortgage, I should do it quickly.
I’d enjoyed many thrillers. Le Carré, of course, and Frederick Forsyth were always near to hand, so I wrote a brilliant thriller. Then, at a loose end, I wrote a book on how to get a job (I had experience of that) and finally I wrote The Last Templar because the previous year on honeymoon I had read a book called “Dungeon, Fire and Sword” by the American academic John J Robinson. It appealed to me because it had all the aspects of medieval history that I enjoyed, and the end was so dreadful that it deserved, I thought, retelling.
But how to write it? In the end I came up with the idea of a Templar who had been through the last years of his Order, who had seen the betrayal by the Pope and the French King, who had lost his faith in the Church, although he was still a committed Christian, who detested politics and politicians and, most of all, who loathed injustice. That appealed, but I soon realised that such a person would be appalling as an investigator! He would have a great world view, he would understand a crime scene because of his experience with battle and seeing the damage weapons could do, but he’d have no idea about life in Devon. I had to hunt for a second character, my Dr Watson, who could translate the local customs and who knew the locals. Thus were born Simon Puttock and Sir Baldwin de Furnshill.
How difficult was it to ensure that each book in the series, that eventually totalled thirty-two books, was accessible to new readers and something different to faithful readers?
It was really not that difficult after a short while. With the first books there was always that “How much should I put in?” pause when I had to reintroduce the main characters, but then I think it got to be natural. In the contracts with the publishers there were always sections demanding that I should have each book as entirely stand-alone, but I wanted to have growing characters and plots. For me that meant setting the stories in real history, and while not preaching what was happening, explaining through the characters’ thoughts and speech just how unsettling life was at a time of famine, disease and almost constant war. And gradually I began to incorporate more people in the stories, so that they were not about the investigators alone, but were about their servants as well, or their dogs, or their children. None of the other characters grew to be too meddlesome in the plots, but I could make use of Simon’s servant in one book, for example, and look at the world through his eyes more, or take a book on lepers and look at their world. The main thing for me was, that each book would be entirely independent in tone and feel compared with the one before. For example, I deliberately made The Death Ship of Dartmouth much more funny that those before or immediately after. That was a choice – and hard work it was, too. I don’t know how Terry Pratchett managed such humour for so long!
Apart from the Templar series, you’ve written an historical trilogy concerning the Hundred Years War (well, a bit of it), and also a spy thriller, Act Of Vengeance. If you had to choose between history or mystery, which one would it be?
I think that for me crime makes a more satisfying read. It is the fact that you can read it on so many levels: as a puzzle, as a form of relaxation, as an historical text, as a novel – mystery stories fulfill all of these and more. I personally think that crime stories work particularly well when explaining different cultures or periods of history, which is why they have always been so popular. And that is the great thing: while writing crime, history can be used to enhance the story. I am told that my books are used extensively in schools in America to teach about life in Medieval England. Crime as a genre can be used to spotlight issues in society in ways that other novels find very difficult. Prostitution, smuggling, murder are all grist to the mill of crime writers. And they are an astonishingly pleasant group to mix with!
Your most recent series is the Jack Blackjack books (well, book so far) set in Mary Tudor’s reign. Why did this period of history appeal to you?
When you embark on a new series, it is incredibly difficult to be original. Invent a policeman? Let’s have a divorced, alcoholic, rebellious type who … Ah, that’s been done. Let’s have a “feisty” female, then – except all editors hate that depiction. When you are thinking up a new concept entirely, you have the same problem when considering the period. I detest being typecast, although that is the natural impact of having written mostly medieval stories, so I didn’t want to write another medieval story. I needed a more modern break. So I picked on the Tudors. An age of invention, of brutality, disruption and dislocation, but also of creative genius and a flowering of the arts. I was keen to look at the violence and try to bring it to life. However, I didn’t want to have just a simple crime plot, so instead I had the idea of a reluctant investigator, a coward who is trying to keep his head down in difficult times, but who is naturally thrown into events against his will. A Flashman of his day, perhaps. And for me the first book worked well, so the second is on the slipway even as I type this.
What do you think are the essential components of a Michael Jecks book?
I like to think that I bring more authenticity. I research very hard, and I am proud that my books are read by historians and others who do know the period. Much of that research is into the character of the people, but I also spend a lot of time reading the Coroners’ Rolls and the records of the King’s Eyre from the mid-1200s. They give me basic plots and ideas for the type of person involved in crimes. However my books are not preaching about history; they tell stories that happen to include some history. Mostly, they are crime stories with plots that twist and turn, and hopefully give the reader a number of thrills along the way, but which also demonstrate that mostly people have not changed that much in the last seven hundred years. They are still motivated by the same urges and instincts – which is either cheering or deeply depressing, depending on your mood.
I like to describe my work as modern-day thrillers that happen to have been placed in the past. And I like to think that there is a certain amount of humour involved as well.
Which of your books would you recommend to a newcomer?
That is very much like asking “which is your favourite child?” I find this astonishingly difficult to answer. I really like Act of Vengeance, but that’s because I had such fun writing a modern book. There was little need for more research, I could almost write it as a holiday exercise. In the same way, I love Rebellion’s Message because it was conceived as a shorter novel, and I wrote it at great speed. I enjoyed that enormously. But then I loved my characters in the Templar Series because they were so much part of my life for so many years. Oh, and I really like Berenger Fripper and Grandarse from Fields of Glory and the rest of the Vintener trilogy.
So, which would I recommend? Probably the first in each of the series, because that way the reader should get a better feel for the scope of my writing.
What’s coming next from you?
Ah, that is another interesting one. As you know, I have just completed one collaborative book with the Detection Club, The Sinking Admiral, which was enormous fun, mainly because I’ve never seen so many editorial meetings held in pubs. I’m in the middle of writing the imaginatively titled “Jack Blackjack 2”, which will be published in March/April next year. I’ve also just completed the first in a new series of books based on the Crusades and the Knight’s Templars, but that won’t be out until August next year (I think – publishers like to move the goalposts without warning). There is to be an anthology of short stories in November, too, called Motives for Murder, written by members of the Detection Club to celebrate Peter Lovesey’s 80th birthday, and I’ll have a story in that too.
Many thanks to Michael for agreeing to do this interview. Stay tuned on the blog for a review of The Malice Of Unnatural Death, Book 22 in the Knights Templar series. The final book in the Vintener trilogy, Blood Of The Innocents, will be released by Simon & Schuster on August 25th. The Knights Templar series is available from the same publisher as paperbacks and as ebooks – some of which are currently ridiculously cheap. I’d suggest The Death Ship Of Dartmouth, currently 99p. Michael’s short story collections are also available as ebooks and Rebellion’s Message is available from Severn House.