Andrew Taylor is a historical crime novelist and won this year’s HWA Gold Crown Award for his book The King’s Evil. The novel is set in the late 17th century and is the third in his James Marwood series. Andrew talks to Historia about his book, the inspiration behind his main character and his favourite historical discoveries whilst writing the Marwood series.
Firstly, congratulations on winning the HWA Gold Crown Award. How do you feel about winning the award?
It’s lovely for me to win the Gold Crown Award because it is essentially judged by my peers. It’s always nice to know that you are rated by those around you, with whom you work more or less on a par. Plus, winning an award always means that you set the bar a little bit higher for next time because you have to move on, haven’t you? You can’t rest on your laurels.
You write historical crime fiction. Which element of this do you prefer: the historical elements of it or coming up with and plotting a crime?
I don’t really distinguish between them. I came into this as a crime writer. I’ve been writing for a long time now. All of my first novels were crime novels, more or less, which were set in the present, but, gradually I started moving towards the past and I’m not quite sure why. I have a long-standing interest in history and also a long-standing interest in the way the past affects the present.
If you look at a murder case, to understand why the murder happened and why these people did the things that they did, you’ve got to look back into the past. In a sense, the past is always with us and the more we understand about the past, the more we can hope to understand about the present; also, the more we may have a sense of where the future is going. So that’s the reason I’m interested in history.
Plus, in about 2003, I published a book called The American Boy. This was set in the early 19th Century and about the early life of Edgar Allan Poe, the great pioneer of American fiction, poetry and so much else. This novel worked very well for me, commercially and in other ways, and because of that I think publishers, and to some extent readers, think: “Oh, he’s a man who writes historical crime novels.”
To some extent, when a label is given to you, you try to live up to it – because that’s the sensible thing to do. But I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t really, really enjoy delving into the past.
How accurate is your book to historical fact?
I try to make it pretty accurate. The actual historical framework within which the fiction rolls out is as accurate as I can make it. I do take that very seriously.
As far as I can, I try to research the private lives of people. Not just what their homes, furnishing and possessions were like, but also the mental and psychological furniture they would carry inside their heads. They were so very different in what they believed from us.
That’s one of the joys of historical fiction, I think. When you can inhabit not just another time and place in terms of the external, but also in terms of the internal and to understand how people feel.
To take an example, the period I’m in now, the later 17th century, the big divide was along religious lines (between the Protestants and Roman Catholics) and that had huge implications on the political stage, it drove a lot of the events. To understand what’s happening in places such as the Middle East or Northern Ireland, where you get similar sectarian divides, if you look back in the past you can see the same sort of mechanisms at work.
You’ve told us before that the idea for the book was inspired by the historical belief that Charles II could heal people suffering from scrofula, also known as the King’s Evil. Based on your research, do you feel there is any truth behind royal thaumaturgy?
Royal thaumaturgy, the royal power of healing? Well, it’s a very interesting point. Almost certainly not, but the odd thing is that Charles II touched something like 100,000 of his subjects during his reign. At the time, this was something like two per cent of the entire population, so it was a very popular thing among his subjects.
I think the most likely thing is that either the disease went into remission of its own accord after he touched the sufferer, or there was some placebo effect at work. The people may have experienced a remission of the symptoms because they believed they would – the power of will and the power of expectation.
The other side of this is how Charles II, and indeed some of his forebears, actually used it to build the royal brand as a way of reinforcing the sense that the monarch ruled the country by virtue of a divine mandate. In other words, God has said they could rule the country for Him and to have a miraculous power of healing was, in their terms, the sort of thing that could only come from God.
Charles II was very keen to reinforce the prestige of the monarchy in any way that he could. It’s notable that he spent a great deal of money and time on doing this. He was a very physically restless man who wasn’t actually terribly interested in healing people for itself but he knew it was a politically valuable thing to do. Plus, he may have believed it too, we don’t know, that’s the strange mystery.
What inspired the James Marwood character?
He’s very remotely inspired by Samuel Pepys, the diarist and naval administrator of the Restoration period. Partly because I’ve read an awful lot of his diary and they are fascinating. He was very much a man of his time because he didn’t come from a hugely grand family but he was educated and made his way by his own abilities. He was the first of a new breed of civil servants that began to emerge in the later 17th century. I wanted James Marwood to be similar, to be a man who had to make his own way in life.
What are your favourite historical discoveries that you’ve made whilst writing the James Marwood series?
Favourite discoveries… I don’t know, it’s ongoing really. I got very interested in the King’s Evil. The Last Protector is about the son of the great Oliver Cromwell and I got very interested in what happened to him after the monarchy was restored.
This man had been the ruler of all England, the King in all but name, and he just fades into obscurity. Between 1660 and 1680, the first twenty years after the monarchy was restored, there is very, very little information about him.
We know he was living on the continent most of the time, in France, Switzerland and even Holland, but we don’t know exactly where or what he was doing. There are only a handful of glimpses of him in that time, but he’s still a potentially politically significant figure as a figurehead for any opposition to the monarchy.
For any historical novelist, an absence of information about a character or an event is almost always a good thing because you can make stuff up within the framework of what is known. Similarly, one of the advantages of moving back in time is the number of sources diminish, so you have more room for manoeuvre there.
What are your views on historical fiction at the moment? Do you think it’s in good health?
Yes, I think it is. Definitely. Hilary Mantel has done a great job at raising the profile of historical fiction with her Cromwell novels, making it respectable in terms of the literary sphere and bringing it to the wider public. In her lectures on historical fiction a few years ago, she was very articulate on what historical fiction can do. She’s done an excellent job. We all owe her a debt.
Simultaneously, in historical crime fiction, there has been a gradual development. They estimate that since 1990, when there weren’t that many historical crime novels coming out, about 10–15 per cent of every crime novel published in the UK is set in the past.
What are you reading at the moment? Have you read any of the other shortlisted books?
Not yet, but I would very much like to. At present, I am reading a book by John Spurling, who won the Walter Scott Historical Fiction Prize in 2015 with a book set in China. His new book, which will be coming out this year, is set in the late 17th/early 18th century and is about William Congreve, the playwright. It’s not quite in my period but it’s an interesting book and I’m enjoying it.
If you could go back in time for a day, where and when would you go and who would you love to meet within that time period?
I don’t know… that’s a difficult one, it really is. I just don’t know!
I’m going to say I would go back to the 19th century, to the Garrick Club in London where Anthony Trollope, Thackeray and Dickens are having an evening out together. I would quite like to hear their table talk.
Andrew Taylor has published more than 45 books, mainly crime and historical novels. He’s won many awards, including the CWA’s Diamond Dagger for lifetime achievement in the genre and, on three separate occasions, the Historical Dagger.
He’s on Twitter as @AndrewJRTaylor
Read Andrew’s Historia feature about the background to The King’s Evil.
About our guest interviewer, Poppy Evans: I am a second year Journalism and Publishing student at Bath Spa University. History has always been a passion of mine so I was excited to be involved with Historia magazine. After university, I hope to do some travelling whilst writing about different cultures around the world.
A True Narrative of the Horrid Hellish Popish-Plot, satirical broadside, 1682: via the British Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)
Charles II touching for the King’s Evil by Robert White: via Wikimedia
Richard Cromwell by Gerard Soest: via Wikimedia