Andrew Taylor’s The King’s Evil is shortlisted for the 2020 HWA Gold Crown Award. Set in Restoration London, it’s the third in his popular James Marwood and Cat Lovett series of historical crime novels. Andrew tells Historia about his book and how he feels about being shortlisted for this award.
Congratulations on being shortlisted! What does being in the running for a Gold Crown Award mean to you?
To be shortlisted for the Gold Crown Award is a great honour, not least because the HWA is a professional organisation for authors of historical fiction and non-fiction. This year’s shortlists seem exceptionally strong, and to be included among them is frankly wonderful!
How did the idea of The King’s Evil come about?
During my research into the Restoration period, I came across several references to Charles II’s alleged power to heal people suffering from scrofula, “a constitutional disease characterized mainly by chronic enlargement and degeneration of the lymphatic glands” (OED), which was widespread through much of the 17th century. It disfigured its victims and in some cases caused blindness or even death. The contemporary name for scrofula was ‘the King’s Evil’, which instantly struck me as a potential title, a phrase pregnant with possibilities.
The more I read about the subject, the more interesting it became. It has been estimated that the King “touched” about 100,000 people in his 25-year reign – a staggering number at a time when England’s population was about 5 million.
I have written in more detail for Historia about the King’s use of elaborate healing ceremonies, which had their roots in the Middle Ages, as a PR tool – a way of promoting the idea that the monarch had a special relationship with God, from whom his authority ultimately derived. The King’s Evil was where religion, medicine and politics met and mingled in a way that could only have happened in this period. At this early stage, before I’d written a word, I knew I had found the element that would lie at the heart of the story.
This is your third James Marwood and Cat Lovett novel; what’s different about this one?
In real life, we get to know people gradually, over time. I find it’s the same with my characters. For me, one of the greatest pleasures of writing a series is that I slowly build up a better understanding not only of the setting but of the people who inhabit it. This is particularly true of main recurring characters who, like James Marwood and Cat Lovett, evolve in ways that constantly take me by surprise. I hope this “familiarity in depth” spills over into The King’s Evil, the third novel in the series.
One of the recurring characters is, of course, Charles II himself. When I started the series, I hadn’t expected that his personality would loom so large. He was enigmatic in his own lifetime, and he remains enigmatic now. The phenomenon of royal healing gives an unexpected glimpse of the complexity of the man.
The King’s Evil is also more varied in its settings than its predecessors. Some of it takes place outside London, particularly in Cambridge and in the Fens. Jerusalem College in Cambridge, by the way, is the main setting of a previous novel of mine, The Anatomy of Ghosts, which takes place in 1784. I enjoyed visiting the college at an earlier point in its history.
It often strikes me that world we live is made up of temporal layers: the past is, often quite literally, beneath our feet. Historical fiction – perhaps we should think of it as a form of archaeology for the mind?
Your books are wonderfully rich in period detail; reading them is like stepping into Restoration London. Do you find research a pleasure or a chore?
Thank you! One of the main reasons I started writing the Marwood and Lovett series was that it allows me to find out more about the Restoration – a fascinating period, a time of transition politically, economically and scientifically. The best part of research comes when you know enough a period to begin to inhabit it imaginatively – almost to recreate it in your own head.
Research is an absolute pleasure and an abiding temptation. Like many authors, I find it the ultimate make-work, because research is easy and fun, whereas writing is often a terrifying process, not to mention a hard slog.
Did your research for The King’s Evil turn up anything unexpected?
The story of the scrofula and the Royal Touch was full of unexpected discoveries. For example, the last reigning monarch to practice royal thaumaturgy was Queen Anne. One of those she “cured” was Samuel Johnson, a small, disfigured boy from Lichfield who grew up to be the country’s best-known lexicographer and a towering figure in English literature.
Were you conscious of any modern-day parallels when writing The King’s Evil?
History is full of echoes, I think, rather than parallels. Then as now, large numbers of people had a sense that national disaster was lurking around the corner…
What advice would you give someone starting work on a first novel?
Have confidence in yourself. Network with other writers as much as you can – but not so much that it hinders you from writing.
The most important thing, though, is to write – to force yourself to confront the tyranny of the blank screen, the blank page, preferably every day. When I was starting, I wasted too much time beforehand in vain attempts to plan and plot. Sometimes it’s best simply to plunge right it, and the story will emerge by fits and starts in the writing.
Writing fiction is like a muscle. Exercise makes it stronger. And lack of exercise makes it atrophy.
What do you think the historical novelist can add to the study of the past?
A historian always looks back at the past. A historical novelist is living inside it. We novelists can add an imaginative dimension, which is beyond the remit – and the reach – of historians. We can show what might have happened. We can explore a historical setting from the inside, without the dubious benefit of hindsight, and show with the vivid immediacy of fiction how people in different times thought and felt about themselves and their world.
What’s next? What are you working on now?
I’m writing the fifth Marwood and Lovett novel. It’s called The Royal Secret and, if all goes well, it will be published next year. I don’t want to say any more about it now in case I jinx it, but I can reveal that the cast list includes a lion.
And finally, just for fun, can you describe your book in five words?
Don’t try this at home.
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.
His latest novel is The Last Protector, the fourth in the Marwood and Lovett series. They’re published by HarperCollins.
Read Andrew’s Historia feature about the background to The King’s Evil.