Historical mysteries pack an extra punch when they are set in a time of turbulence and danger, and in her first mystery, E.M. Powell selected the conflict-riven 12th century reign of King Henry II for her fast-paced story. The Fifth Knight begins as a quintet of tough, ruthless knights are on their way to Canterbury Cathedral to seize its defiant archbishop, Thomas Becket. Powell gives a fascinating twist to the legend of the murder of Becket, one that pulls in her two fictional main characters, Sister Theodosia, a sheltered but feisty nun, and Sir Benedict Palmer, a mercenary knight who grows a conscience. In the sequel, THE BLOOD OF THE FIFTH KNIGHT, Powell once again blends history with fictional weavings as Sir Benedict investigates attempts on the life of King Henry’s delectable mistress, Rosamund Clifford. In the U.K. THE BLOOD OF THE FIFTH KNIGHT reached the Number One spot on Amazon’s list of historical fiction bestsellers. The novel will be released on January 1, 2015 in North America.
For The Big Thrill, Powell, born and raised in the Republic of Ireland into the family of Michael Collins, reveals her inspiration, historical insights, and the craft behind creating a true page-turner.
What came first, your desire to write a mystery or your interest in medieval England?
Like all writers, the reading came first. I’ve always been a huge thriller and mystery fan and that includes historicals. As a teenager, I read Agatha Christie’s Death Comes As the End, her only historical, which is set in Ancient Egypt. I loved the way it took me to a different world so far in the past but it felt completely real. It was such a revelation.
I studied Middle English as part of my degree. And yes, tales such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight were wonderful. But it was a one-off lecture about the everyday life of a medieval tanner that grabbed me. It would have been a stinky, back-breaking existence, complete with a full complement of body-plaguing parasites. Most of my fellow students were mildly appalled/bored and couldn’t wait to get back to their analysis of the blending of the Germanic and Romance traditions. Me? I wanted to know who lived next door.
Why pick the reign of Henry II over other famous monarchs like Henry VIII or Edward III?
I chose the infamous brutal murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170 as the catalyst for my previous novel, The Fifth Knight. History of course lays the blame for the murder on Henry II’s shoulders, with one of his rages sending the knights on their murderous journey. My take on the story is that it is not four knights who attack Becket, but five, and that the purpose of their mission is the information that Becket holds about a young nun hidden in the walls of the cathedral.
Is it hard to block Peter O’Toole from your mind, who played Henry II in two famous films?
Not at all. Though deeply charismatic and arrestingly energetic, Henry was by every account hoarse-voiced and as rough-looking as one of his own huntsmen. With his large head, ruddy complexion and eyes that became bloodshot when he flew into one of his legendary rages, Henry was not a handsome man. The late Noel Coward sums it up far better than I, with his famous quote on the actor as Lawrence of Arabia: “If O’Toole had been any prettier, they would have had to call the film Florence of Arabia.”
When writing The Fifth Knight did you have a sequel in mind?
It was intended as a stand-alone book. My agent said I should do a few minor re-writes to allow for the fictional hero, Sir Benedict Palmer, to be summoned back to Henry’s service once again. As The Fifth Knight became a #1 Historical Thriller on Amazon in the U.S., the UK and Australia, I am very glad I allowed myself to be persuaded! In THE BLOOD OF THE FIFTH KNIGHT, someone is trying to murder Henry’s beautiful young mistress, the Fair Rosamund. Henry calls on Palmer to root out who is responsible.
Your depictions of Rosamund Clifford and Geoffrey, the son of Henry II, were full of layers, surprises, even humor. How did you come to those conclusions about what they must have been like?
There’s a wealth of legends about the Fair Rosamund that have grown up over the centuries. The most common were that Henry’s Queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, had murdered her in a variety of astonishingly creative ways. We actually know very little about Rosamund. Gerald of Wales, Henry’s acid-quilled chronicler, describes her as that “rose of unchastity” and that she was very young and died in 1176. That’s a bit of a gift to a novelist. So too was Geoffrey, one of Henry’s illegitimate sons, a great fighter that Henry chose to make Bishop of Lincoln. Those gifts just kept on coming!
How important is it to get medieval religion right in the books?
Medieval Christianity in Europe was integral to everyone’s lives. It wasn’t just part of society: it was society. Every aspect of people’s lives was driven by it. So it was hugely important to try to convey that mindset, no matter how alien it might be to us today.
What role does sex play in your books?
It used to play a lot more! I have several RWA contest wins in the steamy/erotica categories. The earlier versions of Palmer and Theodosia’s love life were a lot more explicit. But I toned them down as they just didn’t sit right within the context of the story. In THE BLOOD OF THE FIFTH KNIGHT, Rosamund manages to get around a bit. But hey, that’s what a rose of unchastity has to do. Writing sex well is actually really hard, (no pun- I promise), so I’m quite happy to limit it in my books.
Do you ever wish you could bring more modern crime detection methods and technology into the story?
Occasionally. But the trade-off is the other stuff that the medieval world provides. Sorcery, necromancy, a genuine belief in Satan, eye-witness accounts of corpses being snatched by the Devil, impotence cures that consist of dried vulture kidneys and testicles: I could go on. All so, so much fun.
You vary the pacing in the book, with a time jump in the beginning and then speeding up over the course of the novel until the last chapters cover just a few days. Was that challenging?
It was a nightmare. There were certain historical events I couldn’t overlook and they covered a three-year period. That’s the reality and one of the challenges of historical fiction.
In the end, it was Post-its all over the couch, with who was doing what and when and where. The (bewildered) dog had to be barred from the room while I was doing it as one jump from her and the 1170s would have been in ruins.
Do you set out to write a page turner? What is one technique you use to keep people riveted?
It’s a real compliment to be described that way—thank you! I tend to use shorter scenes and multiple points of view. I think that’s what drives the writing forward. Of course the majority of scenes are either Palmer or Theodosia but we hear from Henry, Rosamund, the young messenger, Hugo Stanton, and others. I like different voices as it feels like sharing secrets with the reader that our heroes know nothing about.
Are Benedict and Theodosia bound for more adventures?
The next book in The Fifth Knight series: working title, The Fifth Knight: Lord of Ireland. It’s based on John’s (youngest son of Henry II who will one day become the despised King John) disastrous campaign in Ireland in 1185. Palmer is sent by Henry to keep watch on the impetuous John. But Palmer uncovers a plot by John to make his mark on the Lordship of Ireland by appalling means. John has to be stopped at all costs, with only Palmer standing in his way.
E. M. Powell is the author of medieval thriller THE FIFTH KNIGHT which was a #1 Amazon Bestseller. Born and raised in the Republic of Ireland into the family of Michael Collins (the legendary revolutionary and founder of the Irish Free State), she now lives in the north west of England with her husband and daughter and a Facebook-friendly dog. She is a member of the Historical Novel Society, International Thriller Writers and Romance Writers of America. She is a reviewer for the HNS (fiction and non-fiction).
To learn more about E. M. Powell, please visit her website.