By E. M. Powell
Even those who don’t know a great deal of history can guess that they are in for a lively read when it’s a thriller set in London in the reign of the Henry VIII. In DEATH AT ST. VEDAST, the latest in Mary Lawrence’s Bianca Goddard series, they can expect that and more.
Bianca is an alchemist by profession. In her previous two outings, The Alchemist’s Daughter and Death of an Alchemist, she witnessed first-hand what keeps a man alive and what can kill him. This time, she has to use all her skill and knowledge to keep a friend away from the gallows, and time is running out. It’s a fast-paced mystery that has plenty of satisfying twists and turns. Throw in colorful characters and a real sense of the murkiness so characteristic of Tudor London and it’s easy to see why Lawrence has attracted loyal readers.
The idea for the series grew out of Lawrence’s long-standing love for Tudor history. “I was a science major in college,” she explains, “so I never got to take all of the literature and history courses that I wanted to. Top on my list was learning more about Shakespeare’s works. I started reading his plays and became smitten with his use of language and humor. I wanted to learn more about the time in which he lived.”
Like with every writer of historical thrillers, the commitment to research was huge. Fortunately for Lawrence, she loves that aspect. “I could have spent more than a year just researching.” And as always, she found fascinating nuggets that didn’t find their way into the novel. “I read an article on the use of wills as religious propaganda, specifically about William Tracy. Tracy was a wealthy country gentleman who espoused his Protestant views in his testament in 1531 and used them to avoid leaving money to the church. His testament was held up in probate and caused a firestorm of debate resulting in his body being exhumed from consecrated soil and being burned as a heretic. But his testament survived and was widely distributed in pamphlets. If you were caught in possession of one, it was grounds for heresy. They were a bit touchy about details back then.”
Speaking of details, DEATH AT ST. VEDAST actually takes its title from a real London church that is still standing, St. Vedast-alias-Foster. Lawrence explains how history and research converged neatly with her plot. “Because I hadn’t figured out how to resolve the story arc of a certain creepy character, I needed to get Bianca away from Southwark and his influence. Boisvert, the silversmith and John’s master, had a shop on Foster Lane. After reading Stow’s account of the area, I learned that Foster Lane was home to several guilds and three churches. I chose St. Vedast because I thought I could link its patron saint to the story line.”
Yet it was surprising to hear that Lawrence’s path to writing historicals was not at all a straight one. “Originally, the first book, The Alchemist’s Daughter was a coming-of-age story. The writing was good enough to land me an agent, but the manuscript never sold. I rewrote it off and on for fifteen years while writing a second novel about Henry Longfellow, and a third set in Boston during the racially charged sixties. The Alchemist’s Daughter and the Longfellow manuscripts came close to selling but were ultimately rejected by the consensus of marketing or editorial boards.”
Many aspiring writers would have quit under those circumstances. But Lawrence refused to. ‘After twenty years, I couldn’t quit writing. The whole struggle had become who I was. I decided to keep writing even if I was never offered a traditional publishing contract. Making the finals in a few national contests spurred me on. I didn’t want to go the Indie route, I wanted the validation of being offered a contract.”
Along with that determination, she did a bit of intense soul-searching. “I sat down and re-evaluated what I was writing.” Crucially, she also did some smart market research. “From what I figured, the top-selling genres were mystery and romance. Romance didn’t interest me, but what if I tried to write a mystery? I’d never written one before, so why not try? I missed my characters from The Alchemist’s Daughter and imagined them involved in a mystery. I used the previously created world I had envisioned as the backdrop and came up with a new plot. It took two years for me to write it. After eighty-six rejections, I found a new agent.” That proved the turning point. “We got an offer from the second publisher who looked at it.”
Given how well Lawrence’s tenacity had ultimately paid off, I wondered if any of that grit had found its way into her alchemist heroine, Bianca Goddard. “Is there any of me in Bianca? Only that we are both curious by nature. She’s a brave soul, so yes, someday I hope to grow up and be like her!” And as Bianca is the character that carries the whole series, Lawrence works hard to make sure Bianca work. “She is the most difficult character for me to write. There are certain requisites needed for a female heroine to carry a mystery series. She has to be likable, or at least relatable. I’m always challenged with what she could have gotten away with in the sixteenth century without being dunked in the river as a witch. I try to give her the appearance of keeping a low profile, but let’s face it, she has to have a certain amount of moxie or the reader will fall asleep. I’m always interested to hear what readers think of her, and opinions run the whole gamut.”
So many of those opinions are very favorable indeed. Fans of Bianca Goddard will be delighted to hear that Lawrence has just signed with Kensington to write two more Bianca Goddard Mysteries. And after that? “After that, I’ll crawl out of my burrow, sniff the air, and look for a fresh patch of clover.”
Mary Lawrence lives in Maine and worked in the medical field for over twenty-five years before publishing her debut mystery, The Alchemist’s Daughter (Kensington, 2015). The book was named by Suspense Magazine as a “Best Book of 2015” in the historical mystery category. Her articles have appeared in several publications most notably Portland Monthly Magazine and the national news blog, The Daily Beast. Book 2 of the Bianca Goddard Mysteries, Death of an Alchemist, released in February 2016.
To learn more about Mary, please visit her website.