Mistress of Mourning by Karen Harper


MISTRESS OF MOURNING is a historical mystery set in early Tudor England. Two women, Queen Elizabeth of York, and merchant class Varina Westcott, fight to defeat the enemies of the precarious Tudor monarchy by uncovering the secrets of the dead. Who killed the Princes in the Tower and was Arthur, Prince of Wales, poisoned? Varina and royal assistant to the queen, Nicholas Sutton, travel into the Welsh wilderness to investigate.

Author Karen Harper recently took time out of her busy schedule to answer some questions for TheBigThrill:

Can you tell us about your new historical mystery, MISTRESS OF MOURNING? 

By the way, MISTRESS OF MOURNING is the American release title from Penguin USA.  In the UK, the novel will be released also in July from Random House UK under the title THE QUEEN’S CONFIDANTE.  My historicals have been making the Heatseekers bestseller lists in England.  I would guess that having the word queen in the title is very popular in this year of the queen’s Diamond Jubilee!

MISTRESS OF MOURNING, set in 1501, probes two royal murders which occurred during the transition from the Medieval period to the early Tudor monarchy.  These murders have not been solved; they are occasionally under investigation by historians.  Who killed the two boy Princes in the Tower and was Arthur Tudor, Prince of Wales, poisoned, or did he die of natural causes?  If Arthur would have lived, Henry VIII, his younger brother, would never have been king—hence, no six wives, perhaps no Church of England.  History would have been far different.  Of course, if the young princes in the Tower had not been abducted/murdered, there would have been no Tudor monarchy at all.

As in all my historicals, my heroine is a royal woman, in this case Queen Elizabeth of York, wife of Henry VII and mother of Henry VIII.  But the real “detective” in this mystery is a merchant-class chandler and carver of wax funeral death masks, Varina Westcott, a widow who has also lost a child as has the queen.  Despite their different stations in life, these two strong women work together to solve the murders before the entire young Tudor dynasty comes to ruin.

Why did you write a historical mystery this time instead of staying with your “straight” historical novels? 

This time the story demanded a mystery/thriller instead of just history.  My earlier historicals all follow the trials and triumphs of an actual English royal woman.  The plot of MISTRESS OF MOURNING (by the way wax workers at the time were often undertakers) ran right into these mysteries, and I think I have suggested viable solutions to them.

Can you tell us more about the wax/undertaker connection?

The larger candle making shops of that day also produced waxed linen shrouds with which wealthy and royal corpses were wrapped.  Also, for these elite, realistic wax death masks were often fashioned to be placed on an effigy atop their coffin for the funeral.  In one Renaissance Italian church, there was a belief that the closer you could get your effigy and wax mask to the altar, the quicker you could get out of purgatory and into heaven.  However, candlemakers’ main profits came from selling candles not only for illumination but for votive candles for the dead.  They used to believe that if you burned more candles, the soul of the deceased more quickly went to heaven.  Even poor people saved for years to have candles for their funerals.

Was it common for a woman to head up a shop or chandlery at this time?  What was the general status of women in the early Tudor era?

Legally, even culturally, it was a man’s world.  Except for one of the powerful guilds of the day, the embroiderers’, women could not even belong to a guild, which was true of the Worshipful Guild of Wax Chandlers.  The only reason Varina owned her shop was because her husband had died and left it to her.  If she remarried, control of her shop, house and her son went to her new husband.  Although I had to make her a woman of her day, Varina does cope courageously with these strictures.

So the setting for this book, like your other historicals, is early England?

Most of the novel is set in London and that area; however, about a third of the novel takes place in wild Wales where Prince Arthur died.  At that time, Wales was still a land of legends, superstitions, tribal chiefs and danger.  An earlier novel, THE IRISH PRINCESS, dealt with how the Tudors tried to subjugate another country that is now part of the UK.

There is usually a strong love story in your historicals—as well as in your contemporary suspense novels.  Is that true of this mystery?  Is there a major male character?

MISTRESS OF MOURNING has two strong male leads—three if you count the elusive villain.  The marriage of King Henry VII and Elizabeth of York wedded the two warring sides of the so-called War of the Roses.  Research reveals this was not just a marriage of necessity or convenience.  The queen was known by her people as “Elizabeth the Good,” and she evidently made a difficult marriage work.  King Henry VII is a fascinating character in his own right.

Varina has her own love story with Nicholas Sutton, an ambitious courtier who is at first ordered to guard her but who falls in love with her and helps her solve the murders.  I must say too that Henry VIII (as a boy) is in the novel, and I learned a lot about what made him tick later as a husband and ruler.  When I taught English at the high school level, I always learned a lot about a problem or gifted student when I met his or her parents.  I’d think, “Oh, that’s why this student acts that way!”  My research into the boyhood of Henry VIII turned on the same light for me.

How do you balance writing both contemporary suspense and historicals?  Aren’t the approaches and the voices quite different?

Absolutely, so I work hard to keep my actual writing of these different genres separate.  I may research a historical while writing a modern mystery, but I never write them at the same time.  When I switch to the other genre, I immerse myself in the language of my previous books of that type.  However, I must admit, both “voices” come easily.  Also, lately, I have written the historicals in first person to really get the reader (and myself) inside the main character.  My contemporary suspense novels, so far, have all been in third person.  This dual writing is a challenge, but one I thrive on.

*****

“With impeccable research and just enough romance, bestseller Harper illuminates a part of Tudor history often ignored…Harper writes with effortless prose and an expert take on the era.”  Publisher’s Weekly

“As good as the best of Philippa Gregory.”–Library Journal

“The grief of a sister and mother who also happens to be queen of England combines with the fire and spirit of a lovely waxworker in Karen Harper’s riveting tale…” –Karleen Koen, author of THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY and BEFORE VERSAILLES

“The tumultuous era of the newborn Tudor dynasty is depicted as it surely was–a time rife with danger, passion and murder.” –Sandra Worth, author of PALE ROSE OF ENGLAND and THE KING’S DAUGHTER

*****

Karen Harper is the NYTimes and USA Today bestselling author of contemporary suspense and historical novels. Her novel, DARK ANGEL, won the Mary Higgins Clark/Mystery Writers of America Award in 2006. Her historical novels are also pubished by Random House UK, where MISTRESS OF MOURNING will be released as THE QUEEN’S CONFIDANTE in July 2012.

To learn more about Karen, please visit her website.

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