By Derek Gunn
A PLAGUE OF LIES – Poison, murder and plots against the King himself. The Charles du Luc adventures continue with a riveting installment.
Judith Rock is not just a busy lady now; one quick look at her bio will show you she has always been busy. Dancer, Choreographer, Ph.D, Lecturer, Professor, Playwright, Actor and even a police officer with the NYPD. A keen cyclist and volunteer for Save Our Seabirds in Sarasota, Florida sees her rounding off a hectic schedule. And she writes too. I’m not sure when she gets the time; maybe she discovered a time portal and gains extra time over the rest of us, but her research and language in her latest novel is exquisite.
A PLAGUE OF LIES is the third novel, but the fourth story in the Charles du Luc saga, there is also an e-novella called Pernelle’s Escape available. Charles is a Jesuit in 17th century Paris. His days are taken over with teaching dance, philosophy and harsh Greek to his soft-tongued, young students. As the story unfolds his day to day regime is interrupted when he is ordered to attend Versailles to present a holy reliquary to Madame de Maintenon. Sounds easy. The gift is an attempt by the Jesuits to placate the King’s second wife for convincing the King not to make her Queen when he married her. This and many other plots swirl around the huge palace.
Versailles is a veritable snake bed of schemes, poisonings and jostling for position and power. Arranged marriages for political gain, gambling debts and sharp-tongued rumor are part of everyday life. I have read a lot of historical fiction, but usually more action oriented; Bernard Cornwell and Alexander Kent in particular, and I worried that this story might be too sedate. No chance of that. Judith’s writing eases you in; she drops lovely little tidbits into the story that make it resonate with authority and reality, but never in a preaching way. The palace comes alive and then, of course, there is a murder. Or is there?
Comte de Fleury, a palace courtier, is found at the end of the stairs with his neck broken but was it an accident? Charles and his associates fall ill shortly afterwards and whispers of poisoning abound. Then another body is found. Don’t worry, I’m not revealing too much, there’s plenty more to the story than that, this is just the introduction. In fact, in less capable hands, it would be quite easy for the story to become too complex but this is where Judith’s impeccable research and ability to turn complex political intrigue into a very satisfying story comes to the fore.
Judith very kindly found some spare time to give us a unique insight into her preparation for her writing and answer a few questions.
You’ve certainly had a varied life from dancing to the NYPD and Academia, all of which are identifiable in your stories – at what point in your various careers did you begin to formulate what would become the Charles du Luc character?
Charles du Luc appeared about four years ago, when I began writing the first of the novels, THE RHETORIC OF DEATH. Like the rest of us, Charles has many ancestors. His intelligence owes a lot to Jesuits I’ve known. He looks a lot like a very handsome physical therapist I once had. Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael is somewhere back in his family tree. And, of course, he’s also like me in some ways. He knows about weapons, fighting, and bodies–which I know from my time in law enforcement, but he knows because he’s an ex-soldier. He’s also a good dancer–for minor nobility in 17th century France, dancing well was essential. As a Jesuit rhetoric teacher, he helps produce the school ballets, which the Jesuits considered physical rhetoric and important training for boys. My own twenty years as a dancer, including some experience studying and performing baroque dance, helps me write about that. (I sometimes speak about the books at conferences wearing my gorgeous, facsimile 17th century dancers’ costume.) Finally, my doctorate in theology and art–researched while living in a French Jesuit community–helps me understand the religious world of the time and something about the way Charles approaches his Jesuit vocation.
The setting of the story is beautifully staged – how closely did your own time in Paris resemble the starkness of Charles’s life?
Starkness… Well, life in the scholars’ wing of the Jesuit community was certainly basic in terms of housing and amenities. But as an artist-intellectual without much money, I wasn’t used to luxury, anyway! And the food was a lot better than at home–except for the days when dinner was lamb brains. Actually, the time in Paris seemed to me overflowingly lush in most ways–the beauty of Paris, the warmth and welcome of the people I was living with and meeting, the fascination of the research, all of that made me feel utterly replete most of the time. I fell in love with Paris, and with France and the French. Which shows, I think, in the books.
I take it there were no poisonings or mysterious falling down stairs.
No poisonings or falling down stairs. Just nearly freezing to death. April in Paris…right. I remember sitting on the floor in the library stacks, wearing most of the clothes I’d brought with me and watching it snow sideways. Which may not sound like much to an Irishman, but I’m from Florida. Last spring, when I went to Paris to speak about the books, I knew what to expect!
Are these novels your first or are there any short stories or first attempts that are hidden in a drawer somewhere?
Oh, yes. Mostly written in the last twelve years or so. Half a dozen short stories, some of which garnered nice rejection letters. Two police procedurals set in Florida, written before the Charles books and not published, but–some very nice rejection letters… Also a couple of children’s picture book stories, same result. When my agent called in May, 2010, to say she’d sold THE RHETORIC OF DEATH, I was mopping the kitchen floor and crying, trying to make myself accept that my writing simply wasn’t good enough and it was time to give up.
How do you write? Do you have a ritual, do you plan out every detail or do you see where the story leads?
No ritual. I do shut out every possible distraction–I don’t answer the phone or look at e-mail, I shut the door and the curtains, sometimes I use earplugs. In terms of planning the story, I map out a plot trajectory: where and how it starts, how it ends, and some of what happens in between. Beyond that, I try to sense where it’s going, and at many points I stop and write out a sequence of the events that happen next. Keeping the plot logic clear is the hardest part for me. Creating characters and setting is much easier. But, as a choreographer, I learned a lot about structuring an “art thing” and am very grateful for the ways that transfers to writing novels. (I also spend lots of time with my period map of Paris and a magnifying glass, so that I know exactly where Charles goes and what was–and wasn’t–there.)
If you were given one paragraph to convince people to buy your novel what would it say?
Yikes, this is definitely the hardest question! “This book will take you somewhere you’ve never been and can’t reach in any other way. You’ll find yourself in 17th century Paris, in the world and life of Charles du Luc, a young ex-soldier who hates injustice, looks askance at authority (though he sometimes aids the Paris police), carries a woman in his heart, is as good a dancer as he once was a fighter–and who struggles to be obedient because he loves his Jesuit vocation. Spend time in Charles’s dangerous, beautiful, harsh, and glittering world, and return to your own with a sharpened sense of what it means to be human, what it means to hold fast to what you love.”
In between work and writing do you have any time to read? Who do you enjoy most?
I read constantly, but mostly non-fiction when I’m writing one of my own books. My time for reading is when I go to bed at night. I read a lot of medieval history–mostly about people and how they lived. Lately I’ve also been reading Christopher Fowler’s Bryant and May mystery series. I love the characters, the wit, the writing! In general, I read much more British fiction than American. Not sure why–Barbara Pym, Jane Austen, Ellis Peters, Josephine Tey, Dorothy Sayers, Angela Thirkell, William Trevor, Rosemary Sutcliff, Reginald Hill, etc. Some I read over and over–especially Austen, Peters, and Pym.
The first “next” is finishing the 4th Charles book by the December 1st deadline! Besides wanting to write more books in the series, I’d also like to finish a novel I started some years ago, contemporary literary fiction called The Force of Gravity. And another idea for a novel has also bubbled up. And I’m always hoping for the next trip to Paris…
A PLAGUE OF LIES is released on October 2nd and will be available in paperback. I don’t see a listing for an e-book but that might just be Amazon’s listings. Either way it’s worth your time going to the local bookstore and picking this one up. 343 pages will fly by and you will eagerly await the next installment. Of course, if you haven’t read the first two they can keep you going until Charles once again finds himself in the middle of murder and mayhem.
I can’t think of a better way of finishing the article than in Judith’s own words. “One reason I love the 17th century is that it’s such a liminal sort of time–the medieval world is quickly fading, but isn’t gone, and the modern world is just beginning to come into focus. Which creates a bewildering mix of attitudes, fears, hopes, and beliefs, even among the educated.” You will certainly find a great mix of mystery, excitement and intrigue in this novel with excellent insights into a world on the cusp of the great changes that swept across the world over the following decade. No doubt we will enjoy seeing how Charles copes with these changes over this truly excellent series.
For many years a modern dancer and choreographer, Judith Rock founded Body and Soul Dance Company in Berkeley, California, toured extensively as a solo concert dancer, and studied baroque dance. Research for her Ph.D. in art and theology took her to Paris, where she lived at the nearby Jesuit Cultural Center and researched the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century ballets produced at the Paris Jesuit College of Louis le Grand.
In a startling leap, Rock then spent several years as a police officer before taking that experience back to the stage as a playwright and actress. She was an auxiliary officer in the NYPD, and later a part-time police officer in Minnesota, working midnight shifts.
Rock has written on dance, art, and theology for many journals, and has been artist-in-residence and taught and lectured at colleges, seminaries and conferences across the United States and abroad. THE RHETORIC OF DEATH, her first novel, was a 2011 Barry Award nominee. To learn more, please visit her website.