By A.J. Colucci
Following up on the success of his debut novel, THE MIDWIFE’S TALE, Sam Thomas revisits seventeenth century England with midwife Bridget Hodgson and her brassy servant Martha Hawkins in his second novel, THE HARLOT’S TALE.
It is August 1645, one year since York fell into Puritan hands. As the city suffers through a brutal summer heat, Bridget Hodgson and Martha Hawkins are drawn into a murder investigation more frightening than their last. In order to appease God’s wrath—and end the heat-wave—the city’s overlords have launched a brutal campaign to whip the city’s sinners into godliness. But for someone in York, this is not enough. First a prostitute and her client are found stabbed to death, then a pair of adulterers are beaten and strangled. York’s sinners have been targeted for execution. Bridget and Martha—assisted once again by Will, Bridget’s good-hearted nephew—race to find the killer even as he adds more bodies to his tally.
You probably get this a lot, but I have to ask; how does a male college professor get so interested in midwifery?
It was the first of many coincidences. I was working on my doctoral thesis—which was about religious toleration in seventeenth century England—when I stumbled across the will left by the midwife upon whom I based my protagonist, Bridget Hodgson. As it happened, at the very moment I found the will, the history of midwifery was being rewritten and I was able to get in on a hot topic.
From the beginning, I found midwives to be fascinating characters. They were powerful women in a society dominated by men and key figures in the legal system. And they make excellent sleuths, because any time women encountered the law—whether as criminals or victims—the midwife was there!
You’ve been praised by critics for keeping your characters realistic for the time period. How does Bridget differ from most of the contemporary female characters you find in thrillers?
I worked a lot on Bridget, trying to make sure that she is both true to the period and someone who a modern reader would identify with. There is nothing that infuriates me quite so much as a “historical” thriller with a modern protagonist. I did not want Bridget to be someone who had simply parachuted into the seventeenth century.
Because she is from seventeenth-century England she has a very different world view than the modern reader does. She believes that witches are real and should be hanged, the Irish were savages, and that the Pope was the Anti-Christ. But she also has a very strong sense of justice, and over the course of this book—and the next two—becomes aware that the law and justice did not always go hand in hand. I skirt around some of the more difficult issues, but still retain her “strangeness” as best I can.
THE MIDWIFE’S TALE is a mystery with great twists and a surprise ending. Can readers expect the same from THE HARLOT’S TALE?
Absolutely! I’ve introduced an entirely new slate of characters to the city, and the question is which of them—if any—is behind the murders. The strange thing was that one of the major twists took me by surprise. When I started the chapter I thought I knew where things would go, and suddenly the plot veered off course. It was quite exciting!
Americans seem fascinated with Puritan characters from literature, witch hunters and fanatics, or as H.L. Mencken defined puritanism, “the haunting fear that someone somewhere may be happy.” Do Puritans have a bad rap? How are they portrayed in your novel?
I adore puritans and believe that they do have an undeservedly bad reputation. (My history book was about a puritan minister, so perhaps it is inevitable.) Their religious beliefs were not all that different than their neighbors, just held more strongly. One historian pointed out that the majority of Protestant Englishmen saw stained glass as idolatrous and wanted the panes removed, but only the puritans would remove them in the middle of winter. Puritans did not object to drinking alcohol, only drunkenness, and had a very positive attitude toward sex, so long as it was within marriage.
Readers will recognize Hezekiah Ward as a puritan—he fits the stereotype of a fire-breathing minister—but I’d also point out that Bridget’s brother-in-law Edward would also count as a puritan. And even Bridget holds some beliefs we would associate with puritans: that souls had been predestined for heaven or hell; that men and women guilty of fornication should be whipped. What we consider puritan, they would consider ordinary.
As with many religious groups, there are radicals and moderates, but the radicals get most of the press!
You’ve spent years writing about your lead character, Bridget Hodgson, who was inspired by a real midwife. If you could go back in time would you want to meet her?
Of course! I created her character based on the clues I had at hand (in a sense I’m as much a detective as she is), and would love to find out how I did!
What are you planning for your third book?
The third book—due out in early 2015—will be another Midwife Mystery. It’s tentatively titled THE WITCH-HUNTER’S TALE, and picks up soon after the end of THE HARLOT’S TALE. As the title suggests, the witch-hunts that bedeviled England in the 1640s make their way to York, and Bridget finds herself smack in the middle of it!
What is the best writing advice you ever heard?
I don’t know if I heard it or just made it up, but they key to writing is writing. Every day, sit your butt down, and write.
“Superior”—PUBLISHERS WEEKLY (Starred Review)
Samuel Thomas teaches history at University School near Cleveland, Ohio. He has received research grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Newberry Library, and the British Academy. He has published academic articles on topics ranging from early modern Britain to colonial Africa. Thomas lives in Shaker Heights, Ohio, with his wife and two children.
To learn more about Samuel, please visit his website.