By John Darrin
Talking about bodice-ripper novels with a voluptuous women’s body from the neck down on the cover, Karen says, without guile: “The only time I’d want a headless character on a book cover is if the neck was gushing blood, her head having been chopped off in the story.”
Thus we begin my article on Karen Maitland and her latest medieval thriller, THE RAVEN’S HEAD.
What? Gushing blood? From this historian and member of a popular comedic speaker’s troupe?
When asked about this seeming contradiction, she says, “We go for ‘gallows humor.’ Years ago, when I worked in a hospital, I often had to go down to the morgue. The mortuary technicians were the funniest guys I’ve ever met before or since.” Maybe she should recruit some for a stand-up tour. They could call themselves “The Body Snickers” or “Embalmapalozza.”
To say I was taken aback would be an understatement. My research into this very knowledgeable and intelligent historian had led me to make a note that said, “She has a depth and intellect that seems to repel humor and sarcasm.”
And, she says things like, “I can’t watch anything violent.” That was in response to my question about the movie Pulp Fiction and Ving Rhames threatening, “I’ma get medieval on your ass.” Again, without guile: “Though not having seen it, I don’t understand why Ving would want to torture a donkey. It seems a bit unfair to take his bad mood out on an innocent animal.”
Well, maybe some guile. After explaining that the Reformation was much nastier than the Middle Ages, she does concede that, “ ‘I’ma get Tudor on your ass’ doesn’t sound quite as good.”
Enough background. She is, as I thought, intelligent and knowledgeable. And she does have a sense of humor.
THE RAVEN’S HEAD is Maitland’s sixth solo medieval thriller and tells the story of a young librarian’s apprentice who “is always trying to think of ways to get rich that don’t involve actual work, and like many of us, he is dreaming of the medieval equivalent of today’s lottery win.” Here’s the description from Karen’s web site:
Vincent is an apprentice librarian who stumbles upon a secret powerful enough to destroy his master. With the foolish arrogance of youth, he attempts blackmail but the attempt fails and Vincent finds himself on the run and in possession of an intricately carved silver raven’s head.
Any attempt to sell the head fails … until Vincent tries to palm it off on the intimidating Lord Sylvain – unbeknown to Vincent, a powerful Alchemist with an all-consuming quest. Once more Vincent’s life is in danger because Sylvain and his neighbours, the menacing White Canons, consider him a predestined sacrifice in their shocking experiment.
In addition to her solo works, she has also contributed to four novels by her comedy troupe-cum-author’s alliance. They call themselves The Medieval Murderers, and you can imagine they must have a hell of an agent to get booked anywhere outside of a prison.
About her writing and novels, Karen says, “Fiction has to come from something the author has witnessed, experienced or read about. It can’t come from nothing and nowhere.” Now, we all know that’s true, but where has she been to find these somethings that she writes about? That’s the scary thought. She tells me of an experience she had living and teaching in Africa:
“There was violent power-struggle raging in the country and a number of overseas workers and their families had been brutally slaughtered, so tensions were running high. That evening just before sunset, a man called David, who we all knew, walked up to our camp gates and the guards, recognizing him, opened the gate. He blurted out that the working party he’d gone out with had been ambushed and they were all dead and that the rebels who’d killed them were on their way to attack the camp. The next morning the bodies of the men who’d been ambushed were recovered about ten miles away. Among them was David’s corpse. The autopsy found he’d been shot at the same time as the others and he would have died from his wounds probably within minutes, certainly in less than an hour. With his injuries he couldn’t have walked a single mile, never mind got to the camp and back.”
She has a bunch of these; strange places she’s lived or visited, weird things she’s seen and heard, and history that she has researched and studied. Her qualifications to write about the medieval era are impeccable, and her ability to bring times alive in a good story makes her books fascinating and compelling and simply a very good read.
One last thing. She closes by telling me, “This is probably one of the weirdest interviews I’ve ever done.”
Karen Maitland lives in rural Devon, England in a cottage built in 16th century and has written six dark medieval thrillers – COMPANY OF LIARS, THE OWL KILLERS, THE GALLOWS CURSE, FALCONS OF FIRE & ICE and THE RAVEN’S HEAD. She is published by Penguin and Headline. Her novella LIARS AND THIEVES was published by Headline as an e-book and features the characters from COMPANY OF LIARS in a new and deadly adventure. Karen is also one of six historical crime writers, known as the Medieval Murderers, who write joint historical crime novels including THE SACRED STONE, HILL OF BONES, THE FIRST MURDER, THE FALSE VIRGIN and THE DEADLIEST SIN, all published by Simon & Schuster. She blogs on The History Girls website on the 8th of each month.
To learn more about Karen, please visit her website.