Publication Date: March 22nd 2021 Publisher: Sharpe Books Page Length: 193 Pages Genre: Historical Thriller
England, 1618. At his manor of Thirldon, ex-Justice Belstrang - still at loggerheads with his old rival Justice Standish - receives devastating news: King James intends to purchase the estate for his favourite, the Marquis of Buckingham – and Belstrang must comply. In the ensuing turmoil, while his son-in-law George petitions the King on his behalf, Belstrang receives a plea from a dying friend, Sir Richard Mountford, to visit him at Foxhill Manor. To take his mind off his troubles Belstrang goes - and discovers things are not so simple. Sir Richard is not dying, but desperate. His brother John has been killed in an explosion at the family’s iron foundry, down in the remote Forest of Dean. They cast cannons for the Royal Armouries: a privileged and lucrative business. But Sir Richard does not believe John’s death was an accident. Meanwhile, Mountford's cold-hearted son Francis treats him as an invalid. He fears things are being kept from him - and implores Belstrang to investigate. The mystery deepens when a forester who was seen talking to Belstrang is murdered. Only after a violent confrontation on the bleak salt-marshes does the truth begin to unfold - and its implications reach far beyond England’s shores. This time Belstrang must follow the trail to a very bitter end, which could be the making of him - or cause his undoing.
Mary Anne: Congratulations on the release of Deliverance (Book 3 in the Justice Belstrang Mysteries). Could you tell us a little about your protagonist, Justice Belstrang?
John Pilkington: After writing several historical mystery series, I was looking for a different kind of sleuth - not a daredevil or macho protagonist, but a more learned man with a passion for justice and for helping the underdog, in a corrupt age. Old-fashioned values, if you like. As an older writer myself, I’ve found it refreshing to create a character who’s well aware of his own mortality. I also wanted him to be a bit of a grouch! He has a rebellious side, and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. He’s a widower with a live-in mistress, who doesn’t care about gossip. He’s also a grandfather with plenty of life experience (including a fairly reckless youth as a student). He’s courageous, principled and maddeningly stubborn – a family trait, he insists. In fact it’s his uncompromising attitudes which obliged him to step down from the magistrate’s bench, some years before the opening of the first book in the series (Legacy). He enjoys his wine and appreciates the quiet life on his small estate – his ‘modest acres’ outside Worcester – but keeps getting entangled in other people’s problems. Retirement doesn’t suit him, and he needs to keep busy.
Mary Anne: How did you go about developing the historical setting for this series?
John Pilkington: My earlier series were all set in the late Tudor period, apart from a brief foray into the Restoration era. I did a great deal of research over twenty years or so, but more recently I began to get interested in the years following Elizabeth the First’s death: the start of the ‘Stuart century’. The reign of James the First isn’t such well-trodden territory for authors of historical fiction but it’s full of incident, notably of course the Gunpowder Plot which provided the background for the first book in the trilogy, and the start of the Thirty Years War which was the most devastating Europe ever endured. I did more work on this period, and was struck by how corrupt England was under James (selling off knighthoods for thirty pounds was one of his lesser offences). I confess to disliking him: a clever and learned man, but childish and utterly selfish, lavishing vast sums on a series of handsome young favourites. It’s no surprise that Justice Belstrang dislikes him too, and refers to him in unflattering terms!
For the setting, I like to choose a particular year for each novel (in the case of this trilogy, the years 1616-1618), research the background events and general ambience of that year, then set my fictional story against them. My guiding rule has always been that the story could, just feasibly, have happened in that time and place.
Mary Anne: Do you think Elizabeth I was wise in her decision to name James as heir? If not, who do you think would have made a better successor?
John Pilkington: This topic has always fascinated historians and writers working in the Tudor era, and I’m no exception. Though Elizabeth, to the frustration of her councillors and probably most other people, refused to name her successor until she was on her death bed – and then only by signs – I think the evidence suggests she always intended James to follow her. He was her closest relative (the grandson of her cousin) and already a king with heirs to succeed him, which promised stability after years of uncertainty. As Thomas Wilson, keeper of records at Whitehall put it:
‘The nearest in blud is King James the Sixth, King of Scotland, as yet heire of the eldest sister of King Henry 8, Father to this Queene.’
After James, the nearest in line to the throne was Lady Arbella Stuart, an unstable (and unmarried) woman who would have been a disaster as queen. Indeed, naming any one of the other claimants – and there were around a dozen – would almost certainly have led to division and factionalism, perhaps even to civil war. In the end, I suppose Elizabeth had little choice. And much as I dislike saying it, as far as I can see no other claimant would have made a better successor.
Mary Anne: What aspect of your creative process do you enjoy most?
John Pilkington: Nowadays I would say - and I suspect some of my fellow scribes might say the same – that I enjoy the research far more than I do the actual writing. In some ways I even feel I’m being more creative when I’m brooding over historical facts, gazing at portraits and maps, making connections and turning up unexpected snippets. Playing around with the material, speculating and finding ways to forge it into a plot is rewarding in itself. For example, discovering that there was a ‘Great Comet’ with a fiery tail, visible in the sky throughout September 1618 (the year when Deliverance is set), was an intriguing fact. Given the superstitions of the time, this was of course seen as an omen or a portent, and I used it in the story.
The hardest part, for me, is the last: the actual, physical business of getting thousands of words onto the computer screen. It’s a slog, that takes up all my time, energy and concentration, and I’m always blissfully relieved when it’s done. A small celebration is usually called for!
Mary Anne: If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
John Pilkington: Good question! There are several things I could say, though I doubt he would listen. Nevertheless, I would urge him not to be so impatient for results, but take time to develop ideas fully, rewriting and reworking them as much as possible before sending work out. And I would tell him not to be discouraged: everyone gets rejections, especially early in their writing careers, and sometimes later on too. A rejection doesn’t necessarily mean that your writing is no good: it may simply mean that your work isn’t what the publisher/editor/agent is looking for at that particular time. And sometimes they get it wrong. Remember that J.K. Rowling had around a dozen rejections for Harry Potter.
I suppose what I’m saying is: never give up but ‘keep plugging away’, and eventually (perhaps with a pinch of luck) you will succeed.
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Having given up trying to become a rock star after playing guitar in various bands, John Pilkington turned to writing and found his true vocation. His first works were radio plays, followed by stage plays and scripts for BBC television. But his venture into historical fiction proved crucial, and it continues to be his lifelong passion. He has published around twenty books including seven in the Elizabethan-era Thomas the Falconer Mysteries series (now republished by Sharpe Books), four in the Marbeck spy series (Severn House), and two in a Restoration-era series featuring actress-turned-sleuth Betsy Brand (Joffe Books). His latest series is the Justice Belstrang trilogy (Sharpe), set in the years 1616-1618.
Born in the north-west of England, he now lives in a quiet estuary village in Devon with his partner, and has a son who is a musician, composer and psychologist. When not at his desk he may be found walking by the river, doing a little carpentry or listening to music - and reading, of course. Having moved his fiction into the 17th century, he quite likes it and may well remain there.
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