Today, please welcome guest author Nancy Bilyeau, author of the Joanna Stafford trilogy:
The final novel in Nancy’s trilogy, The Tapestry (Simon & Schuster), recently released in paperback format.
And now, with no further ado…..here’s Nancy:
Murder, She Thought!
When you write crime fiction, you find yourself brooding over murder at unexpected times. While prepping the ingredients for a slow-cooker beef stew for my family, I’m thinking through motive. As I ride the New York City subway to a magazine office, I’m daydreaming about opportunity—in my stories, I hasten to add. Not on the subway, although the F line has been known to tempt me.
It’s when I’m mulling over method, though, that I really go bananas. I fear I’m as bad as Herb, the gentle, bespectacled village neighbor played so wonderfully by Hume Cronyn in Hitchcock’s classic Shadow of a Doubt, smiling at the dinner table as he talks about his favorite murder: “Cut him all to pieces. Had to identify him by his clothes. His shirts were all initialed.”
For the second book in my trilogy, The Chalice, I was in need of not just an ingenious murder attempt but an audacious one, as befitting what would be used in a sinister, wide-spanning international conspiracy. I decided on poison, and it had to come from a sinister source. This shouldn’t be too hard. After all, my books take place in England in the reign of King Henry VIII, with the Borgias a very recent memory. Whenever you dip into the pool of Borgia history, you rapidly find yourself drowning in the Grand Guignol. My favorite story: Cesare Borgia, the Pope’s illegitimate, sociopathic son, wore a ring with a spring-loaded needle dipped in poison. Anyone want to shake hands?!
The problem with stories like this: they’re probably not true. Chalk it up to my years as a journalist, but I can’t knowingly put historical lies into my thrillers, even though most of my characters spring from my imagination (they just happen to get mixed up with people like Henry VIII, Bishop Stephen Gardiner, Anne of Cleves and Mary Tudor).
And so I set out to discover the truth about poison in 16th century Europe. Separating truth from fiction is difficult. Henry VIII himself feared poison, and one of the most gruesome executions of his reign involved dipping a convicted poisoner into a cauldron of boiling oil in 1531. The man was a cook who’d poisoned the soup of Bishop Fisher. Now Fisher himself was at the time one of Henry VIII’s enemies. I know, it’s complicated. To read up on this true crime of the Tudor era, go here.
Poisons did exist in the mid-16th century. It was possible to purchase arsenic, nightshade, monk’s blood and henbane. Were people murdered with this poison? Without any way to test for the presence of poison in a corpse (the medical autopsy was years in the future), confirming its presence was impossible. This allowed imaginations to run wild. When Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII’s first discarded wife, died, they did examine her heart. It was “black,” ambassadors whispered, meaning that Henry’s second wife, Anne Boleyn, had ordered her poisoned. Modern historians, however, believe Catherine died of cancer.
What about my own research quest? I kept digging, until one day I hit on the sentence “the Council of Ten of Venice, who would order poisonings.” Preliminary reading revealed that the council was a group of perhaps twelve Venetians that met secretly, on Wednesdays, to “safeguard the security of the Republic of Venice.” This safeguarding could lead to ordered interrogations (including torture) and murders by poisons developed by skilled alchemists (forerunners of chemists).
Hold on! This sounds more like the convening of Spectre from a James Bond movie than a governmental body of the early modern era. Wasn’t Venice a center of breathtaking art and architecture and wooing women in gondolas? Well, it seems that a couple of centuries before Casanova got busy, Venice was an extremely wealthy, powerful city and the Council of Ten was a means to the end of staying that way. As the Principles and Methods of Toxicology, Fifth Edition, puts it: “The council’s written records have been preserved, showing that they planned, voted on and carried out the eradication of any chosen person. The council seems to have had a number of poisons available: corrosive sublimate, white arsenic, arsenic trisufide and arsenic trichloride.” These poisons could be prepared for enemies of not just Venice but far-away victims—if the price was right.
And so I fell into one of my happiest murder-method daydreaming periods. Little did my colleagues, friends and family members know what my imagination was up to. Moreover, I think it kept me calm and present. As Lee Child, president of International Thriller Writers, says: “Thriller writers are quite nice people, because they get it all out on the page.”
Nancy Bilyeau is the author of the Joanna Stafford trilogy, The Crown, The Chalice and The Tapestry (Simon & Schuster), sold in nine countries. She is also a magazine editor, with staff positions at Entertainment Weekly and InStyle. To learn more, go to www.nancybilyeau.com