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A crime plague to cherish: Bron Sibree talks to Minette Walters about her new debut historical novel, The Last Hours

Published in the Sunday Times

Minette Walters has combined her talent for psychological thrillers with the Middle Ages, writes Bron Sibree.

The Last Hours
****
Minette Walters
Allen & Unwin, R330

It’s no secret that British crime writer Minette Walters has re-directed her talents to historical fiction. Now, on the eve of the release of her debut historical novel, The Last Hours, Walters, whose crime novels have sold in excess of 25 million worldwide and have earned her the epithet “queen of the psychological thriller”, attributes her genre swap to a desire for change.

“I do love to challenge myself,” says Walters, 67. “I love the way the crime genre has developed but I worry sometimes that people aren’t innovative enough, that everybody is producing similar things so you get a trend, like my psychological thriller trend, which I’m told I was a pioneer of. I love change, constantly refreshing it all.”

Indeed, the extraordinarily gripping The Last Hours owes as much to her driving curiosity as it does to her quest for writerly challenges. It is a novel, Walters says, “that I’ve had on my mind ever since we moved down to this tiny hamlet in Dorset 18 years ago. The idea started the moment we were told there is a plague pit somewhere around the houses. Shortly afterward I saw a plaque on a wall in Weymouth harbour that said ‘This is where the Black Plague entered England,’ and from then on, even when I was writing the crime novels, I was thinking,’Gosh that would make a fabulous story.’

“But then I had to persuade publishers to publish it, and that’s not the easiest thing in the world if they want you to write crime novels. But it would have been awful to have this idea in my head and never to have written it.”

Set in Dorsetshire, The Last Hours opens in July 1348, soon after the Black Death has entered England. It revolves around events at the demesne (pronounced as domain) of Develish where something unheard of happens following the death of its brutal overlord, Sir Richard, from a mysterious illness. An illness that has, in a matter of days, killed dozens on the neighbouring demesne, their rotting corpses left lying by the thoroughfare. Lady Anne, Sir Richard’s long-suffering wife, takes control of Develish – including the lives of its 200 bonded serfs – and refuses entry or exit to a single soul. Even more scandalous, she chooses a bastard serf to act as her steward, instead of the Norman steward appointed by Sir Richard.

In creating The Last Hours, which is, in effect, a riveting psychological thriller that runs to 555 pages, Walters has deployed the same analytic techniques she applies to her crime novels, cannily calling into question the thinking of the day in relation to class and gender as well the disease itself. “It’s so hard to get your head around the level of devastation that it brought,” says Walters.

“War never brings that level of devastation. And of course, everyone believed it was a punishment sent by God. Within three days to a week people were dead.”

In keeping with her reputation for tackling controversial subjects on the page and off, Walters also touches upon paedophilia, one of her most enduring concerns, in the novel. For while she has abandoned what she calls “the whodunnit part” of the crime genre, she says “real crime still does, and will always, fascinate me. I’m deeply interested in motivations, in psychology, in why things happen. So in a sense I don’t feel the move from the crime genre to historical fiction is so great,” she adds, “because human nature does not change.”

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