I'm delighted to once again welcome Karen Harper as a Word Wenches guest. Karen is a New York Times bestselling author of romantic suspense novels from Mira Books. She won the Mary Higgins Clark Award in 2006 for her novel Dark Angel ANGEL, and her novels make the "Heatseekers" bestsellers lists in the UK. She is looking forward to attending ThrillerFest in NYC in July and the Historical Novel Society Conference in London in September.
As you can see, Karen is as versatile as she is widely honored! Today, she is going to tell us about her romantic historical mystery, Mistress of Mourning. Welcome, Karen! I turn the virtual floor over to you:
Karen Harper: It’s great to be visiting Word Wenches again. Although I am a Tudormaniac, I love to read the varied eras and settings of historical novels, and WW does a great job of spotlighting those books.
Although I have written five other historical novels, Mistress of Mourning is my first historical mystery. It was more challenging to write, but the main characters, the era and plot ran headlong into a murder mystery—three of them in fact, tragic royal murders, especially since two of the victims were young boys and the third murder was of a teenage Prince of Wales.
Mistress of Mourning is set in England and Wales in 1501, a pivotal year in the early reign of the Tudors. Henry VII and his queen, Elizabeth of York, daughter of a Plantagenet king, are trying to solidify their new monarchy. The War of the Roses has ended in a might-not-right victory for Henry. (Trivia for the day: The term “War of the Roses” was not coined until 1762 in David Hume’s History of England, so I have steered clear of it in the novel.) And, of course, this first Tudor ruler can bolster his family’s future by leaving male heirs to reign and daughters to marry off to royalty in other countries.
But, ah, there’s the rub. Henry and his queen have lost two children, and their heir, Arthur, Prince of Wales, is sickly at times, although he has just wed the Spanish princess Catherine of Aragon. (Yes, later Henry VIII’s first wife, overthrown in his passion for Anne Boleyn, but Catherine is a young woman in this novel and very appealing.) The only remaining male child (the Tudors have two daughters) is Henry, Duke of York, later Henry VIII.
Besides the losses of two of her own children, the queen is also haunted by the fact that her two young brothers were evidently murdered in the Tower of London years before. Enter the chandler and carver of candles, Varina Westcott, a merchant-class widow who is allowed to run her own chandlery shop only because her husband died and left it to her. (The powerful, male-only guilds of the day play a part too, but that’s for another day.)
At first Varina thinks she has been summoned to the palace to carve Her Majesty’s children’s faces on memorial candles, but Elizabeth of York wants full waxen images of her lost brothers and children to keep in secret. Catastrophe befalls when the Tudor heir, Prince Arthur, dies in Wales under mysterious circumstances. Because Varina’s shop also produces wax shrouds with which the noble dead used to be wrapped before burial and since chandlers of the day also acted as undertakers, the queen sends Varina to Wales to oversee the burial preparations—and to discovery whether Arthur was poisoned and by whom.
This is greatly a woman’s book as the two first-person leads are the queen and Varina, who bond over the sad fact that they have both lost sons. But the novel also probes the passions and evils of men. Can even King Henry VII be trusted? Young Henry Tudor is only ten when the novel begins, but his wily personality is already in evidence.
Varina’s love interest in the novel is Nicholas Sutton, an ambitious courtier above her rank, who is originally assigned to her as a guard. Together, they navigate their relationships with the Tudors and go to wild Wales to discover whether Prince Arthur met with foul play.
It was great fun to write about Wales of that day. It was still a land of legends, superstitions, tribal chiefs and danger. Bogs and fens, even witches presented a marvelous milieu. The novel is somewhat Gothic in tone, but that’s what emerges when the Medieval Period begins to tiptoe into the English Renaissance.
But back to the historical crimes which are the backbone of the story. Who murdered the Princes in the Tower is still argued today. Many blame King Richard III, but there is another possible royal villain too. (Yes, that’s a teaser.) Later, in the Reign of King Charles II, in July of 1674, during some rebuilding in the White Tower, the bones of two children were found in an elm chest that was covered by rubble at a depth of about ten feet. This was under a staircase that led to the king’s lodging. At King Charles’s request, the bones were interred in a white marble urn designed by Sir Christopher Wren and placed in the Henry VII chapel at Westminster Abbey, close to the tomb of their sister.
As for Arthur Tudor’s demise, that is yet being investigated. Ground-probing radar has been used to pinpoint his final resting place beneath the limestone floor of Worcester Cathedral. Professor John Hunter of Birmingham University has worked on the investigation, although so far the current queen has not given her permission for the exhumation of Arthur’s body to perform toxicology tests. Of course, if Arthur had not died, Henry VIII would never have been king. If the Princes in the Tower had not died, perhaps the Tudors would never have come to the throne at all.
In Mistress of Mourning, I have suggested possible solutions for these three murders of royal princes. But part of the joy of writing the novel was immersing myself in its era, that period which saw the stormy dawn of the Tudors.
The novel will also be released by my British publisher, Random House UK, at the same time as the Penguin USA release, but with a different title and cover. Mistress of Mourning will be The Queen's Confidante in the United Kingdom. Perhaps in this year of the current queen’s jubilee, the title "queen" carries real cachet.
MJP: Karen, thanks so much for visiting! The book sounds wonderful, and just from reading your blog, I've discovered things about candlemakers that I didn't know. A feast for history lovers. Here's an excerpt. And don't miss all the interesting info, including a clip of an interview with Karen, at her website.
The winners of the two copies of Mistress of Mourning will be chosen from among those who comment between now and midnight Saturday. So what do you think about the princes in the tower? And did you learn as much about wax working as I did reading this?
Mary Jo, sure that Mistress of Mourning will be a cool read for a hot summer!