In an ideal world, I would have spent most if not all of Saturday at Derby Book Festival but it wasn't possible - so I chose this 'double' event with Antonia Hodgson and SD Sykes, having read and enjoyed their highly original debut novels. Both authors write historical crime fiction set in periods which are comparatively ignored in 'popular' history; Antonia Hodgson's The Devil in the Marshalsea is set in London in the 1720s, SD Sykes' Plagueland in fourteenth century English countryside in the period immediately after the Black Death (the plague of the book's title). As the authors explained, both periods were times of upheaval and lawlessness. 1720s London was a boom town with a rapidly growing population and no police force to keep it in order; a place where fortunes could be quickly made, and lost! Plagueland's setting on the other hand is an empty landscape in which the population has been halved by the dreadful plague sweeping through; an historical dystopian setting where the 'normal' way of life has been disrupted, no one is left to enforce the law, and labourers once tied to their lord's manor feel free to leave and seek better lives elsewhere. Eventually this led to a change in the social order and the end of feudalism, but meanwhile everyone had to struggle on as best they could.
As the authors talked about their writing and research I realised there were further similarities between the two books - both authors chose a male protagonist, for the simple reason that men were freer to go out and about, to do things and visit places that women couldn't. Both of these young men had been expected to have a career within the Church and both 'avoided' it; Tom Hawkins prefers living off his wits and gambling, which is how he ends up in the debtors' prison of the Marshalsea; Oswald de Lacy had been happy with his proposed life as a monk, but the death of his father and two elder brothers has forced him to assume the role of Lord of the Manor. Both of them then find themselves investigating murder; Tom as a deal to get out of jail; Oswald because there's no one else to take responsibility. Both novels were debuts, but Antonia's second novel The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins was published last week - 4th June 2015 - and there's a second Oswald de Lacy story, The Butcher Bird, planned for publication in autumn. I can't wait to read both of them!