SD Sykes Talks City of Masks
City of Masks - SD Sykes
This summer (on the 13th July) sees the release of the third in SD Sykes Oswald de Lacy series: City of Masks and it's a treat!. If you haven't come across the series before, it starts with Plague Land, set in 1350 at the end of the Black Death and continues with The Butcher Bird, set in the following year and once again in and around the manor of Somershill in Kent. Oswald, a monk turned Lord of the Manor is a rather reluctant
detective thrown against a series of increasingly challenging crimes, culminating in the third book in a sinister and dangerous murder investigation in Venice.
All three books are a great read but City of Masks brings a whole new dimension to the series in terms of both its characterisation and the wonderful role played by the medieval city of Venice, a labyrinthine place filled with secret societies and complex rules to control its citizens. I reviewed the novel in detail recently for Historia Magazine so have a look at that and then come back and see what the author has to say about
Oswald, the background to the novel and where she plans to take her crime-solving Lord next. I'm already hoping she's a quick writer...
“In Blood and Roses, Catherine Hokin recreates the life of Margaret of Anjou, the wife of the addled Henry VI. Demonised by Shakespeare, this Margaret is a more sympathetic character. The young princess I full of hope and joy when she meets the young King of England. She is quickly disenchanted and is drawn into the intrigues and power battles that will spark the Wars of the Roses. Blood and Roses is an accomplished, absorbing tale.” Antonia Senior, The Times
Both the previous books in the Oswald de Lacy series are set in Kent so the location move to Venice was an interesting one and has a marked (and fascinating) impact on Oswald's character. I wanted to know more, luckily their very talented author was happy to answer my questions!
City of Masks takes Oswald out of his usual territory in Kent and into a very sinisterly-evoked Venice. Why did you choose this location?
I’ve always wanted to write a book set in Venice, as I find the place completely irresistible. It’s unlike anywhere else in the world (to my knowledge, anyway.) Even with the hordes of tourists, it’s still possible to get lost in a shadowy alley and feel as if you’re walking about in the fourteenth century. As a writer of historical fiction, this is the closest thing I’ve found to time travel.
Did it present any challenges in terms of research?
The research for City of Masks was enjoyable but lengthy, as I had to understand how Venice worked as a society, from top to bottom. It was a very different place to the feudal England I had explored in my first two books, where wealth and position were largely dependent upon the land you owned. Venice, in many respects, was a city of the middle-classes. Of aspiration and conspicuous consumption. Where status was measured in terms of money and possessions, and could be amassed by anybody with ambition, regardless of birth.
And what about opportunities, eg. in terms of character development?
What I loved most about Venice was its other-ness. It was a dazzling, mysterious island state that was so different to the Europe that surrounded it. I loved the idea of Oswald traveling to this separate place – this island in the middle of a lagoon – where he would confront a range of challenges and trials, and leave as a different person. It was almost mythic.
Oswald is now quite a bit older than when we first met him and rather more troubled but he still seems to be a very reluctant detective! How would you describe him?
I always think of Oswald as being rather vulnerable. Vulnerable to the influences and perils of the outside world; and vulnerable to the demons inside his own head. That said, he has an inner core of strength and courage, and I suppose I’m always trying to peel away the outer layers of his personality, in order to reveal this true nature beneath.
What do you want for Oswald as the series progresses?
Essentially, through the last three books, I have wanted him to grow up! He can sometimes be frustrating and indecisive, but there is a hero inside. An unlikely and reluctant hero perhaps – but a hero nonetheless. Going forward, I don’t want him to lose all of his youthful naivety and diffidence – it’s who he is. But equally, he will have gained that all that self-confidence, worldliness determination that comes with age – not to mention all the horrible experiences that I’ve put him through!
It's a common enough trope in mystery novels for the detective to have a sidekick, unusually Oswald's appears to be his very irritating (and wonderfully drawn) mother. Was this a conscious decision or a plot development?
The lack of a sidekick was a deliberate decision, as it was a way for me to explore and expose Oswald’s vulnerability. The truth is that he can’t rely upon anybody but himself. Certainly his mother sometimes takes on the role as his foil – maybe even his conscience and sounding board at times. But, as you say, she is too much of an irritant to be a truly useful sidekick!
This is the third outing for Oswald - how to do you approach the planning? For example do you have a number of cases already planned out for him to solve or is it a more organic development?
I have returned to planning my novels, after a disastrous foray into ‘seeing where the writing took me.’ I can tell you where it took me – to a lengthy and difficult rewrite that could have been avoided!
In terms of Oswald’s future cases, I’m looking for new challenges for Oswald. Murder investigations that will not only test his nerve, but also show different aspects of the time period. The second half of the fourteenth century was certainly a fascinating age, and never fails to inspire me with ideas for murder.
And on that note, any hints of what might happen to Oswald next (avoiding spoilers on book three of course!)?
The fourth book, now in the planning stage, is set in a very different environment to Venice. This time, the action will take place over a short period, at a remote archbishop’s country palace – where a murderer is picking off the guests, one by one. They could leave the palace of course, except that it’s now 1361, and Plague has returned to England. So escape and risk dying of the Plague, or stay and risk being the murderer’s next victim. It’s the dilemma that will drive the narrative…at least that’s the plan.
I like to ring the changes with each novel. It keeps me fresh as a writer. So, after the wide canvass of City of Masks, I’m looking forward to the challenge of writing a novel that’s set in a claustrophobic, febrile environment where nobody can leave and nobody can be trusted!
City of Masks (and the rest of the series) is available from good book stores and Amazon - click here for details
You can find out more about SD Sykes at her author website