Hi, I’m Mike Jecks, always writing under the name Michael Jecks, and I’m the author of 35 published books, as well as a bunch of short stories, novellas with Medieval Murderers, and, let’s not forget, five unpublished books.
I never meant to be a writer.
Back in the 1980s, I embarked on a new career in computing. Before that I’d been determined to have a life as an Actuary. What’s that? A mathematician and statistician who applies his brain to insurance and finance problems. Or, as I learned later, having failed every exam for two years, a person who finds accountancy too exciting.
I thought there must be more to life, so I set out to be a computer salesman. And I did very well. My first 5 years saw me as one of Wordplex’s top salespeople; my second 5 years saw me as a successful salesman in Wang Laboratories. However, sadly, the recession of the late 80s meant that after 13 years selling, I had achieved 13 jobs.
For the sake of the mortgage (and my sanity) it was time to change direction. In 1994 I sat down to write a book. I needed the money!
I took a straightforward approach to my writing, imposing the same discipline as I’d experienced at work. Because writing is a job, and it’s a damn hard one. Few jobs are so all-encompassing, requiring the practitioner to be thinking about his or her work every waking hour, every day of the week. Especially for such dreadful money. Still, I was keen to make a go of it and so on the first of January, 1994, I sat down to write a novel.
What sort of novel? Well, my first idea was, to write something I would want to read. If I’m not enthusiastic about something, I can’t expect to make someone else excited.
At the time I was an avid reader of all things thrilling. I loved Frederick Forsyth, Adam Hall, Alistair Maclean and all the other old-fashioned thriller writers, so I set out to write a book like theirs. However, working 7 days a week meant I finished that at the end of the month. Undeterred, I hunted around for another style of writing I liked. I loved The Name of the Rose, and that immediately struck me as the kind of book I’d like to write – but without the lengthy descriptions of door-frames and architecture! I had recently read about the Knights Templar in a wonderful book by the historian John J Robinson called Dungeon, Fire and Sword, and so set out to explain a little more about the Templars and what sort of men they were. It was to lead to the Templar Series of crime novels, with the latest, number 32, Templar’s Acre, being published last year by Simon and Schuster.
The first book, sadly, called The Sniper, was snapped up by Bantam Press only to be rejected a few days later. It was a good thriller, with bombs, drugs, bullets, sex and heavy metal music. However, it was also all about the IRA, and because they agreed their first cease-fire, the book was instantly redundant!
Still, in early 1994, I had two manuscripts and I needed to see my books in print. To achieve that, I knew I had to get an agent. Everyone is always fascinated to know how an author gets an agent. The simple answer is, the author has to depend upon luck.
I got hold of the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, which lists all the agents in the UK and USA. This wonderful book showed me all the agents who were likely to take on my kind of work. I went through methodically, looking for someone who would be able to tell me whom I can call by phone. But the problem was, all the agents said “In the first instance, send two sample chapters and a full synopsis”. That was fine, but I didn’t want to run that risk. I wanted to talk to someone (I had been a salesman, after all). There was one lady whose insertion said, “Please phone me”, so I did. And every time I tried, clearly so did all the other aspiring authors that week, because her line was constantly engaged.
Finally, in despair, glancing at the opposite page of the listing, I saw a lady with the same name as my wife. “Well,” I thought, “at least I won’t forget her name.” I called, arranged a meeting, and one week later she was representing me.
The trouble is, all agents suffer from the same problem as editors. They all receive more than 12 unsolicited manuscripts a day. For your work to get through, it has to really shine. Work with blemishes – typos, inaccurate grammar and punctuation, repetitions or simply the wrong use of language – will not pass. Editors and agents are looking for reasons to reject work, not reasons why they should take on something new.
The other thing is, rejections don’t mean work is no good. Everyone has an off day. If the editor tripped over the dog that morning, had a steaming row with her husband, fell off her push bike on the way to work – well, it’ll affect her view of the world. Your work has to be stupendously good to get past her on a morning like that!
However, I was very lucky. My agent took me on, and although we had one rejection for The Last Templar, the second publisher my agent sent it to was Headline, always an enthusiastic publisher of popular, commercial books. They took it on and immediately commissioned two more books in the series.
My writing career has been very fortunate. From early on I was writing two books a year and regularly going to visit writing and reading groups, giving talks at libraries and festivals. At a few of these I began to meet with other historical writers, and I met with Professor Bernard Knight, who wrote about the 1100s; Ian Morson, who wrote about the 1200s; Susanna Gregory with her excellent late 1300s stories; Karen Maitland and her suspenseful thrillers in all periods; Philip Gooden; CJ Samson. These all became firm friends, and I had a brilliant idea: all of us declared how much we hated public readings. Rather than that, why didn’t we join forces, I suggested, and become a performance group covering the different periods in English history? Thus Medieval Murderers was born.
A second inspiration struck after Medieval Murderers had been aimlessly wandering around the country for a year or two: why not write a book as well? We had a lengthy meeting (in a pub) and soon afterwards started work on The Tainted Relic.
This was a new concept: a novel composed of a series of interlinked novellas, all dealing with the one coherent theme through the book, but with sections written by authors in the Medieval Murderers collective. In ten years, we have ten editions of Medieval Murderers books, the latest being published in 2014: The Deadliest Sin.
Because I have always been keen to help new writers, I organised the Debut Dagger Competition for the Crime Writers’ Association for a while, and helped several new writers get their first novels into print. This interest hasn’t faded. I’m now helping organise the AsparaWriting Festival for aspiring writers. An odd name, but the aim is to run author-led workshops over the six weeks of the Asparagus Festival at Evesham every year. Authors come and host a meal at the fabulous Evesham Hotel, then lead a day of workshops the following day and give amusing talks on writing too. This year we were fortunate to have brilliant writers like Peter Guttridge, Alyson Hallett and Simon Brett.
I write in a manner which I like to think of as total immersion. When I am embarking on a new novel, I like to write the first draft quickly, so that the inspiration and enthusiasm doesn’t wane. I write in solid blocks of text and time. I set myself targets, usually of 5,000 words in a day, and split these up into one hour blocks. I can easily write 1,000 words in 50 minutes, so I write for that long, then get up, make a coffee or tea, and all the while I’m thinking about the next scene. After my ten minute break I can return to my desk moderately refreshed and keen for the next writing.
Of course, nothing always goes perfectly to plan. Sometimes words don’t come easily first thing in the morning. When that happens, I write blog posts, tweets, notes and outlines for other scenes or stories. That way I keep my own interest up without writing complete twaddle in a novel.
There is such a thing as “writer’s block”, but all too often it’s a mental pebble in the way of the tank of writing. The tank should be able to crush that pebble: it’s just a case of starting the engines and letting out the clutches. I’ve never had a problem because I cannot allow it. I’ve been earning my living as a professional novelist for 20 years now. I am a writer: it’s what I do. I will not allow a morning’s hangover or general grumpiness to get in my way; rather, I will incorporate those feelings and irritations into a character. If I have a hangover, I’ll inflict the same on a character and explain my headache through his head.
Rotten, aren’t I?
The first book, The Last Templar, introduced my main characters, but it was also an introduction to the moors themselves. Dartmoor is a wonderful place, with mainly rolling, unspoiled grassland strewn with rock and granite outcrops on the top of the hills. It has an atmosphere all of its own, and what I find most delightful is the way that you can leave the 21st Century behind. Stop the car, walk for ten minutes, and you could be back in the middle ages. There is nothing but the swish of the grasses, the hiss of the wind soughing between rocks, the cries of buzzards high overhead, the piping of the smaller birds in the furze. It was this that led me to base so many books in the moors, because the reader can all too easily travel to Dartmoor and experience what mediaeval was like. The books bring the moors to life, but the moors bring the books alive too.
The books have changed over time, which is no surprise: after all, my books are now the longest-running series written by a living crime author. The first third, roughly, dealt with aspects of mediaeval life that interested me: persecution, witchcraft, tin mining, mercenaries, markets, leprosy – a wide variety of matters. Then I progressed to Dartmoor legends and old tales for a few books, such as The Devil’s Acolyte and The Sticklepath Strangler. Soon, however, I moved into a different phase in which I was taking actual murders and looking at the Coroners’ Rolls or ecclesiastical court records to pick out specific examples, such as The Mad Monk of Gidleigh. This has, I think, made my stories rather more compelling, because I am looking at the serious themes of life and death through the eyes of contemporary victims and persecutors.
The final stage of the series became an investigation of the end of the reign of King Edward II. This period was like gold dust for a novelist for, as I explain in the forward to No Law in the Land, there was a complete breakdown of social order. Ideal for murders to proliferate!
However, all good things must eventually come to an end. I loved the Templar series, and still do, but it’s time to take a holiday.
A couple of years ago I decided to break with my own tradition in several ways. First was, I wrote a novel without a commission: Act of Vengeance. This was a book that led directly from the events following on from 9/11, and is a very fast-moving modern spy thriller: a kind of mix of George Smiley and Jason Bourne. I was enormously fortunate to have Lee Child give me a generous comment on it. He said: “An instant classic British spy novel – mature, thoughtful, and intelligent … but also raw enough for our modern times. Highly recommended.”
For me, Act of Vengeance was a bit of a break. However, I’ve been thinking about other books too. The result was, this year, my latest novel set in the 1300s, Fields of Glory from Simon and Schuster. Moving on a little from the Templar books, this is set firmly in the Hundred Years War, and looks at the lives of the regular platoon-sized group of men during that war. I look at the type of man who joined Edward III’s armies before Crécy, how they lived, how they fought, how they thought. It was brilliant fun, and has reached a whole new audience of readers. I’m now completing the second book in that series (it’ll be a trilogy) before embarking on another espionage story with the characters from Act of Vengeance.
And to test the water, I have put out two collections of short stories: For the Love of Old Bones and No One Can Hear You Scream which are selling gratifyingly well.
Writing two books a year leaves little time for outside interests, sadly. In the main, I love sketching and watercolouring badly. I adore my dogs and walking with them over Dartmoor, which has given me the inspiration for so many of my books. I used to be a keen shooter, archer and skier, but sadly finances have put paid to these. So, for now, I focus on the writing and painting, both of which I find enormously fulfilling.
Details of the books in print:
THE LAST TEMPLAR
When a spate of burnings occur in a quiet Devon village, Bailiff Simon Puttock is grateful for the help of the astute yet strangely reticent Sir Baldwin, who has recently come to live nearby. Are the deaths linked, and will the murderer strike again? (First published March, 1995; reissued June 2013)
THE MERCHANT’S PARTNER
The midwife and healer Agatha Kyteler has only ever helped the locals, but to some superstitious folk her skills seem like witchcraft. Sir Baldwin and his friend Simon must forge a path through the suspicion, jealousy and disloyalty of the little village to find her murderer. (First published November, 1995; reissued June 2013)
A MOORLAND HANGING
A runaway serf can expect death if his lord catches him, but Peter Bruther can claim the protection of the King when he runs to Dartmoor, so his death is murder. But with the tinminers’ protection racket, Sir William Beauscyr’s feuding sons, and the strange northern knight, there are too many suspects. (First published May 1996; reissued June 2013)
THE CREDITON KILLINGS
The arrival of a brutal band of mercenaries is fearful enough for the small town of Crediton, but when a servant girl is found murdered and the mercenary captain’s treasure is stolen, Simon and Baldwin find that the Crediton Killings have only just begun. (June, 1997)
THE ABBOT’S GIBBET
Tavistock’s fair should be a time of enjoyment, but a decapitated corpse ends that. Simon and Baldwin cannot even tell who the victim was, yet they know that beneath the activity of the bustling fair, anger and violence lie ready to burst out. (April 1998)
THE LEPER’S RETURN
Civil war looms and a goldsmith is murdered in his own hall. Baldwin and Simon must seek the murderer quickly, before the wild rumours make the angry townspeople take their revenge on the lepers in the local hospital, causing wholesale slaughter. (November, 1998)
SQUIRE THROWLEIGH’S HEIR
After Squire Roger dies, falling from his horse, his five year old son inherits. When he too dies, Baldwin is convinced that it was no accident, but so many had motives to kill poor young Herbert. Little do Baldwin and Simon realise how shocking and sinister this investigation will prove. (June 1999)
BELLADONNA AT BELSTONE
It is hard to run a convent, but Lady Elizabeth, Prioress of Belstone, must fight devastating competition for her very position. And then young Moll is murdered, and she must call for the help. Baldwin and Simon find that primitive passions and secret ambitions are prevalent even in a house of God. (December, 1999)
THE TRAITOR OF ST GILES
A warrior lies dead, one of his hounds dead at his side, and nearby is the body of a convicted felon. Could the felon have killed a trained knight and his dog? And if he did, where is the knight’s horse and his money? And then Baldwin and Simon learn that the dead knight was ambassador to the king’s hated friends, a man with many enemies. (May 2000)
THE BOY-BISHOP’S GLOVEMAKER
When Ralph, a noted philanthropist, is found dead, Exeter’s people are baffled, but then a youth is poisoned in the Cathedral and the mystery deepens. Was it suicide, or was he killed by outlaws in revenge for the hanging of their comrade? Hidden by the Christmas celebrations, there is a ruthless murderer who will soon strike again. (December 2000)
THE TOURNAMENT OF BLOOD
A tournament should be a time of pageant and pleasure, and yet before it can begin the man financing it is found beaten to death. Soon, even as the tournament gets under way, more men are found dead, and Baldwin and Simon must catch the murderer before he can kill again. (June 2001)
A gem of historical storytelling… authentic recreation of the modes and manners, superstitions and primitive fears that made up the colourful but brutal tableau of the Middle Ages
THE STICKLEPATH STRANGLER
The joy of an innocent afternoon’s play is shattered when two girls find a skull. Baldwin and Simon join the Coroner and learn that there have been several murders over the last seven years, but were they committed by a man – or is there a supernatural explanation? (November, 2001)
THE DEVIL’S ACOLYTE
In the autumn of 1322, history is about to repeat itself, or so it seems. A man has been found dead on the moors, and wine has been stolen from the Abbot’s private stores. It is reminiscent of the legend of Milbrosa and the murders of the Abbot’s way …. but does the Devil really provide the key to Tavistock’s present fears? (June, 2002)
THE MAD MONK OF GIDLEIGH
When Mary is killed, the priest’s sin seems all too clear, yet Mary was not the simple miller’s daughter many thought. Many are devastated by her death, including Sir Ralph of Gidleigh himself, and when the truth about her murder emerges, life for the folk of Gidleigh won’t be the same. (December, 2002)
THE TEMPLAR’S PENANCE
After the shocks of the Mad Monk of Gidleigh, Baldwin and Simon have decided to make a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, but even here they find that murder is not far away. A group of pilgrims is attacked by outlaws, then a young girl is found murdered near Santiago, and the local pesquisidore soon asks Simon and Baldwin to help try to find the killer. (June, 2003)
THE OUTLAWS OF ENNOR
Returning with relief from their pilgrimage, Simon and Baldwin are thrown from their course by pirates and foul weather. Simon is horrified to wake to recall that his friend was thrown from their ship as they neared the strange islands of Ennor. There Simon is asked to help seek the murderer of the hated local tax-collector, but his searches are hampered by knowledge of the hatred between the community on Ennor and their neighbours on St Nicholas. (January, 2004)
THE TOLLS OF DEATH
At last Simon and Baldwin are once more on the mainland, and their journey home should be shorter, but as they pass Cardinham, they learn that there has been murder in the little Cornish vill: Athelina and her two sons are dead. Baldwin and Simon soon realise that these deaths are not isolated, and want to help find the killer, but when the country is about to become embroiled in civil war, how can they hope to serve justice? (May, 2004)
THE CHAPEL OF BONES
Forty years ago, Exeter Cathedral close rang to the clamour of weapons, shouts of defiance and screams of pain. Afterwards, the bodies lying in their own blood bore silent witness to the conflicts that were tearing at the heart of the Cathedral itself. Today, in 1323, more deaths have occurred. Is the first an accident? The second is surely murder, brutal and foul. (December 2004)
THE TAINTED RELIC (by the Medieval Murderers)
A cursed relic, a piece of the True Cross which was cursed when it was stolen from a church, has passed on through time with disastrous results: the Medieval Murderers collaborate on a series of novellas, telling how their sleuths each in turn encountered the relic. (May 2005)
His research is painstaking down to the smallest detail, his characters leap alive from the page, and his evocation of setting is impressive
THE BUTCHER OF ST. PETER’S
A strange man is entering people’s houses at night, causing panic amongst householders, because this is a man who likes children. And although many had thought him harmless, now he seems to have committed murder. A man lies dead in his own home, slaughtered merely for trying to protect his children, and the folk of Exeter want this menace caught and hanged. (May 2005)
A FRIAR’S BLOODFEUD
Bloodshed and mayhem reach almost into Simon Puttock’s own household: Simon’s servant, Hugh, has been granted leave to look after his wife Constance and help raise her child. One day she is attacked and raped by a gang of men at her home. She sees her son being murdered and then her man Hugh is struck down, before she is killed and the house set on fire.
SWORD OF SHAME (by the Medieval Murderers)
From its first arrival in Britain, with the Norman forces of William the Conqueror, violence and revenge are the cursed sword’s constant companions. From an election-rigging scandal in 13th century Venice to the battlefield of Poitiers in 1356, as the Sword of Shame passes from owner to owner in this compelling collection of interlinked mysteries, it brings nothing but bad luck and disgrace to all who possess it.
THE DEATH SHIP OF DARTMOUTH
In Dartmouth, a man is found lying dead in the road. But the inhabitants of this little haven dismiss his death as a drunken accident, their attention turned to more worrying matters – piracy. A ship, the St John, has been discovered, half ravaged and the crew missing, in an attack that bears all the hallmarks of the supposedly disbanded Lyme Pirates. Could this be the beginning of a vicious onslaught, or is something even more sinister happening?
Shortlisted for the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Award.
THE MALICE OF UNNATURAL DEATH
Roger Mortimer – the King’s most hated enemy – has escaped from the Tower, and the King’s life is threatened. Baldwin and Simon know the dangers of becoming embroiled in politics, in these bloodthirsty times. But when two bodies are found in the city’s streets, the Bishop calls upon them to find out who was responsible. And one of the dead men was a messenger, carrying a dangerous secret…
DISPENSATION OF DEATH
The first of a short mini-series in which Baldwin and Simon are thrust into first national politics, and then international. They are taken to London with the Bishop of Exeter as part of his coterie of advisers and guards. There, they learn that there has been murder committed within the palace of Westminster itself. The King demands that they help find the murderer.
THE TEMPLAR, THE QUEEN AND HER LOVER
Isabella, Queen of England, has been dispatched to France in an attempt to bring about peace between the two countries, and Baldwin must accompany her. But the day after their arrival, a servant is found murdered, with Baldwin’s dagger lying next to the body. As Baldwin struggles to prove his innocence, the killer strikes again. With so many English enemies gathering in Paris, will Baldwin be able to expose the culprit in time to protect the English King?
HOUSE OF SHADOWS (by the Medieval Murderers)
Rumours of ghosts and dark secrets abound at Bermondsey Priory; when the daughter of one of the hated Despenser’s servants is found dead in the surrounding marshlands, Bishop Walter asks Baldwin and Simon to investigate.
THE PROPHECY OF DEATH
Baldwin and Simon return from France, but cannot extricate themselves from affairs of state: they have an urgent message for the King. Once more they find themselves at the centre of a deadly court intrigue involving the most powerful and ruthless men in the country. Has Baldwin won the enmity of the most dangerous man in England?
KING OF THIEVES
In their most dangerous mission yet, Baldwin and Simon must uncover a deadly assassination plot that will change the course of English history.It’s 1325, and Sir Baldwin de Furnshill, Keeper of the King’s Peace and his friend Bailiff Simon Puttock are in France to join Prince Edward and Bishop Walter’s entourage as they make their journey to the palace of the French king, Charles IV. The Prince must make a demeaning submission in order for the English to keep hold of their French territories. Meanwhile, Queen Isabella has been causing a scandal in the French courts with English traitor Roger Mortimer. The Prince’s entourage are delivered into the Queen’s custody, but it becomes clear that they have enemies within the palace walls. Simon and Baldwin soon discover a murderous plot that threatens England’s future…
NO LAW IN THE LAND
At last, Baldwin and Simon return to Devon – but is this good news? When they inform King Edward II that his estranged wife, Queen Isabella, is set on defying him, the King flies into a rage and Baldwin and Simon are told that they are no longer in his favour. Back in Devon, they discover that outlaws now hold sway in the land. Sir Robert, a knight from the King’s household, has turned outlaw from his castle near Crediton. When a pair of clerics are found brutally murdered, Baldwin and Simon are asked to investigate.
KING ARTHUR’S BONES (by the Medieval Murderers)
1191. During excavation work at Glastonbury Abbey, an ancient leaden cross is discovered buried several feet below ground. Inscribed on the cross are the words: Hic iacet sepultus inclitus rex arturius – here lies buried the renowned King Arthur. Beneath the cross are skeletal remains. Could these really be the remains of the legendary King Arthur and his queen, Guinevere? As the monks debate the implications of this extraordinary discovery, the bones disappear…
THE BISHOP MUST DIE
1326. In France, King Edward II’s estranged wife Queen Isabella shames him by refusing to return to England, and humiliates him further by flaunting her adulterous relationship with the king’s sworn enemy, traitor Sir Roger Mortimer. When the king hears she has betrothed their son to the daughter of the Count of Hainault, all England fears an invasion of Hainault mercenaries. Meanwhile the Treasurer of England’s life is threatened. He has made many enemies in a long political life and Sir Baldwin and Simon must do all they can to find the would-be assassin before he can strike…
1326. In an England riven with conflict, knight and peasant alike find their lives turned upside down by the warring factions. Yet even in such times, the brutal slaughter of an entire family, right down to a babe in arms, still has the power to shock. Three further murders follow, and bailiff Simon Puttock is drawn into a web of intrigue, vengeance, power and greed as Roger Mortimer charges him to investigate the killings.
As the year 1326 draws to a close, London is in flames. King Edward II is a prisoner – and his guards are Sir Baldwin de Furnshill and bailiff Simon Puttock. Their loyalties are torn, and soon they find themselves entangled in a tightening net of conspiracy, greed, betrayal and murder.
CITY OF FIENDS
It’s 1327 and England is in turmoil. The deposed king has escaped from captivity – and when Sir Baldwin de Furnshill and bailiff Simon Puttock ride to Exeter to admit their failure, they are greeted by bloody murder within the walls of the town.
Look back to the Holy Land in 1291. The Crusaders still cling to one last city: Acre. What has brought Baldwin de Furnshill, a young boy, green and scared, to this desperate battle?
FIELDS OF GLORY
The year is 1346 and King Edward III is restless. Despite earlier victories his army has still not achieved a major breakthrough and the French crown remains intact. On the beaches of Normandy, Edward’s men are ready to march through France to victory. The Battle of Crecy will be a decisive turning point in the Hundred Years’ Wars. This is the story of that battle and the men who won it.
OTHER MEDIEVAL MURDERS BOOKS