The Masque of a Murderer: Author interview with Susanna Calkins

In my recent interview with mystery author and historian Sam Thomas, I asked if he had recommendations for any other books set in seventeenth-century England, and he mentioned a series by Susanna Calkins. Almost immediately, the chance came up to host a blog tour stop for the third and latest entry in the series, The Masque of a Murderer, and I was happy to take this opportunity to learn more about the books and their author.

The Masque of a Murderer takes us into the heart of a turbulent time. London is recovering from the devastations of plague and fire. Social norms are being overturned as women take on new roles in the wake of death and destruction. New religious groups, such as the Quakers, are challenging deeply ingrained conventions. Making her way in all of this turmoil is former servant turned printer’s apprentice Lucy Calkins, who hears a deathbed confession that leads her to search for a murderer. As she goes further into danger, Lucy also must try to solve some knotty problems in her personal life, including that of her relationship to Adam, the son of her former employer.

The novel takes a wide range of elements that are fascinating on their own — Quakerism, early printing and bookselling practices, London’s recovery after the Great Fire — and weaves them into a narrative that will keep you guessing. Although plot-wise it can certainly be read on its own, I found that I regretted missing out on the character development (particularly for Lucy and Adam) that must have taken place in the earlier volumes, so unlike me you might want to start with the first book in the series, Murder at Rosamond’s Gate, and its sequel, From the Charred Remains. There, I’m sure you’ll find even more fascinating historical details wrapped up in an engaging mystery.


Author Susanna Calkins describes herself as an educator, historian, and faculty developer by day, writer by night. She says, “I’ve had a morbid curiosity about murder in seventeenth-century England ever since grad school, in those days before I earned my Ph.D. in history. The ephemera from the archives — tantalizing true accounts of the fantastic and the strange — inspired my historical mysteries. Born and raised in Philadelphia, I live outside Chicago now, with my husband and two sons.”

Welcome, Susanna, and thank you for sharing your perspective with us! I’d like to start with the same question I asked Sam Thomas: You are a historian and history teacher, dedicated to seeking out the truth about the past. What inspired you to turn history into fiction?
What do you hope readers will gain from the experience of reading your

I enjoy Sam’s Midwife Mysteries! My interest in writing a mystery set in seventeenth century England came from when I was doing research as a graduate student. I came across a collection of murder ballads—people used to sing, literally, about murder—and I knew I had to turn some of those ballads into a story.  I am always very happy to hear that people learned something about the time period from my books; my intention wasn’t to educate, but rather to entertain, so it’s always a thrill. (And by the way, Sam and I have talked about a cross-over: his midwife would deliver one of my characters!)

This novel starts with a murder that takes place within the Quaker community in London. Today, most Americans’ associations with Quakerism are probably vaguely benign: pacifism, Benjamin Franklin, oatmeal. But as you make very clear, in the seventeenth century this new religious group was a hotbed of controversy and persecution. Can you describe some of the reasons for this?

Ha! That’s funny. When the Quakers first emerged—along with other radical groups like the Ranters, Levellers, Diggers, Anabaptists etc—they were challenging the established religious and social order enacted by the Church of England (Anglicans). They likened themselves to Old Testament prophets, and saw it as their godly duty to protest against the King, Parliament, and other authorities who sought to constrain their religious views. So they dressed in sackcloth, shouted from street corners, “quaked in the presence of the Lord,” and “ran naked as a sign” to demonstrate their conscience.

Why did you choose to set a mystery within this community? What intrigues you most about it?

My doctoral dissertation focused on the political activities of Quaker women. As a group they were the most prolific of writers; they published thousands of tracts and other penny pieces, which was quite amazing. I was always intrigued by the way people in this time period would gather around while someone was dying; the Quakers in particular would make sure they recorded someone’s last dying words for posterity; I always wondered what would happen if that dying person said that he or she was murdered, and that the murderer was nearby. That is the premise of this book.

Several of the characters in your story have left lives of wealth and relative luxury to become Quakers, giving up many pleasures and indulgences to follow the strict rules of the sect. Were you following a historical precedent in this? Why do you think people would make such a choice at that time in history?

Many Quakers actually came from the ‘middling sort’ or even the noble class. Indeed, the founders of the Quakers–George Fox, Margaret Fell Fox and William Penn–were all fairly wealthy and used much of their money to fund Quaker causes. Deep religious and spiritual values were much more pervasive and meaningful in early modern England as well; for many people, obeying one’s conscience was far more important than blindly establishing an established institutionalized religion.

Your main character in this series is a former chambermaid who becomes involved in investigating crimes. Is there a relationship between her two roles of servant and detective? Do you believe that one informs the other, or are they antithetical?

As a servant Lucy is able to move in and out of different environments, listening to people, paying attention to things, and she is often able to pass unnoticed. As a printer’s apprentice and bookseller, she has increased access to the outside world, and can move about a little more freely.

Another thread in your series is the rise of the popular press, as Lucy becomes an apprentice in a printer’s shop. You mention that “ephemera from the archives” inspired your fictional writings — what are some examples in this field? Are the tracts and pamphlets that you write about real? Did they prompt some of the events in your fiction?

I spent a lot of time poring over these old tracts, pamphlets, broadsides and ballads when I was a graduate student (still do, actually). Since the paper quality was so cheap, most of these printed pieces have not survived. What remains are usually from the collections of individuals, who may have enjoyed certain types of stories—like stories of murders, “monstrous births,” as well as jokes and ribald tales. They are very helpful to draw upon when I am writing. A few of the tracts I reference are real, but most of the ones I mention in the books are made up by me.

You’re already working on a fourth Lucy Calkins book, Death Along the River Fleet. Can you give us a hint of what is in store next for your heroine? 

In this one, Lucy is making an early morning delivery, walking along the burnt out area of London. As she crosses one of the now-lost rivers of London—the River Fleet—she comes across a woman, clad only in an underdress and covered with blood that is not her own. The woman has no memory of who she is, and so Lucy takes her Dr. Larimer, a physician of her acquaintance. Without going into too many more details, the woman appears to be a noblewoman, and Lucy is asked to serve discreetly as her companion while she recovers. When the body of a murdered man is discovered, suspicion will fall upon this woman, and Lucy will seek to unearth the truth of the matter. . .

Thanks for having me today!

And thank you, Susanna! Your answers made me even more interested to learn more about this time and place, and appreciative of the research that went into your fictional creations.

This is a stop on the Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tour for The Masque of a Murderer. Please visit the tour page for additional reviews, interviews, giveaways, and more.

Review copy source: ARC from publisher. This book will be released by St. Martin’s Minotaur on April 14, 2015.