Looking for a new historical mystery? Look no further than The Raven’s Seal by Andrei Baltakmens. The novel takes place in 18th century England and is “a tale of corruption, betrayal, murder, and--ultimately--redemption and love”. The author wrote us a piece today about love knowing no boundaries in this novel to whet your appetite. There is a publisher sponsored giveaway at the end of the post, so read on!
Love Beyond the Confines of Class
Guest Post by Andrei Baltakmens, author of
The Raven’s Seal
In my historical mystery, The Raven’s Seal, I wove a romantic subplot into the story of Thaddeus Grainger, an aimless, young, upper-class gentleman who finds himself imprisoned for murder and must untangle the motives behind this false charge to secure his freedom. From early on, his predicament ensnares Cassie Redruth, a determined and quietly ambitious young woman from the lower-class slum known as The Steps, and between them they work toward resolving the mystery while the relationship between them blossoms. Handling this relationship was delicate work for me as a writer. I was always conscious that a love affair between a gentleman and a commoner would prove the sort of cliché that P.G. Wodehouse lampooned in his Jeeves and Wooster stories when he quoted the invented novel, Only a Factory Girl: “Be her origin ne’er so humble, a good woman is the equal of the finest lady on earth!”
But looking back at the classics, I’m convinced that it’s not so much a familiar plot that will bother an alert reader as a hackneyed or clichéd handling of a such a plot. To be sure, the “marriage plot” is a fixture of English literature, from the complex negotiations of class, property, and propriety in Jane Austen’s comedies to the happy marriages that round out Dickens’s sprawling multiplot serials. In the latter case, Dickens’s handling of the relationship between Eugene Wrayburn, the indolent gentleman, and Lizzie Hexam, the riverside scavenger’s daughter, is one of the most interesting features of his last great complete novel, Our Mutual Friend. Indeed, for a writer who often fell into the trap of sentimentalizing or idealizing his heroines, Lizzie Hexam is a particularly interesting and well-drawn character, and one of the seeds for the creation of my own character, Cassie Redruth.
One of the advantages of drawing a relationship like this into a mystery novel was the way the murder plot and subsequent intrigues could transfigure and complicate the progress of these characters. Before he is charged with murder and locked in the noxious Bellstrom Gaol, Thaddeus Grainger’s interest in Cassie is speculative and exploitative: he is attracted to Cassie and dissatisfied with the expectations of his station, but still considers her a potential conquest, from a position of privilege. It’s only when Grainger suffers a catastrophic fall from grace into the criminal society of the prison that he can begin to shape a relationship with Cassie that is not based on class expectations. Cassie, on the other hand, when challenged on the witness stand by a devious lawyer, acts to reassert her honesty, for when her testimony is drawn into question she feels the sting of the court’s opinion deeply. The reality of her life in the slums is that a good name is the only asset she can truly possess.
Cassie, thereafter, is as much a detective as Grainger, because she has the power to investigate outside the prison walls and among the under-classes that other characters cannot access. This was important for maintaining the balance of the plot and keeping the action moving beyond the prison walls. She begins, as one might expect, as a servant. I can safely say that I could hardly exaggerate the hardships of domestic service and the hazards of sexual predation that Cassie would have encountered historically. In a novel intended as an entertainment with the occasional gesture towards social themes, this presented the problem of showing something of the reality a character like Cassie would confront, without losing her in the harsh realities of the period. Domestic service provided one of the few avenues to a better life to a young woman in Cassie’s position, but as Kirstin Olsen describes it in Daily Life in Eighteenth Century England, life as an “Abigail” was a matter of interminable household labor for these women, and they were often considered sexually available by their employers (not to mention other male servants). Cassie’s graduation to lady’s maid at least offers less back-breaking work, but she is then faced with the choice of marrying respectably within her station or capitalizing on her good looks and intelligence as the mistress of a wealthier man.
Prostitution, in one form or another, was rife during the period, and treating her body as a negotiable asset was one of the few courses a woman could take outside of the domestic sphere. One of my favorite characters in the novel is Cassie’s mistress, Mrs. Wenrender, a high-class “procuress,” or madam (among other things), who, as it turns out, is closely connected to the mystery. In the complex social stew of the eighteenth century, where “good-breeding” or “blood” was the dominant marker of social status, she represents a path to social mobility, power, and influence which, nevertheless, is also fraught with contradictions and danger. Cassie’s bind is that the higher she edges in society under Mrs. Wenrender’s patronage, the further she draws from the honesty and sense of justice that motivates her.
Grainger’s choice is sharper, but no less complicated. The necessity of surviving as a prisoner gives him enough insight to know that he endangers Cassie as much as he needs her to investigate on his behalf. But in trying to restore his good name and family honor, could he risk a marriage with an unsuitable woman, or keep his personal integrity by drawing her to his cause with a promise of marriage he could not keep?
For these two characters, then, the romance plot, set against the background of mystery and crime, provides the complexity of characterization as well as raising the stakes. Mysteries are often centered on plot and incident, while characters move gracefully to the side to allow the clues and puzzles to sort themselves out. But human motivation is, to my mind, the deeper and more intriguing mystery, and by bringing two strong characters into a complicated relationship I was able, I hope, to enliven the narrative as well as keep the reader interested and off-guard.
However, I do have a giveaway opportunity for you all courtesy of the publisher, Top Five Books – copy will be mailed out by the publisher. It is for two copies of The Raven’s Seal to entrants from the USA. Please complete the Rafflecopter for entries. Last day to enter is June 2nd.
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