THE CANTERBURY MURDERS: 7 Questions for E.M. Powell [INTERVIEW]

Canterbury dawn
Timeless Canterbury has seen everything… even murder. (Photo courtesy Canva)

Sherlock and Watson. Poirot and Hastings. Dean and Sam. The list goes on and on. When you stop to think about it, we love sleuthing duos! So when E.M. Powell’s medieval detectives, Stanton and Barling, appeared on the scene in 2018, it is no wonder they quickly became reader favorites. They are the epitome of an unlikely pairing, and yet they are absolutely perfect for one another. It’s the reason we get all excited every time we find out there’s a new book coming out in this beloved series. Now we’re thrilled to tell you the third book in their story, The Canterbury Murders, is now available. To tell us more about it, we invited E.M. Powell herself to come by and dish on their latest adventure. We hope you enjoy this exclusive interview! —J&H


J&H: The latest novel in the Stanton and Barling series is centered around 1,400-year-old Canterbury Cathedral, which has often been described as ‘England in stone’ as its history is intrinsically linked to England’s history. I imagine this place could launch a thousand stories. But what was it about this setting that inspired you?

EMP: Pilgrimage played a hugely important role in medieval life. I had wanted to send Stanton and Barling on pilgrimage for The Canterbury Murders, the third novel in the series, for two reasons. First, it fitted the series arc and issues from Barling’s hidden past. Second, it was a perfect plot setting. Pilgrimage sites drew huge numbers of visitors, whose spiritual and physical needs were served by different groups: monks, other clergy, physicians, herbalists and others. Canterbury Cathedral was one of the most popular sites of pilgrimage, for within the cathedral was the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket. Becket had been Archbishop when he was infamously murdered in 1170 by a group of knights (who acted on the orders of the King) on one of the altars. Thousands of people visited the shrine very year, so it was the obvious choice.  

J&H: 2020 marks the 850th anniversary of Thomas Becket’s dramatic murder at Canterbury Cathedral, which took place in 1170, a mere seven years before the events in this story. I suspect this was not just a happy coincidence. Why do you think his story is still so vivid, all these years later?

EMP: The anniversary honestly was a coincidence! I’d chosen Canterbury for the reasons given above. I think the story of Becket’s murder continues to resonate because it was so brutal and the setting so jarring. When we read accounts of it today, it still shocks. And that’s even with 21st Century sensibilities, which are very different to those of the 12th Century. For the people of medieval England, religious belief wasn’t just one of aspect of society. It was society, impacting on every single aspect of everyday life. So for an Archbishop to be slain in his own house, a house of God, was beyond comprehension.

Canterbury Cathedral had planned to have several 850th anniversary events in 2020. But those, like so much else, had to be cancelled due to the pandemic. Not a life or death loss by any means, but still one of so many smaller losses that have piled up for us all.

J&H: When Stanton and Barling arrive on the scene, they are on pilgrimage to the tomb. Have you ever taken that pilgrimage yourself? For your readers who may not be familiar with it, what is it like and what is the purpose of it?

EMP: I went to Canterbury to do my on-the-ground research, fortunately before the pandemic hit. I didn’t walk the pilgrim way- we took the train! You can still walk many pilgrim routes in Britain and Ireland the rest of Europe. They have been in recent years enjoying something of a resurgence in popularity, with people appreciating the meditative process of the long journeys carried out on foot.

The city of Canterbury still follows the medieval layout, and the ancient city walls are still very much intact. So too is the cathedral, which is completely magnificent. But it has of course been added to over the centuries, so I had to check what would have been there when Stanton and Barling visited. There is no longer a shrine to Thomas Becket in the cathedral. It was destroyed under the orders of King Henry VIII in 1538. Today, a single burning candle marks the spot.

J&H: Throughout the course of this series, you paint Stanton and Barling with vastly different brush strokes. Describe their disparity, and why you think their relationship works. How do your fans typically react to them as a sleuthing duo?

EMP: Aelred Barling is a dry, tetchy stick that is happiest alone with his law manuscripts. He is deeply fond of Stanton, though he rarely shows it. Hugo Stanton is younger, very handsome and loves fast horses, ale and women. He also has a tendency to get himself into all sorts of trouble! The uptight Barling drives him crazy at times but he has real affection for the clerk.

I think their relationship works because while they are different, they are both fundamentally decent human beings who want to see justice prevail. They also recognize each other’s strengths when it really counts.

My readers LOVE them, and amazingly so! Spoilers permit me from too much detail, but they have grown apart a bit at the start of The Canterbury Murders and things don’t go too well. I’ve had readers sending me messages telling me how worried they were about them. I’ve also had so many reviews where people have loved the mystery but equally love the Boys and their friendship. It’s really rewarding to have created characters that people root for.   

J&H: Because this story takes place around the church, did you have to approach your research any differently? And did you learn anything about the inner workings of a medieval congregation that surprised you?

EMP: I had a bit of a head start by being brought up as an Irish Catholic and living in Ireland until emigrating in adulthood. I mentioned earlier about medieval religion and society being so closely intertwined. My upbringing was very similar in that religion was everywhere. The country was 98% Catholic. I was born in a hospital run by nuns, I was educated by nuns. Members of my family were in religious orders. Everyone went to Mass every week, holy days were also observed. People didn’t eat meat on a Friday. Appeals to the saints for intervention was commonplace. I could go on, but you get the picture.

So when I do my research for my Stanton and Barling novels, so much of life is familiar as Catholicism was the main religion. There’s a rhythm and an atmosphere that I recognize immediately. Speaking of intervention by saints, my husband and I got married back in Ireland. It’s a country known for *just a bit* of rain every now and then. A neighbor put a particular holy statue out in her garden to make sure the rain held off. It did. Result!

J&H: Several authors have told me that writing during the pandemic has been like writing in a vacuum. As an author yourself, have you found that to be the case? What has been the most challenging part of writing during the coronavirus pandemic personally and how have you maintained your sanity despite the chaos?

EMP: I found that immersing myself into the world of the 12th Century was a wonderful escape for a few hours every day. The main challenge has been concentration. It’s very difficult not to get distracted by the appalling news that greets us by the hour. I also count myself extremely fortunate to be able to carry on doing the job that I love. I cannot imagine what it must be like to have lost my livelihood with little sign of it returning. Worse, there are so many people who have lost their health or their lives. I know people who have been personally affected by the most grievous loss and it is utterly heartbreaking. The people who have to go out there and face it every day and who keep us going- health care professionals, teachers, retail staff- are simply amazing.

J&H: Now that you have written three books in this series, what are three lessons Stanton and Barling have taught you as an author? And what do you now know for sure?

EMP: Lesson One: writing a mystery is so complex and it has so many moving parts. A great program like Scrivener is a lifesaver.

Lesson Two: plan out everything. Plan it again. Plan it some more.

Lesson Three: your characters will surprise you. They have a life of their own.

What I know for sure? A deadline will leap out at you faster than a leopard from the undergrowth. But I will still get caught up in research details like what clay was used for drinking cups (it doesn’t matter) because there is ‘plenty of time’.

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ABOUT THE CANTERBURY MURDERS

E.M. Powell's THE CANTERBURY MURDERS
Crosshaven Press

A fire-ravaged cathedral. An ungodly murder.

Easter, 1177. Canterbury Cathedral, home to the tomb of martyr Saint Thomas Becket, bears the wounds of a terrible fire. Benedict, prior of the great church, leads its rebuilding. But horror interrupts the work. One of the stonemasons is found viciously murdered, the dead man’s face disfigured by a shocking wound.

When King’s clerk Aelred Barling and his assistant, Hugo Stanton, arrive on pilgrimage to the tomb, the prior orders them to investigate the unholy crime.

But the killer soon claims another victim—and another. As turmoil embroils the congregation, the pair of sleuths face urgent pressure to find a connection between the killings.

With panic on the rise, can Barling and Stanton catch the culprit before evil prevails again—and stop it before it comes for them?

E.M. Powell
E.M. Powell

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

E.M. Powell’s historical thriller and medieval series Fifth Knight and Stanton and Barling novels have been number one Amazon and Bild bestsellers. The Canterbury Murders is the third novel in her Stanton and Barling medieval murder mystery series.

She is also a contributing author to International Thriller Writers’ The Big Thrill magazine, blogs for English Historical Fiction Authors and is the social media manager for the Historical Novel Society.

Born and raised in the Republic of Ireland into the family of Michael Collins (the legendary revolutionary and founder of the Irish Free State), she now lives in northwest England with her husband, daughter, and a Facebook-friendly dog.

Learn more about Powell and her books at her home on the Web at EMPowell.com, like her on Facebook, and follow her on Twitter and Goodreads.

THE CANTERBURY MURDERS
By E.M. Powell
322 pp. Crosshaven Press. $10.99

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Purchase The Canterbury Murders from Amazon.

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About Jathan Fink
Jathan is a journalist, philanthropist, and entrepreneur. He is also a travel junkie, foodie and jazz aficionado. A California native, he resides in Texas.

2 Responses to THE CANTERBURY MURDERS: 7 Questions for E.M. Powell [INTERVIEW]

  1. Thank you so much for hosting EM Powell! I loved the interview!

    Amy
    HF Virtual Book Tours

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