Publication Date: April 13th 2021
Publisher: Sharpe Books
Page Length: 222 Pages
Genre: Historical Mystery
In the twilight years of Queen Elizabeth’s reign the nation is at war on two fronts, and fears of a Spanish invasion are never far away.
In this febrile atmosphere, spymaster Sir Robert Cecil calls in Martin Marbeck – his best, if most undisciplined agent – to unmask a double agent who is feeding secrets to the enemy. Marbeck has been under a cloud since a failed mission in Flanders, and is eager to be on the trail.
But the traitor - codename Mulberry – proves maddeningly elusive. Soon Marbeck must leave England for France and venture into the lion’s den, following a tortuous path that winds back to London. With the help of his fellow-agent, the unruly Joseph Gifford, a trap is laid to ensnare Mulberry - with deadly and unforeseen results.
The spy network has been compromised, which means all intelligence reports could be suspect, and the nation in grave danger. So Marbeck must use all his skills to confront the secret forces of the mighty Spanish empire, which pits him against the cleverest and most ruthless opponent he has ever faced.
Mary Anne: Your fabulous novel Marbeck and the Double Dealer (Martin Marbeck Mysteries Book 1) is in the spotlight today. Could you tell us a little about the inspiration behind your series?
John Pilkington: After researching and writing several previous Tudor series (like the Thomas the Falconer books), I became fascinated by the espionage world of the time. Queen Elizabeth’s spy service, initiated by the canny Sir Francis Walsingham, was the first official, funded intelligence network, which at its peak boasted over sixty agents and informers as far afield as Edinburgh, Tangier and Constantinople. Among them were the first ‘Cambridge Spies’, 400 years before Burgess, Philby and McClean: bright young men recruited from the universities. The best known was Christopher Marlowe, recruited around 1587. I began to wonder what life was like for these men who lived in a dangerous, twilight world.
Sir Francis Walsingham
I knew I wanted a different kind of protagonist – a risk-taker. Somehow, my government spy or ‘intelligencer’ Marbeck appeared: a skilled swordsman, from good family but unlikely to inherit, hence rootless and restless (and like me, he comes from Lancashire!). He’s patriotic and shrewd, if flawed and undisciplined - but he gets results. I warmed to him at once.
The Elizabethans were great gamblers, and I also became intrigued by this topic, along with the tricks charlatans employed to ‘cog’ (cheat) at dice and cards. I saw Marbeck in a tavern, realising he’s being cheated by a con-artist using ‘stopped’ (weighted) dice, and dealing sternly with him. The scene became the opening of Marbeck and the Double Dealer – though I didn’t know that it would be the first in a series of 4 books.
Mary Anne: What period of history particularly inspires or interests you? Why?
John Pilkington: In fact I’m interested in many periods and areas of history, for example the Victorians, Middle Ages, and the American West. But I tend to come back to the Tudor and Stuart eras time and again. I first came to them as a student through the drama and literature (Shakespeare, Marlowe and the rest), before getting interested in the social, political and military backgrounds. There’s so much material, from the well-trodden time of Henry VIII, through the reigns of Elizabeth, James 1st and Charles 1st, the Civil War and on to the heady days of the Restoration (the setting for two of my books, featuring actress/sleuth Betsy Brand). No matter which aspect you explore, there’s always something new to say. And it’s been fascinating – and rewarding - to create a series set in the lesser-known reign of James the First (my recent trilogy, the Justice Belstrang Mysteries).
I only have to start digging into one of my books on the period, and something intriguing may strike me, that warrants further investigation. Though like many writers, I can easily get side-tracked by research, and have to bring myself back to the business in hand!
Mary Anne: How often do your characters surprise you by doing or saying something totally unexpected?
John Pilkington: I think this is a really intriguing question, that goes to the heart of the process of writing fiction: how much are you really in control of your characters? For me, the answer if that I’ve most definitely been surprised – even shocked – by this happening, perhaps more often than I can remember. A striking example was in one of my Thomas the Falconer books, when a character I liked (Judd Chalkhill, if anyone wants to know) found himself in a desperate fight with a villainous opponent – and I realised that he was going to fail. I hadn’t planned to kill him off so soon, but it became clear that he was about to die. I was quite sad to lose him!
In terms of dialogue, I think it’s my playwriting instinct that takes over (I wrote plays and scripts before I wrote novels). I tend to ‘go with the flow’ and let the characters say as much as they like – you can always cut later on. Quite often, during this process, something emerges that I hadn’t foreseen. It can even, on a few occasions, reveal a plot element that I hadn’t realised was there. I suppose it was already in my subconscious, waiting to surface. It’s nice when this happens, if at times a bit inconvenient in terms of planning!
Mary Anne: What does a typical writing day look like for you?
John Pilkington: Long! If I’m actually working on a new book, that is. I try to minimize distractions, getting to the desk soon after breakfast and, after a quick glance at any emails needing attention, reading through what I wrote the day before (I always print off what I’ve done). I then edit the text by hand (a lurid red pen) before going to the computer – that way it’s easier to get back into the flow of the narrative, and pick up where I left off. I don’t really take a break, just coffee at the desk, and I write until lunchtime. In the afternoon I may go a little further with the story, but generally I find a natural place to stop for the day. I then edit what I’ve written, up to three or four times, before printing off.
I don’t set word targets, but I keep a log of how many pages I’ve written each day, with a note of the page on which the chapter should end, to try and achieve consistency of length. It’s not a good day if I get less than 4 or 5 pages done.
After that I leave the study with a feeling either of relief and satisfaction, or of frustration. A long walk is then called for, to clear my head!
Mary Anne: What piece of writing advice do you wish you’d known when you started your writing adventures?
John Pilkington: I suppose there are many, but one that comes readily to mind is to take your time, and not be too impatient for results. If there’s a book or story in there, let it emerge at its own pace. Take time to craft, rewrite and edit. You need a degree of self-discipline to complete any piece of work, but you don’t have to be a tyrant – a ‘slave to the self’, as someone once put it (I forget who). Impatience has always been one of my worst traits, and I might have done better work, when I first started writing, if I had reined it in.
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Having given up trying to become a rock star after playing guitar in various bands, John Pilkington turned to writing and found his true vocation. His first works were radio plays, followed by stage plays and scripts for BBC television. But his venture into historical fiction proved crucial, and it continues to be his lifelong passion. He has published more than twenty books including seven in the Elizabethan-era Thomas the Falconer Mysteries series (now republished by Sharpe Books), four in the Marbeck spy series (Severn House), and two in a Restoration-era series featuring actress-turned-sleuth Betsy Brand (Joffe Books). His last series was the Justice Belstrang trilogy (Sharpe), set in the years 1616-1618. He’s now very excited that the Marbeck series is republished by Sharpe as Blade of Albion.
Born in the north-west of England, he now lives in a quiet estuary village in Devon with his partner, and has a son who is a musician, composer and psychologist. When not at his desk he may be found walking by the river, doing a little carpentry or listening to music - and reading, of course. He is currently sifting ideas for his next project.
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See you on your next coffee break!
Mary Anne xxx