The Sea Hath Spoken
by Stephen Lewis
Published by Berkley Prime Crime
288 pages, 2001
Buy it online
After revealing his age (58), novelist Stephen Lewis adds with a note of ruefulness: "So if my career is going to take off, it better get its act together before too much longer." In fact, though, his career has enjoyed a promising boost over the last couple of years with the publication of three slightly dark and quirky historical mysteries, including The Sea Hath Spoken, which was released early in 2001.
Set in the fictional New England coastal hamlet of Newbury during the mid 17th century, The Sea Hath Spoken -- like its predecessors, The Dumb Shall Sing (1999) and The Blind in Darkness (2000) -- is built around a most unlikely but intriguing pair of protagonists: an outspoken and widowed midwife named Catherine Williams, and Massaquoit, the intelligent and independent Pequot Indian whom Catherine saved from vengeful colonists not long after the horrible Pequot War (during which hundreds of Native Americans were massacred in Connecticut). Together, these two are charged with bringing justice to bear in a closed, often fearful Puritan community where intolerance is ubiquitous and narrow-mindedness the norm. Where miscreants are pilloried, medical practices may be considered far riskier than trusting in religious faith to cure illness, and few recognize the hypocrisy of people who have escaped persecution in one land practicing it in another.
The rarely used (at least in mystery fiction) Colonial American backdrop provides Lewis with some novel motives for his literary homicides, as well as rich inspiration for a cast of fully realized characters -- most of whom you wind up wanting to throttle for their racial animosity and dogmatic attitudes. While his dialogue can sometimes seem ponderous with era-accurate terminology ("thou," "ere" and the rest), Lewis' research into 17th-century community facilities and practices -- and particularly his knowledge of early midwifery -- makes these books stand out on the ever-expanding racks of historical whodunits.
Born and reared in Brooklyn, New York, Lewis holds a doctorate in American Literature and is currently a professor of English at Suffolk Community College on Long Island. Prior to concocting his "old New England mystery" series, he penned two hard-edged legal dramas -- The Monkey Rope (1990), followed by And Baby Makes None (1991) -- that starred a self-assured and fiercely loyal Brooklyn attorney named Seymour Lipp. He has also published short stories, poetry and five college textbooks. When I caught up with him, Lewis was waiting anxiously to see whether sales of his three Colonial mysteries justified continuing that series. We talked about his unintentional debut as a crime novelist, the difficulty he finds in keeping a mystery series fresh and how the future may find him writing more mainstream historical fiction.
J. Kingston Pierce: What interested you in writing crime fiction? And when did you begin?
Stephen Lewis: I set out to write a novel about Seymour Lipp and Junior Constantino, who had grown up together in Brooklyn, as best friends/enemies. Seymour becomes a lawyer, Junior a petty drug dealer. When Junior is accused of a murder, Seymour agrees to defend him, although he strongly suspects Junior is guilty.
My interest was in their relationship and Seymour's moral/psychological dilemma. I told the story from Seymour's point of view, and -- literally -- did not know for a certainty whether Junior was guilty. So, I originally ended the story with Seymour having successfully defended Junior and being left with the uncomfortable feeling that Junior was a killer.
However, my agent, Edy Selman, who said she thought the book was a literary novel, sold it to Walker as a mystery since it had a dead body and some confusion as to who the killer was. I agreed to add another suspect and other mystery elements and Walker published it as The Monkey Rope. At this point, I did not know it was the beginning of a series. I found that out when I read a statement on the dust jacket that this was the first of the Seymour Lipp mysteries. I then wrote And Baby Makes None.
Why did you give up lawyer Lipp in favor of writing mysteries set during America's Colonial period?
I was working on the third Seymour book, when Janet Hutchings, my editor, left to become the editor of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, where she still is. Then, Edy decided selling fiction was too difficult, and the new editor at Walker chose not to continue the series. So, I had a book, but no agent or editor. The Walker books received excellent reviews, but so-so sales.
I had finished Seymour No. 3, but put it aside while I started writing a straight historical novel set in 17th-century New England. I had done my graduate work on American Puritanism of that time, and I was -- and am -- intrigued both by Puritanism and by the story of Anne Hutchinson, a charismatic religious leader who caused a crisis in the early years of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
In what way did Hutchinson provoke this "crisis"?
Arriving shortly after the colony was founded, Hutchinson developed a large following in Boston. She held weekly meetings in her house during which she challenged the prevailing religious dogma, insisting that it emphasized good works more than faith. She also proclaimed that secular law was irrelevant to those who had saving faith, since they were already living in direct communion with God. Governor John Winthrop and the other leaders of the colony found these ideas a serious threat to their evolving theocracy and drummed up a list of heresies, on the basis of which Hutchinson was both banished and excommunicated. These actions followed a brief interlude during which the Hutchinsonians managed to elect a governor who shared their views.
So, anyway, you said were beginning work on this straight historical novel ...
Yes, and my agent called me up one day to say that Peter Rubie, who had been an editor at Walker when my mysteries came out and who in fact had read what became The Monkey Rope first before handing it to Janet, was now an agent who wanted to represent me. I sent him Seymour No. 3, and some time later the beginning of my historical novel, which was not a mystery.
Peter came very close to a deal with Berkley, according to which Berkley would reissue the first two Seymour books in paperback -- they had come out in hardcover -- as well as picking up the new book. That deal fell through, but Barry Neville, the editor Peter was working with, wanted to work with me. So, he, Peter and I developed the idea of a series of historical mysteries set in the same timeframe as the novel I was writing. I put the novel aside to write three books for Berkley, although Barry left for St. Martin's just as the first, The Dumb Shall Sing, was coming out.
Tell me what you hoped to achieve with your Catherine Williams/Massaquoit novels. Were you most interested in the setting and the period, or in the characters themselves?
We chose Catherine Williams as the lead crime solver because we wanted a woman main character. Having her be a midwife gave her access to the network of women's information, which Puritan men would have been ignorant of and which they would have, in any case, discredited as unreliable. Catherine is loosely modeled on Anne Hutchinson, who was also a midwife, so I made her uncomfortable with the Puritan orthodoxy.
I developed Massaquoit for two reasons. I felt I needed somebody who could do the more physical parts of the action, while also providing some insights based on observations unavailable to Catherine. The second reason was to give me an opportunity to deal with the fate of the Pequots, who were largely wiped out by the English in 1637 in a war that from this perspective appears to be motivated mostly by a greed for land, underpinned by racism. I have long been both interested and appalled reading about how shabbily the Native Americans have been treated and how our popular culture still insists on demonizing them as savages who slaughtered innocent white settlers.
I think Massaquoit is the most fascinating figure in your Colonial books. He has a unique position in Newbury. Having survived the Pequot War and been "adopted" by midwife Williams, he is both an outcast in the white community and looked upon with suspicion by other Native Americans. Did you have a historical model for the Massaquoit character?
No, I didn't have an exact model. I created his name by working off the historical Massasoit, who befriended the Pilgrims (he was not a Pequot, though). My understanding of the situation of Native Americans at that time, and indeed for the next 300 years, is that they had two basic options: They could give up their native culture and become Christian, or they could fight a losing war against these European, later American, invaders. Massaquoit refuses to become English, although he is made to take an English name. In historical fact, the defeated Pequots, most of whom were sold off as slaves, were forbidden to use their own language. But Massaquoit is too wise to continue a fruitless fight. So, as you say, he finds himself in the middle, between two cultures, a situation I find immensely interesting.
What's the most interesting or least expected thing you've discovered about Colonial America since embarking on the research you must do for this series?
Well, because I had done a tremendous amount of research both in graduate school and for the novel based on Hutchinson, I came to this series well grounded in the historical scholarship of 17th-century New England. However, what I did find was that this scholarship is pretty thin when it comes to what a novelist needs to provide context and detail.
The scholars are very good at telling us about theology, politics, social organization, important happenings, the law and so forth. But as I am creating a scene where I need to know what people then ate, or wore, or how they built their houses, the information is thinner. For example, in The Dumb Shall Sing, I have a jail scene and later an escape from the jail. I wanted to know what a jail would have been like, structurally, in the 1630s. I found one reference in one book. I consulted the experts by sending a query to a listserv that serves several hundred scholars of early American history. Nobody could offer much of an answer. That one reference, which was in a history of prisons, amounted to a couple of sentences to the effect that jails in 17th-century New England were probably not very different from their houses. I added to that suggestion the well-established fact that New England Puritans believed more in fines, mutilation or exile as punishment than in incarceration, which they found too costly. So, I built a shabby house as a jail and gave it a jailer who always had his hand out for money to feed the prisoners, who would enjoy his hospitality only until their trial.
Or in The Blind in Darkness, I have a scene where a ship leaves the harbor. I wanted some detail about 17th-century sailing ships. I found most of the sources had a lot to say about the great clipper ships of the 19th century, or even those of the 18th, but not much about my time period. Would my ship be tied up at a dock, or would it be anchored in the bay? How would it turn itself around to head out to sea? I finally consulted my father-in-law, who had served in the Coast Guard and who lives on Lake Michigan. He gave me some ideas and then he referred me to somebody who provided an educated guess that an anchor would be rowed out, dropped and used as a pivot to turn the ship's bow seaward.
These details are so important to give a novel texture and for my period a little hard to track down. I try to be as accurate as possible, but must sometimes use what information is available and then mix it judiciously with some imagination.
Could you imagine yourself living in America during its Colonial days? What sort of life do you think you might have had back then?
Since I am something of a gadget freak, I have a hard time imagining living in such a non-technological society. But if I found myself there, I'd like to think that I would be involved in some kind of artistic or intellectual pursuit. I'm too secular now to believe I would be in the clergy then and I don't have much of a head for business, so I don't see myself as a merchant. Perhaps a magistrate, one who would be less rigid than those I have read about.
What's the one thing you wish you had known before starting work on your "old New England mysteries"?
I think I would have wanted to be more aware of the difficulty of writing a series -- not particularly this one, but any series that is going to feature the same main characters. The plus side is that these folks become very familiar, almost like family, so you don't have to keep reinventing them. But you do have to keep filling in new information here and there from their background, and then the problem becomes remembering what you said about them in the earlier book. I guess the biggest concern is keeping things fresh and avoiding falling into too many predictable patterns. Some predictability is good, because series readers want to be comfortable with these characters, to be able to nod when a familiar mannerism occurs. However, too much reliance on these predictable characteristics can be deadening. I find the saving grace is the introduction of minor characters who occupy the stage briefly and who provide something new and intriguing.
I've heard that you won't be writing any more Colonial mysteries. Is that true?
I am taking a break from these mysteries. I wrote three rather quickly under the stress of contractual deadlines. The last of the three, The Sea Hath Spoken, just came out in January and so all three were published within about a year and a half. I want to see how the series does, what kind of readership it draws, before deciding whether to continue it. The reviews, again, have been very encouraging, but sales are what will or will not justify its continuation.
In the meantime, I am very happy to return to that historical novel I was writing when I started the mysteries. I am a little more than half done with it and the ending has been in my head these last several years while I was not working on it. I have had a little difficulty getting back into it, which is always the case when something has been left unattended for a while. And in this instance, my first-person narrator is a 14-year-old servant girl. Where exactly her voice came from, I don't know, but it is very strong in my head. I think she is something like Huckleberry Finn with a gender change and living 200 years before in Boston rather than on the Mississippi. I hope to finish the book this year.
Does this historical novel have a name? A publisher?
It has an uninspired working title -- Between Anne and John -- because its main character, the 14-year-old servant girl, is harshly punished by the magistrates under Winthrop and is given a new start by Hutchinson, but it is really the girl's story. She just took over the book.
And, no, I do not yet have a publisher, but I am working on finding the right one.
You also mentioned to me recently that you had been thinking about launching a different historical mystery series. What is your setting for that one, and are you still planning to write the series?
That project, which I have long thought about, would be set in Revolutionary times, and be more of an adventure series than mysteries. Living on Long Island, New York, I am curious about the Long Island Spy Group that fed [General George] Washington information about the movements of the British, and I thought I might use that as a context. I was also thinking of having a love relationship strained by conflicting loyalties between a guy who was a Loyalist and a young woman who was a patriot. I know, this fellow Shakespeare has already used that plot in Romeo and Juliet and then another guy, Bernstein, updated it in West Side Story, but I thought maybe Lewis would freshen it up yet again. Good plots can always be made to work in new circumstances.
Do you read many historical mysteries? Which authors and books are your favorites?
I read more historical novels, or stand-alone historical mysteries, than I do series. Recently, I was very impressed by Ian Pears' An Instance of the Fingerpost, which is set in 17th-century England. It is a mystery, and a very good one. Another excellent mystery is Barry Unsworth's Morality Play, set in medieval times. Among historical novels, I have enjoyed Sheri Holman's A Stolen Tongue, which is sort of a mystery and also set in medieval times, and her The Dress Lodger, set in Victorian England. I also very much enjoyed Tracy Chevalier's Girl With a Pearl Earring, set in 17th-century Delft and based on the famous Vermeer painting of that name. Finally, I recall being impressed by Michael Pye's The Drowning Room, set in 17th-century Dutch New Amsterdam.
Reading these books, of course, I am looking to see how these writers deal with the same problems. For example, how do they create dialogue that can pass for the language of the time in which the book is set? How do they work around the same details of everyday life I mentioned? If they do something clever, I try to remember it so I can steal it for my own work. | May 2001
J. Kingston Pierce is the crime fiction editor of January Magazine.