Dear Girlfriends and followers: I was scheduled to post on the 1st anniversary of my father's death. I have asked my dear friend, and honorary girlfriend (okay, he's male) to step in for me.
Guest blog by Jon Jefferson, bestselling author of The Inquisitor’s Key, due out May 8 from William Morrow.
I write murder mysteries; forensic thrillers. My pages are populated by corpses and skeletons; rivers of blood run from my scenes. Imagine my surprise, then, to find myself devoting many chapters of my latest novel to one of the most famous romances of all time. How the hell did this happen?
Well, one thing leads to another; take enough steps, and you’ll walk a thousand miles, even if they’re meandering miles rather than crow-flight miles. My first step was deciding to set a crime novel in Avignon, a beautiful, walled city in Provence that was the seat of the popes for most of the 14th century.
To do justice to Avignon, I realized, I needed both a modern-day murder and a medieval mystery, one set during the lavish heyday of papal Avignon. (The court of Pope Clement VI – “Clement the Magnificent” – cost 10 times as much to maintain as the court of the French king!) Not surprisingly, medieval Avignon boasted a fascinating cast of characters. One of them was Jacques Fournier, a heretic-obsessed Inquisitor (he of the book’s title) who tortured and burned his way all the way up to the papal throne, becoming pope in 1334. Another was Petrarch, a wonder-boy cleric who wrote history, philosophy, and poetry – reams of poetry – on the Church’s dime. In Avignon, Petrarch fell famously in love with a beautiful young countess – a married young countess – named Laura de Noves. Apparently Laura was more committed to her marriage vows than Petrarch was to his chastity vows, for she refused to be wooed. Petrarch worshiped her from afar … and yet from near enough that his broken heart could be seen by Laura and everyone else in Avignon. He channeled his love into sonnets – hundreds of sonnets – extolling her beauty and virtue. He even hired a prominent Avignon painter, Simone Martini, to paint a miniature portrait of Laura, one he could gaze at whenever he wished to refresh his memory or rebreak his heart. So far, mind you, we’re squarely in the realm of historical fact.
All that unrequited, sublimated passion set my fiction-brain to thinking: What would it be like for the painter, Martini – to follow the young woman, secretly observing her in the streets or at church, sneaking glimpses of her in profile, in half-profile, full-face? Gradually, as I began mentally pursuing the lovely Laura, I realized that it would be easy for Martini to become obsessed: infatuated with the subject of his artistic observation, his painterly voyeurism. Then I thought, And what if she one day she catches him, confronts him, demands to see the surreptitious portrait? My next step was to write this:
One Sunday as she kneels, he sees her head slump and her shoulders slacken; then, with a jerk, she awakens, wide eyed, and suddenly he hears her laugh—in church!—when she realizes what she has done. The matron beside her gives a sharp, reproving look, and she forces her face back into its mask of composed piety. But Martini has now seen something else behind the church-face mask, and his curiosity is aroused.
That night, as he lies beneath the covers before going to sleep, he plays a painter’s game with himself, imagining how he might paint her face in various scenes, with various expressions and emotions: worry, gratitude, tranquility, terror, irritation, delight, lust. And then, when Giovanna rolls her body against his in the dark, and her fingers seek him out, stroke him to hardness, and guide his flesh into hers, it is Laura’s face, and Laura’s breasts, and Laura’s moans that he imagines, and that make him gasp and shudder with a fiery passion that Giovanna’s simple, honest love has never managed to ignite.
The next Sunday, she is not there. He checks her usual stations—the side chapels where she always pauses to light candles—scanning the congregation with confusion and growing dismay. Somehow, because she has always been here, he has taken it for granted that she always would be here. His surprise gives way to another feeling, one he recognizes as fear—no, as panic! What if she’s gone for good—moved away to Paris, or killed by a sudden fever? How can he possibly finish the portrait until every detail of her is etched in his mind? How will he explain his failure to Petrarch? And then: How will he fill his Sunday mornings, and the other hours of his days and nights that she has come to occupy? Good God, he thinks, I am worse than the poet. I have a good wife, a sweet and faithful woman who loves me, and yet I am turning into a schoolboy over this woman—this girl—who is thrice forbidden to me: She is married, I am married, and she is beloved by my friend Petrarch.
In a state of consternation, he stumbles over the feet of worshipers, turns up the side aisle of the nave, and makes for the door. Just before he reaches it, he feels a tug on his sleeve. He turns, and there—hidden by a pillar—is the woman herself, a sight so unexpected he almost cries out in surprise. She watches him regain control of himself, then says, “Monsieur, vous me cherchez?”: Sir, are you looking for me?’’
For a startled medieval painter named Simone Martini, that encounter will change things forever. Who knows: perhaps it’s also a turning point for an equally surprised, meander-prone writer of crime fiction … or is it historical romance?
# # #
Jon Jefferson writes in Tallahassee, Florida, where he lives with his wife, the peerless Jane McPherson – to whom he was introduced three years ago by Sheila Curran, blogger, novelist and matchmaker par excellence. For more on The Inquisitor’s Key, visit JeffersonBass.com and Jon's author blogspot. And check out the book’s high-octane, 30-second YouTube video trailer.