Guest blogger: Jefferson Bass

Century-Spanning Villains, or, The Time-Machine of the Mind

Guest blog by Jon Jefferson – the “Jefferson” half of the crime-fiction duo Jefferson Bass. Working in collaboration with Dr. Bill Bass, the forensic anthropologist who founded the Body Farm at the University of Tennessee, Jon writes the bestselling series of Body Farm novels. The latest—The Inquisitor’s Key—came out today (May 8, 2012). Read an excerpt.

One of the mixed blessings of being a crime writer, at least in my experience, is the vividness, the tangibility, with which villains and victims come to life—and to death—in my head. In my new forensic thriller, The Inquisitor’s Key, I found that to hold true across a span of nearly 700 years.

The book is set in Avignon, France, a walled jewel-box of a city nestled in a bend of the Rhone River. During the 1300s, a series of French popes relocated the papacy from Rome to Avignon, turning it into a boom town that became Europe’s crossroads of money and power, art and intrigue. To do justice to that richly layered stage set in a novel, I decided to write dual narratives—a medieval mystery and a modern murder—linked by a skeleton that’s unearthed in the Palace of the Popes. The bones are tucked into a stone ossuary that’s wired shut with papal seals; an inscription chiseled into the lid implies that the bones are those of none other than Jesus Christ.

As I plotted, I found it easy to think of modern-day ne’er-do-wells who might be after such potentially precious bones. But who might have hidden them seven centuries ago, and why? As I immersed myself in Avignon’s medieval past, my normal sense of time began to shimmer, and I entered an almost dreamlike state. To quote the novel’s protagonist, ace bone detective Bill Brockton, “Lately I feel like a time traveler, or like there are two of me. One ‘me’ is here now, in the present, trying to [solve this murder]. The other ‘me’ is somewhere back in the thirteen hundreds.”

One of the characters I began spending quality research time with was a real-life14th-century cleric named Jacques Fournier. Fournier, an austere man who studied theology and law in Paris, was appointed Bishop of Pamiers in 1317—and not just Bishop, but Inquisitor, too. Over the next nine years, Fournier charged hundreds of people in the small town of Montaillou with heresy, finding many of them guilty … and burning five at the stake. One of those he burned was a widow named Agnes Francou. Her capital offense? Refusing to swear an oath of truthfulness. “God has told us never to swear,” she told Fournier (not without some basis in scripture, by the way). I found myself haunted by the death of this simple, steadfast woman, who—during multiple interrogations, spread across months—stayed true to her beliefs. And I was haunted by the relentless zeal of this heretic-hound.

Fournier interrogated and burned his way all the way to the top of the medieval Church’s career ladder, becoming Cardinal Fournier, and moving to Avignon to serve as the pope’s chief watchdog against heresy. Then, in 1334, he ascended the papal throne. One of Fournier’s most ambitious endeavors, as Pope Benedict XII, was to construct a mighty fortress—the Palace of the Popes. The fortress stands cheek-by-jowl with Avignon Cathedral, looming over it, many times larger. One of my photos shows the two facades side by side, an immense crucifix poised between them. “The Power and the Glory,” I call the picture, and it’s clear which way the balance tips.

In The Inquisitor’s Key, Fournier clashes with a popular theologian and preacher, Meister Johannes Eckhart (another actual historical figure). According to the real-life Eckhart—who was (perhaps inevitably) accused of heresy—“There is no yesterday nor any tomorrow, but only Now, as it was a thousand years ago and as it will be a thousand years hence.” Perhaps that’s true; perhaps that’s why Eckhart and Fournier are able to dwell—able to live and struggle, to inflict and endure suffering—right alongside 21st-century sleuth Bill Brockton, his sassy sidekick Miranda, and the modern-day villains with whom they struggle.

Evil is timeless, I think. And the time-machine of the mind is, as I say, sometimes a mixed blessing. But I wouldn’t change a thing.

For more on Jefferson Bass, find them on Facebook, read their blog, follow along on Twitter, and visit their website.

Purchase The Inquisitor’s Key:


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Also available, a 99-cent e-story prequel to The Inquisitor’s Key entitled Madonna and Corpse which comes with a bonus: the first six chapters of the novel.