SD Sykes is a British author from Kent who has made a name for herself writing historical fiction and mystery novels. Sykes grew up in the Somerset neighborhood of London before she moved to Manchester, and then finally to Kent. It was at Kent that she got influenced by history, nature, Gothic literature, and her mildly eccentric and large family. Having lived in such a historic area she spent many of her afternoons exploring Penshurst Place, Ightham Mote, and Scotney Castle estates. As a child she had always loved to tell stories and by the time she was six she had written her first ever book that she insisted that her parents type and bind. However, her writing dried up when she was in her twenties though she always believed she would get back to it someday. She later went to Manchester University and went on to work in TV and radio as a scriptwriter. Her involvement in script writing exposed her to many opportunities as she went on to write drama for the BBC and even got funding from the Arts Council.
Her big break came when she decided to take the Curtis Brown Creative Course out of frustration, when nothing she tried worked to get her closer to her goals. After all her hard work, nobody was interested in commissioning any of her scripts for film or TV. Sykes saw the CBS course as a godsend and applied, as she was sure she was a very good story teller from writing all those scripts. Within a few weeks she had converted her skills writing company newsletters, direct mail, brochures, and scripts into her debut novel “Plague Land” in 2012. The literary agents at CBS were so impressed with the novel that they immediately offered her a three book deal, which she turned into the “Somershill Manor Mystery”.
SD Sykes sees stories in everything she sees and everywhere she goes. Ever since she was a child, she loved to go back centuries to analyze and study how people lived. She is inspired by the fact that throughout human history persons were motivated by the need to nurture, defend, to travel, seek answers, and to be better than the next person. For Sykes the historical in her novels is an enactment of the motivations and emotions that happen to people in the contemporary world, even if they are set in a past time. Nonetheless, she had always loved the middle Ages and had a huge interest in the Victorians, Egyptians, and Romans, whose stories she would devour with relish. That passion was probably nurtured in her childhood when she loved the fairy tales that included peasants, lords, knights, great forests, turrets, moats and castles. As for her Somerhill Manor Mystery series, she chose it the period as it was a particularly irresistible period that provided a lot of material for a writer of crime thrillers. The period between 1348 and 1381 in which the series is set, is particularly eventful in the light of the 1381 failed peasant revolt and the Black Death.
The difference between SD Sykes novels and those of her contemporaries is the nature of her lead protagonist. Unlike many of the robust and hard-boiled detectives you could meet in a typical whodunit, Oswald de Lacy is a rather reserved man who is neither experienced not a natural leader. He struggles with self-doubt, struggles to solve crimes, and is uneasy with his role as Lord Somershill. Nonetheless, he is still a hero and a delight to read about even as he bumbles his way being a lord and crime fighter. The Somershill Manor Mystery series of novels follow the themes of the suffering of the nobility as feudalism began to fall apart in the years after the plague. The peasants were in a better bargaining position given that there was shortage of labor given the decimation brought about by the plague. Sykes also tackles themes of religious fanaticism and superstitions that resulted in targeting of certain groups such as perceived sinners, outcasts and Jews.
The Somershill Manor Mystery series of novels are books about medieval murder mysteries that incorporate politics and the plague among several other catastrophes. What makes the novels so great is that the captivating characters and the research into the history that has gone into the writing. Sykes excellently inserts humor into novels set in miserable times and manages to write interesting narratives. Setting the bar really high for a medieval mystery, the novels are full of turns and twists that will keep one guessing about the identity of the killer right to the very end. Similar to her lead character no one resembles your usual medieval stereotype of being one dimensional village bumpkins, priests, knights, whores, non-believers or believers. Each character has multiple dimensions as Sykes shows that people as individuals can be good or bad regardless of who they are.
“Plague Land” the first novel of the Somershill Manor Mystery series introduces Oswald de Lacy the new lord of the Somershill Manor. He had been sent to a monastery when he was seven and had to come back to become a lord aged seventeen, when the male members of his family are wiped out by the plague. His lack of experience running an estate is compounded by the neglect and pestilence that have changed not only the nature of doing business, but also the attitudes of the peasants that survived the Black Death. But some things at the estate such as the power and influence of his mother and the troublesome nature of his sister have never changed. Before he can settle in, Oswald is sucked into the death of Alison Starvecrow, a young woman who the village priest claims was murdered by a band of wolf headed men. Given the widespread superstition in the village, the only way he can get to the bottom of the mystery is to investigate it. But as he investigates he finds himself drawn into a complex maze of violent strife, family secrets, and political intrigue.
“The Butcher Bird” the second novel in the series has Oswald de Lacy getting used to being the new Lord of Somershill Manor. While the work to be done on the farm is pretty much the same, the peasants demand to be paid more, even though the King has expressly forbidden it. Just as people begin to get angry at the king’s directive, their attention is taken by the rumor of the “Butcher Bird”. Stories abound of a big bird spotted in the skies, which are made even more believable when an infant is found staked on a thorn bush. Convinced the bird is just a superstitious rumor, Oswald knows he has to get down investigating to solve the puzzle. He knows that Clemence his scheming sister and his snobbish mother would never consider offering any help in his quest, and hence he has to do it all alone. Set in the villages of Kent devastated by the plague, to the crime ridden streets of London, and the lodgings of a beautiful lady, Oswald has to face up to dark intrigue, danger, and shocking revelations to get to the bottom of the mystery.
Books in order of publication by series:
Somershill Manor Mystery Books
|The Butcher Bird||(2015)|
|City of Masks||(2017)|