British historical crime fiction is growing in popularity. Readers have always been fascinated by the Tudors but I can’t think of a more engrossing period than the Commonwealth and the brief protectorate of Oliver Cromwell. SG MacLean’s Seeker novels are set during this period; The Seeker opens in 1654. Protagonist Damien Seeker is tasked with protecting the Commonwealth from the threat of spies, royalists, assassins and traitors. There are now four novels in the Seeker series, the latest, The Bear Pit, was published in July this year. These are dark tales, clever intriguing murder mysteries that vividly reimagine the people and the events of the time. The Seeker novels are actually SG MacLean’s second series, her debut novel, The Redemption of Alexander Seaton (Quercus, 2008), was set in Banff in the Scottish Highlands, her home town at the time. It’s the tale of a young man destined for the ministry who, after a sudden fall from grace, becomes a lowly school master embroiled in a murder investigation when a young apothecary is found poisoned at his school. There are three other mysteries in the series in which Seaton travels to Northern Ireland and Aberdeen investigating murders (A Game of Sorrows [2010], Crucible of Secrets [2011] and The Devil’s Recruit [2013]). The first novel was published under the name Shona MacLean, by the third novel the publisher had encouraged her to adopt the gender neutral S.G. MacLean. They also wanted Seaton to move to London but MacLean is clear that her character stubbornly refused to do that. It could have been parting of the ways with the publisher; instead, the Seeker was born.

Fans of the Seeker owe Dan Cruikshank. It was a documentary on seventeenth century London and the coffee house culture that gave MacLean the idea for Samuel’s coffee house and things sprang from there (thank you, Mr Cruikshank). There have been four books in the Seeker series so far, the opener The Seeker (2015), The Black Friar (2016), Destroying Angel (2018) and The Bear Pit (2019).

MacLean is an exceptional writer, for my money her novels are “must haves”. I find her work alive to the political and religious complexity of the interregnum. The murders at the heart of her stories not only test the character of the Seeker, they are also a reflection of the times. These are exciting richly coloured thrillers, they have real depth of character and an understanding of the past. MacLean has a PhD in C17th Scottish educational history. Love of subject and period were the inspiration for Alexander Seaton, the teacher turned detective. Incidentally, MacLean is the niece of Alistair MacLean (The Guns of Navarone, The Satan Bug, HMS Ulysses, Where Eagles Dare), if there was any justice in the world she would sell equally well.

The Seeker novels are as much fictional biography as historical crime fiction. The life story of a seventeenth century man: Damien Seeker, Yorkshireman, soldier, agent for Cromwell, father and lover. Seeker is a man who believes in a better world, a righteous cause, he is ruthless but fair minded. Is he a man of his times, a physical embodiment of the spirit of the age?

Shona MacLean: “I see Seeker as embodying essentially timeless values of a desire for fairness and justice. He has no time for hypocrisy and no interest in avoiding the truth. I think these are values which can be found in any age, but in the mid C17th in England, at least for a time, they found their voice – particularly with the Levellers, for instance. Idealism often takes people to extremes and ends in disillusionment. Seeker wants to believe in Cromwell because he thinks Cromwell stands for honesty and justice and also because he believes only a well-ordered society can ensure these things; over the course of the books there is an increasing tension between what he wants to believe in and what he actually sees happening. The New Model Army and the Protectorate appealed to him because of their emphasis on regulation and order, and it was a dissolving of rules and order that caused the crisis in his personal life which forced him more or less to start again.”

Seeker is very sure of himself and the republican cause when we first meet him but his beliefs are constantly challenged. Lady Winter, a woman whose royalist views are anathema to his own, intrigues him. He is in love with Maria, a woman with very radical opinions. How far are these relationships the catalyst for the changes we see in Seeker over the course of the novels?

Shona MacLean: “Yes, I think the passion and courage which each of these women exhibits, something he has tried to suppress in himself, forces him to confront a more complex humanity than he has been prepared to acknowledge. However, although he plays a relatively minor role in the plots, I think Samuel, the old soldier and coffeehouse-keeper, is in some ways the one person in the books who Seeker really looks up to and can open up to.”

The Seeker has a complex love life, or perhaps it would be fairer to say he has complicated his love life (denial, duty, fear). Maria is strong, independent and her views could cause trouble for Seeker. Yet this is as much a love story as a thriller isn’t it?

Shona Maclean: “Yes, to me it is. The demands of the genre are that it should be a thriller, but to me, it is the examination of how a decent man tries to live his life in extraordinary circumstances that matters most. The character of Damian Seeker matters to me, and where he is at his most exposed, his most ‘real’, is in his relationships with the women in his life. I occasionally regret giving him such a complicated love life, but I hope I will be able to work things out in a way that is true to the characters in the end.”

The complicated love life is gripping and it makes Damien Seeker’s story more potent. So the women in his life and his friendship with Samuel are cause and opportunity for Seeker to examine the things he believes in. Seeker questions himself and the Protectorate more, his loyalty is not in doubt but it’s no longer a blind loyalty. Seeker is less attached to Cromwell’s right-hand man, John Thurloe, over time. Seeker is becoming more independent in The Bear Pit.

Shona MacLean: “Yes, he is becoming more independent. This is something that will be worked through more obviously in Book #5. [Book #5, The Woman from Bruges, is due in 2020.]”

Tantalising, but I sense we aren’t going to get much about the new book yet. The Bear Pit is set in London, Seeker has just from his native Yorkshire where The Destroying Angel is set. That novel gives an insight into the Seeker’s personal life and family. Similarly in A Game of Sorrows Alexander Seaton finds himself in Ulster, he has family ties there. For both, the experience is unsettling and revelatory. What does taking the Seeker and Seaton out of their comfort zones by closer to their past allow MacLean to explore?

Shona MacLean: “I think taking away the props and structure of the lives as they and we understood them allowed me to look more closely at the characters as human beings, and to make them face up to things about themselves they may never have been aware of or that they have been avoiding. I have to say, it was probably as uncomfortable experience for me writing it as it was for Alexander Seaton living it in A Game of Sorrows. For quite a long time I had regrets about writing that book, but I don’t now. Keeping a character in the same location is appealing for many reasons, but sometimes, as a writer, I fear becoming formulaic or stale. The book I’m currently working on is set in Bruges, and again I have anxieties around slipping myself and my character out of our comfort zones, but I’m trying to be very firm with myself about it!”

As readers we can get too comfortable as well. At the end of Black Friar we know that Seeker is heading to Yorkshire, but we like him from London, close to Cromwell, we worry about the change. Seeker’s northern experience reveals so much though.

The Bear Pit, the latest novel, opens with an attempt on Oliver Cromwell’s life. I’m fascinated by the contradictions and nuances of the time and that shows up here because the enemies of the Lord Protector come from both sides of the political divide. By this time, 1656, Cromwell was in as much danger from republican factions as from royalists.

Shona MacLean: “I’d come across aspects of the plot in more than one history book – I think it was Julian Whitehead’s Cavalier and Roundhead Spies that dealt with it in greatest detail. I thought it was interesting enough that Royalists and Levellers had come together on the continent – in Bruges – to plot Cromwell’s assassination, but almost beyond belief that the chosen assassins made four failed attempts on the Protector over the autumn and Winter of 1656/7. I loved the use of pseudonyms and that the one who got away was thought to be a senior figure in Charles’s court abroad. When I looked at what else was happening in London in 1656, I saw that it was the year the Bear Garden had finally been closed down and the bears shot. It was almost all too good to be true, but then the era of the Civil War and Interregnum is full of things that are true but seem more like someone must have made them up.”

As with the previous novels, in The Bear Pit Lady Winter and Maria are the kernel of Seeker’s shifting world. They are complex, confident and self possessed women, a match for any man but these were tough times for women (witchcraft trials, ideas of original sin and the temptation of the flesh, women were punished more harshly) and yet there are examples of royalist and republican women wielding considerable independent power; Lady Winter and Maria represent them. Do we still continue to underestimate the role of women in history, particularly in this period?

Shona MacLean: “I think we do. We tend to look at the headline figures, the big names, and forget how much else must be going on just off stage, or at a slightly lower social or political level. (A modern example I’d use is the situation that has come about in Britain – at time of writing – because a court of law ruled that Parliament has to approve the EU withdrawal bill. History will remember the name of Boris Johnson, but will it remember Gina Millar in anything other than a footnote? It should, but it might not.) In terms of seventeenth century women, I think the imbalance is beginning to be redressed with work such as Lucy Moore’s Lady Fanshawe’s Receipt Book and Nadine Akkerman’s Invisible Agents.”

The Bear Pit seems darker than the earlier novels. MacLean seems to be putting the Seeker through the ringer, both emotionally and physically. Are the Seeker novels getting darker?

Shona MacLean: “Yes. I fear I have this tendency as a series progresses. I was very hard on Alexander Seaton by Book #4, punishing him for things I, as the writer, had made him do. I don’t want to punish Seeker, because I don’t think he deserves to be punished, I just feel he needs to be forced into making certain choices, and seeing what the consequences of making the wrong choices can be.”

Now I fear for Seeker in Book #5!

In eight novels, four in each series, MacLean introduces a host of real historical characters. In The Bear Pit Pepys, Evelyn, Cromwell and several others notables have cameos/minor roles. John Thurloe is, of course, central to the novels and really was Cromwell’s man. Does MacLean feel a responsibility to their memory of real people represented in her work?

Shona MacLean: “Yes. Funnily enough, this question was a topic of very animated discussion yesterday at an historical fiction event I was taking part in. I actually feel very strongly that there’s a moral obligation not to deliberately misrepresent or tarnish people’s reputation simply for the sake of your story, if there is nothing in the sources to suggest that this might have been the case. Readers will often take what they’ve read in a piece of historical fiction as ‘history’. I feel there’s an astonishing arrogance in a writer of fiction looking at someone who was an actual, living human being and saying ‘I am an artist, and therefore your life and reputation are there for me to do with as I wish.’ This is one of the reasons ‘alternative histories’ and fictionalised ‘true crime’ really, really don’t appeal to me. It was a 2:2 draw between the authors in yesterday’s debate on this.”

This kind of careful approach to fictionalising real people is an attractive aspect of MacLean’s work. But, of course, novels have to be about invention and it’s a little disturbing that people might take novels for history. I like Geraldine Brooks’ description: “The thing that most attracts me to historical fiction is taking the factual record as far as it is known, using that as scaffolding, and then letting imagination build the structure that fills in those things we can never find out for sure.”

MacLean has said in the past that the voices of the streets speak to her. Trips out and about in the car with a baby that wouldn’t sleep led to new places where MacLean began wondering what the people of an earlier might have been like. So do the little people matter as much as the rich and powerful in her stories?

Shona MacLean: “I think they do. It’s probably the experience of ‘the middling sort’  – doctors, lawyers, ministers of the church – I find most interesting. Perhaps it’s the Scottish idea of the ‘lad o’ pairts’. I find it fascinating that in the C16th and C17th education gave people of ability the possibility of a role in society that traditional class structures denied them. In the England of the 1640s and 50s, the lower orders were finding their voices in print and preaching as never before. I just find them more interesting, possibly because whilst others further up the scale were deciding on ‘policy’, they were actually creating the society. I also think I would find it tricky creating fictional portraits of the great and the good without them simply coming across as characters in fancy dress.”

So Alexander Seaton would not come to London; readers of those novels will understand that. The Seeker, on the other hand, is in his element in the city. However, it’s hard to imagine the Seeker surviving Restoration England (perhaps he should retire with his pipe and slippers somewhere). Good news though, as The Woman from Bruges is already in the pipeline. Is the Restoration a natural end for the Seeker?

Shona MacLean: “I think the main thing you can expect from Seeker is that will he will be true to himself. I don’t want to give too much away about what happens at the end of The Woman from Bruges (working title, which my publishers aren’t too keen on but I can’t think of another at the moment!), but no, he will not be hanging about for the Restoration. Pipe and slippers sounds good, but that’s more a Dorcas thing than a Maria thing, isn’t it???”

Of course,  MacLean has a point there. Dorcas cares for Seeker as he can’t seem to find his way to being with Maria as yet. And OK, drop the pipe and slippers, let’s settle on a long life with a little less danger!

MacLean’s two series are tenuously connected by an historical timeline, we see things happening in the Alexander Seaton novels that give impetus to the Civil War and that is where we meet Seeker. So would MacLean write about the coming Restoration?

Shona MacLean: “I don’t think the Restoration’s for me, really. If I did write in that period, I think I’d be more inclined to look at what was going on in Scotland. I do want to finish off Alexander Seaton’s story, which would take me back to Scotland in the 1640s and the brutal Wars of the Covenant, but that project is at least another two books away.”

A couple of hints there, the Seeker #6?, the return of Alexander Seaton –  both great news. A novel set in the Wars of the Covenants would be a bloody affair though.

How a writer writes is always a fascination for readers and MacLean is an historian as well as a novelist; do the two things conflict? Her crime novels are escapism but with added value. MacLean has been clear they are principally entertainment. Probing deeper: Does MacLean think that readers are looking for insight into the past in her novels? If so, does historical accuracy matters? Surely characters can only be true if the background and setting are true?

Shona MacLean: “I think historical crime fiction is probably entertainment with added value because the reader will generally get offered up lots of interesting historical details that make part of the tapestry of the story. I do think historical accuracy matters, or what’s the point? Write a modern-day story instead. Inevitably, writers will get things wrong sometimes, or miss things, but I do think we should make the effort to get it right all the same. My basic rule is that if I don’t know something’s right, I’ll try to avoid using it.

I do think readers hope to get insights into the past from reading historical fiction, but primarily they go to fiction to be entertained. No matter how hard writers try to get it right in fiction, they’re writing an entertainment, which is perfectly admirable. I would always encourage readers to look to non-fiction for the best history, but come to us for the entertainment!

Character’s a more tricky one – some human character types are pretty timeless. I think you could quite happily invent a C21st Damian Seeker serving a C21st Oliver Cromwell-type against a C21st Charles II type, but you couldn’t pretend it was still an historical novel.”

Does the past in Maclean’s novels reflect the present? (Religious intolerance and zealotry, Scottish independence, Brexit, polarization, mood.) MacLean has said there is something comforting about knowing people come through desperate as times. Is that relevant today?

Shona MacLean: “I’ve never seen my novels as a reflection of the present, but I suppose someone looking at them objectively might think the writing of them had been influenced by the present. With some things, I have tried very hard not to make my work a commentary on my own time. e.g. A Game of Sorrows is not a commentary on modern-day Irish political difficulties, but my fictional response to what I understand of late C16th/early C17th Irish history.

Looking back at the rest of the Alexander Seaton novels, they were very much a result of my studies into C16th and C17th Scotland, a period when in intellectual, cultural, religious and economic terms Scotland was a very self-consciously European country. When I was writing them there was no such word as Brexit. I wish that Scotland’s history was more widely understood, and that there was a bit less popular concentration on the headline acts – Mary Queen of Scots and Charles Edward Stuart. It troubles me greatly.

The Seeker novels are something else: again, they’re not consciously written as commentaries on our own time, but our own time keeps coming up and biting me when I’m not looking! It struck me that the attitude of Cromwell and Milton to the ‘Celtic’ nations was very much reflected in some quarters during the Scottish Independence Referendum of 2014. Present events threaten to overtake me. This week (1st week of September, 2019), believe it or not, I was writing a scene set in a tavern in London in 1658 in which one character says to the other, ‘How long is it going to last, this suspension of parliament? How is it that only he thinks only he knows the will of the people?’ I might just as easily have been writing a scene set in a London pub yesterday (when Iain Duncan Smith was explaining that Boris Johnson was standing up to and suspending Parliament in order to deliver the will of the people). I sometimes wonder how Mick Herron’s contemporary and very prescient Jackson Lamb spy thrillers manage to keep up with events, but I’d have thought I was alright, setting my books over 360 years ago.

We will get through it. I have faith in human nature and resilience. Climate change is a bigger worry. I’m also a Christian, so I don’t despair.”

The Redemption of Alexander Seaton took four and half years to write. How comfortable is MacLean with the process of writing now, eight books on? (Do characters have their own minds? How do you avoiding making modern value judgements?)

Shona MacLean: “The four and a half years was primarily to do with the business of having small children and moving house a lot! My current deadline of a year is the tightest I’ve had, and to be honest, I think an historical novel probably needs a little longer than contemporary fiction – the challenge is to be on top of your research but produce an entertaining and convincing stories with characters who’re not one-dimensional. That all takes time. I don’t feel that avoiding modern value judgements is a big issue for me. One of the issues for me is not to be too self-indulgent when there are characters I really like – with The Bear Pit, my editor thought I possibly needed to get rid of one or two of the real historical characters for simplicity. She hinted that Andrew Marvell might go. It was one of the rare occasions when I said No Chance!”

Does being an historian ever conflict with being a novelist? First novels are often crammed with author fascinations, but should research be worn lightly?

Shona MacLean: “This is something I found more difficult in the early days. It was difficult to shake off the need to prove I knew what I was talking about, and to over-explain in order that the reader fully understood what the context was. I’ve realised that you have to trust the reader, and there are ways of filtering research and communicating information without bashing the reader over the head with it. Learning the balance just takes a little time.”

Does MacLean think that the Civil War and the Interregnum represent a suitably fecund period of British history for a novelist to work in?  All ages have their moments but we have religious and political ideas and seismic social change, all of incredible import in shaping the future of Britain.

Shona MacLean: “I think the possibilities are endless. There are the obvious opportunities for historical thrillers and spy stories, but also for some really good literary explorations of the social and religious upheaval. I’m kicking myself because there’s a really excellent example I read a few years ago whose name title and author escapes me.”

[I can think of a few: As Meat Loves Salt by Maria McCann, Havoc in its Third Year by Ronan Bennett, and a couple of novels with more nebulous settings inspired by it: The Loney Andrew Michael Hurley and Harvest Jim Crace.]

There is always the counter argument to the belief this was a progressive age; the role of women, religious intolerance, regional lagging and prevailing custom and superstition. There is also a significant hypocrisy in the gap between theory and practice. Were these harsh and dark times?

Shona MacLean: “I think they were, but I think things like child mortality and lack of suitable medical knowledge and care were probably the worst things to deal with. Some of the most high-profile religious and political situations may have affected considerably fewer people than we thing – e.g. it suits my writing that the institution of the rule of the major generals was and is perceived as having been harsh and repressive, but research has shown that it was short-lived and its implementation patchy. I do think for some, the freedoms brought in in the early days of the Commonwealth must have been utterly exhilarating.”

Does MacLean enjoy the complexity? (Enemies on both sides, many different visions of the Republic [levellers, diggers, puritans], religion v politics etc.)

Shona MacLean: “Yes, I do enjoy the complexity, but it does make life rather difficult. I think I have a tendency to complexity of plot and when we consider the whole business of having to prioritise flow and pace of story against historical explanation, I could probably do with having a few less sects and interest groups to contend with.”

And finally, changing the subject, who is MacLean reading? Who would she recommend?

Shona MacLean: “At the moment I am reading Ali Smith’s Spring. Ali Smith to me is an absolute gift and a delight. Before that was Mick Herron’s spy thriller Joe Country. I think his Jackson Lamb is one of the greatest literary creations of the century so far. Before that was Anna Burns’ Milkman, which I would say absolutely deserves as many awards as can be given it. Next up is Lesley McDowell’s Unfashioned Creatures, a modern ‘Gothic’ novel of C19th Scotland featuring a friend of Mary Shelley. I heard Lesley McDowell read from it yesterday and it sounds fantastic. You did ask!”

I did, and lots of other things too. Thank you so much, Shona.

Paul Burke
September 2019

The latest book in the Seeker series, The Bear Pit, was published in hardback by Quercus in July 2019.