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Cromwell's bear cull got Shona thinking

By Margaret Chrystall

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IT’S hard to believe that Brexit can even have an impact on the 17th century world of historical fiction writer Shona MacLean.

With the fourth instalment of her book about Oliver Cromwell’s top spy and fixer Captain Damian Seeker newly published, Shona is already hard at work on the next one set in Bruges.

“My passport ran out last year and I thought ‘I need to go to Bruges!’.

“I was thinking of going at Easter but then Brexit was going to be round about then and I thought ‘I’m not landing in the middle of that’.

“So then I was going to go in the summer and then Brexit was meant to be happening at last.

“But I have finally bitten the bullet and whatever happens, we are going next month!”

Shona tries to remember what inspired the new Seeker book The Bear Pit.

Busy enough with fending off attempts on the life of Cromwell, the Lord Protector, Seeker is faced with the shocking discovery of a dead body in an illegal gambling den. And it’s a body that has unmistakably been mauled by a bear.

The strange thing is that all baiting bears should have been shot under Cromwell’s orders when he banned the sport.

New book The Bear Pit, Shona will talk about it at Waterstones Inverness.
New book The Bear Pit, Shona will talk about it at Waterstones Inverness.

So where did the creature come from and who would use it for murder?

With the help of Royalist-turned-Commonwealth-spy Thomas Faithly, Seeker begins to realise that he is up against the Royalists’ finest mind and greatest fighter, sent to London to ensure the monarchy will be restored.

And soon he is wondering if he has finally met his match.

“I had read that bear baiting had been abolished on Oliver Cromwell’s orders and the bears had been shot,” MacLean said.

“And then I wondered ‘What if they didn’t shoot all of them?’.

“I also didn’t know the area south of the Thames very well where all the entertainment was in London at that time, so I thought it would be quite an interesting place to set this book.

“And at that time there were many assassination plots targeting Cromwell and I thought it was incredible that people had made all these attempts on his life – and they kept going wrong!”

The ideas all come together in The Bear Pit – which also stars a figure from history who had already captured Shona’s heart.

She laughed: “I have a friend from Aberdeen University, now a curator at the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich, and he took me through corridors where people don’t normally get to go and suddenly there was a portrait of a gorgeous-looking man.

“I completely fell for him. So when I got the chance to put him in a book, I did!”

It’s hard to reveal his identity without giving away too much of The Bear Pit’s plot, so readers, you will have to find out his identity for yourselves.

With slightly tighter deadlines for this book, Shona feels she might want to take a little break from Seeker when she finishes his next adventure which she is currently writing.

Title chosen as Scottish book of the month.
Title chosen as Scottish book of the month.

But her earlier series featuring Cruden minister’s son Alexander Seaton has just been republished in a new edition as Waterstones Scottish book of the month.

The Redemption of Alexander Seaton will be high profile across the company’s book shops in a new paperback edition which is exciting news for Shona, who writes as SG MacLean.

When it was first published in 2009 it was shortlisted for the Crime Writers’ Association best historical crime novel of the year award.

And the appearance of The Redemption of Alexander Seaton begs a question – could we see his return?

Shona admitted: “I don’t feel I have finished the story of Alexander Seaton.

“I was trying to move him to London for a fifth book in the series originally – and that is where the Seeker series evolved from because at that time I couldn’t find a way to make Alexander go there.

“But when I go out and talk to readers in Scotland, particularly, people still want to know ‘Are you doing another Alexander Seaton?’.

“He lived in such a fascinating time in Scottish history, I would like to bring him back and see him through it.”

The latest book about Seeker features a great quote from The Times: “One of the best historical crime series around”.

Do plaudits like that make a big impact on Shona?

“As a writer it is really reassuring because you think the newspapers in particular will give proper reviews and it is like saying ‘Yes, you are doing a good job there!’.”

She laughed: “Because it is difficult when you are sitting by yourself writing at home!”

Shona confessed she was going through a tough time keeping hidden the mysteries at the heart of the plot of the latest Seeker she was writing at the time of this interview.

She said: “I sometimes find it hard to keep those going and that is the stage I am at at the moment!

“My husband says I say this every time.

“ I come stomping down the stairs and say ‘This is impossible, this book is terrible!’.

“So that is where I am at present!”

n Shona will be talking about The Bear Pit at a special free book event at Waterstones Inverness on Thursday, July 25, at 6pm.

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