Book Discussion Guide: Serpent in the Thorns

The Second Crispin Guest Medieval Noir


In 1384, a simple-minded tavern girl comes to Crispin’s door—a body was found in her room and she’s the only person who could have killed him. Except for the fact that the man was killed by a precisely aimed arrow. Making matters worse, the murdered man was one of three couriers from the French king, transporting an important relic intended to smooth the troubled relations between France and England. Events quickly spin out of control and Crispin now finds himself the prime suspect in the murder, one with grave diplomatic implications. As the drumbeat of war between the two countries grow, Crispin must unravel the conspiracy behind the murder to save not only his country, but himself as well.


Cast of Characters

Crispin Guest, the Tracker*
Jack Tucker, his servant*
Gilbert and Eleanor Langton, owners of the Boar’s Tusk tavern*
Simon Wynchecombe and John More, the sheriffs
William, his sergeant*
Grayce, a scullion at the King’s Head*
Livith, her sister*
Ned, servant at the Boar’s Tusk*
Gautier Le Breton*, Laurent Lefevre*, Michel Girard*, French couriers
Miles Aleyn, Captain of the King’s Archers*
Martin* and Alice Kemp*, the tinker and his wife
John of Gaunt, the duke of Lancaster
Brother Eric* and Brother Michael*, monks of Westminster Abbey
Abbot Nicholas de Litlyngtion, Abbot of Westminster Abbey
Lenny, thief*
Edward Peale, the king’s fletcher*
Onslow Blunt, the king’s cook*
Freddy, scullion in Onslow’s kitchen*
Peter and Wat, the king’s archers*
Richard II, the king

*denotes fictional people


1. Why does Grayce come to Crispin in the first place?

2. Why does Crispin keep the Crown rather than surrendering it immediately?

3. What power does the Crown seem to possess?

4. When Crispin discovers the true nature of the old Plot, is his reaction justified? Should Lancaster have told him the truth to begin with?

5. Why does Livith toy with Crispin?

6. Who were the most interesting characters?

7. How does Jack Tucker help Crispin?

8. What is the importance of religious relics to the people of the Middle Ages?

9. Archery plays an important role. What was its importance to the fourteenth century, particularly?

10. John of Gaunt was a powerful man in his own right. Why did he settle for remaining duke rather than taking the throne for himself?

11. There is an homage/noir in-joke having to do with a character’s name. Have you figured it out? (Email me if you can’t)


Tell us about your second book in the series, SERPENT IN THE THORNS.

Serpent has Crispin visited by a dim-witted tavern girl. She’s found a dead man in her room who turns out to be a French courier transporting a sacred relic from the court of France to the court of England. Is the relic a peace offering from the French king or part of an assassination plot against England’s King Richard? With time running out, Crispin must get to the truth before he falls prey to a deadly trap.

Serpent in the Thorns plays much more like a suspense novel than a mystery. It’s what I call my “ticking sundial” story.

Why do relics play such an important role in your series?

Religious relics are part of the cultural mindset of those in the Middle Ages. The Catholic faith was integral to everyday life in medieval Europe. Seasons and festivals have a religious base, or at least adopted a religious foundation swiped from England’s pagan past. Bells from churches and monasteries tolled the time of day. Indeed, the concept of timekeeping stemmed from the monastic need to pray the Divine Office, those special prayers that divided up the day. This was a time when there was no distinction between passing from the earthly plane to that of the spiritual, and relics were that tactile portal that bridged the gap between God and man. The relics of a saint, a holy person, or something that was close to Jesus, like the Crown of Thorns, was particularly prized. So much so that we have the beginnings of vacations, that is, pilgrimages to see holy sites or holy shrines containing a saint’s relics, either an actual portion of a saint like his or her bones or hair, or something that touched them, like cloth or something they used, like a cup.

As far as the stories themselves, there was the idea of a McGuffin, an object that propels the plot, either something everyone is trying to get their hands on or can’t wait to get rid of. I wanted another element to these character-driven stories besides a murder and whodunit. But I didn’t want to get too formulaic about it either. I don’t think that’s very interesting for readers and I sure as heck don’t find it very interesting to write. For instance, there are already the tropes from hard-boiled fiction: the sheriff as the mistrusting police lieutenant; the women and femme fatales who inhabit the stories; Crispin’s wise-cracking. I didn’t want the books to devolve into “Crispin finds a relic that has to do with the murder.” Instead, the relic is a foil. Sometimes they have everything to do with the plot and sometimes they are merely periphery. By the same token, sometimes the murder is the main story, and sometimes the main story is really something else, with the murder as a red herring. I find this a far more interesting approach to a story I’m writing as well as one I might be reading.

Do you believe in the mystical nature of relics?

I know that people still believe in their spiritual properties. There are many faithful who still flock to miracle sites and line up in churches to see venerated objects. People are attracted to the idea of objects and people with some attachment to God. I don’t particularly believe in objects possessing any sort of mystical power, but I still find the notion fascinating. And if I do, then I know others will be interested.

What is so attractive about writing a character like Crispin Guest?

Crispin is so complex. There are many layers to him. First we have the lord and knight, the man he was raised to be with all its trappings. And he is a well-educated man and skilled in arms and action. That’s an attractive aspect to his personality. But now he is forced to rethink his past and his choices, even his position. He must live amongst people and befriend those he would never ordinarily have even talked to. This changes the dynamic of his own perception of himself, forces him to face his prejudices and to question their validity. Will he be the same man in book twenty that he is in book two? I hope not. He will have learned and experienced a great deal by then.

And lastly, I enjoy exploring the masculine perspective, that unique outlook on life that a medieval man—hell, a man of any time period!—experiences. How does he react to certain circumstances? Is it strictly the opposite of how I would react, and if so, why? These are all a part of getting into the head of one’s character and it makes writing him particularly exciting at every turn.

You mentioned a book twenty. But is there a book three?

Oh yes! In fact, there is a book three and four! I signed with St. Martin’s for two more Crispin novels, which are already written. Currently I’m working on book five, tentatively titled SEASON OF BLOOD. Book three is called THE DEMON’S PARCHMENT and it’s about a serial killer on the streets of London: Jacob of Provencal is a Jewish physician at the King’s court, even though all Jews were expelled from England nearly a century before. Jacob wants Crispin to find stolen parchments that might be behind the recent, ongoing, gruesome murders of young boys, parchments that someone might have used to bring forth a demon which now stalks the streets and alleys of London.

I’ve already got a few reviews for The Demon’s Parchment:

“Westerson’s third novel is a compelling read. Her illustration of issues that still simmer today is nuanced and sensitive, her characters will surprise and delight you, and her elegant prose will lure you in from the start. With The Demon’s Parchment, Westerson is at the top of her game.”
—Libby Fischer Hellmann, author of Doubleback; A Suspense Novel

The Demon’s Parchment is so good it’s sinful. With an unerring eye to historical detail and an uncanny knack for making the distant past feel comfortably contemporary, Jeri Westerson has written a novel sure please even the most demanding reader. Protagonist Crispin Guest (a.k.a., The Tracker) is seductive as hell, and the writing is some of the best you’ll find anywhere. Buy this book or be damned!”
—William Kent Krueger, Edgar Award-winning author of Ordinary Grace