In August, 1655, Diana Jennings boards a small boat in Dunkirk bound for Kent, the sole lady alongside two soldiers, a gentleman and the boat’s skipper. She may be alone, but she is anything but vulnerable, as amongst the secrets kept beneath her silk dress is a stiletto, a bagful of gold coin and the confidence shown by someone who knows that while her enemies are all around, they do not suspect that she is one of theirs.
When Susan Hyde, postmistress to the royalist secret society The Sealed Knot, walks into a Kentish Inn, she is there to meet Diana. Together, they are charged with a vital, and to their minds virtually impossible task: to turn Cromwell’s spymaster John Thurloe into their unwitting accomplice. This mission has been entrusted them by the king-in-exile himself.
Set in the Interregnum, the decade between the end of the civil wars and the restoration of Charles II, Killing Beauties finds an England tired of conflict and riven by faction, the population worn down by the increasingly oppressive behaviour of their Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell. But Cromwell’s regime is protected by a new wing of government, the secret service, which has become a highly efficient survillance machine under Thurloe’s stewardship.
Killing Beauties is a tale of loyalty, betrayal, love and sisterhood, and is based on the true stories of two seventeenth century spies, Susan Hyde and Diana Jennings.
Leanda de Lisle
It's a dangerous game, asking a writer to talk about themselves. After all, you don't know how much of it will be true, how much fiction. That and the possibility that they simply won't stop.
Now deep into his fifty-third year, Pete has managed to avoid getting stuck in any one situation. Following a childhood spent mostly sitting in trees in the wilds of Norfolk, he went from living in a stately home (well, it was a military academy, and he was politely asked to leave in 'this is not a request' style) to living in North Hollywood (he was studying the dark arts of rock guitar at the Musician's Institute) with only a brief sojourn painting houses in deepest Norwich to separate them. This behaviour led to a decade of treading the boards strangling his guitar and teaching the next generation of axe-abusers at the London Music School. An accident of beer led to a monthly column in Guitar and Bass magazine, which rather shifted his worldview.
Becoming disillusioned with the music business, his emphasis shifted to the written word. He attended Queen Mary, UoL intent on doing a degree in English literature. Things, as ever, got out of hand, and they wouldn't let him leave until he'd finished a PhD on Francis Bacon (the other one). He wasn't your average student, and kept body and soul together moonlighting as, amongst other things, a theatre sound engineer.
His entrance into academia was somewhat affected by a diagnosis of Young Onset Parkinson's Disease in 2008, though he managed to lecture at several universities, including Goldsmith's and Sussex, where he had an awful lot of fun making videos and podcasts for The Newton Project. He still teaches at Oxford and delivers the occasional lecture.
Academia never quite took hold, despite the publication of a well-received book of essays on the Jacobean Book. He settled into private teaching, editing and writing, publishing Slender Threads: a young Person's guide to Parkinson's disease and The Country House Cricketer as well as writing about cricket, Parkinson's, music and literature in various places.
Pete lives between Brighton and the Netherlands with his partner, Dr. Nadine Akkerman.
photo: Rob Blackham at Blackham Images
Killing Beauties was inspired by the true histories of Susan Hyde and Diana Jennings, two of the female spies or 'she-intelligencers' that appear in Nadine Akkerman's critically acclaimed Invisible Agents, Women and Espionage in Seventeenth-century Britain. Nadine introduced me to the stars of my novel a few years ago. It is a commonplace that women are often written out of history, but often they were never written into it. Susan Hyde appeared nowhere but the archives until Nadine hunted her down, using just the same techniques as Thurloe does in Killing Beauties. It took months of sleuthing before the real Susan, what we know of her, took shape. Diana's story was different, as a transcription error made over a hundred years ago was repeated and expanded upon until what history said of Diana was mostly wide of the mark.
In Killing Beauties, I have taken what we know and filled in the (rather large) gaps with what suited my story best. If you want to know more about Susan and Diana, then why not buy Invisible Agents? It's a great book, and I'm in it, too - see if you can find me!
I'm a great fan of seventeenth century books, and the page on the left is a facsimile Letterpress Title Page that Killing Beauties would have come with had it been published back then.
The LTP was designed to show the book's title, its author and their accomplishments and esteem, and an indication that the text had passed through the hands of a patron.
The publisher's emblem, here the image of a nightingale with the Latin inscription Ego avis enim cantans inaspecta (I am the bird that sing unseen), showed the reader that the book was to be trusted, as the emblem represented the authority of the printer. They were, however, commonly lent out from printer to printer.
The final lines indicate whom the printer had been employed by and where it was to be sold. Susan Hyde lived by the sign of the Raven in Covent Garden.
Below is a facsimile of how the body text may have looked when printed.
'It is no exaggeration to say that this world is as skilfully evoked as Mantel's work of the other Cromwellian Era' – Ewan Lawrie
'An excellent historical novel and an excellent espionage novel that should delight fans of both genres' – Renaissance mathematicus
'Gripping historical fiction ... beautifully written, his research and erudition shine through each sentence' – Andrea Zuvich
'Killing Beauties is an engaging and well researched piece of costume drama acted out on a turbulent and dangerous stage.' – Fully Booked
'This is a sometimes shocking, sometimes surprising and always entertaining book.' – Julia Barham
'Dark with a dangerous edge [...] realistic and brilliantly researched.' – Jan's Book Buzz
'Marvellous fun to read [...] Highly recommended historical fiction.' – Rosie Writes
'What a fantastic read [...] if you love historical fiction - and even if you don't - this is a thrilling ride by anyone's standards' (Veronika Jordan) – 'Funny and sassy’ (Nicola Mackenzie-Smaller) – 'Very well written with intrigue and humour' (Amelia) – 'An excellent book; menacing, informative, intriguing and funny [...] Highly recommended.' (Christina Mama-Kyriacou)
Pete is available for comment, interviews and gameshows.
For review copies of Killing Beauties, just ask.
A press release for Killing Beauties is available for download
Starting points for discussion of Killing Beauties include: putting history into historical fiction; women and espionage during the period; the language of the past; making strong female characters; avoiding anachronism while engaging a modern audience; how to incorporate research into character.
Points of interest for the author include: moving from academia to fiction; crowdfunding; writing with Parkinson's; writing as a mature author.
News, links, mentions and suchlike. In fact, all manner of shiny things relating to Killing Beauties will be displayed here, so be like the crow and dip into the pile.
Killing Beauties is mentioned in a Dutch book blog, Vlogboek Literatuur.
The perils of being an early modern bottle blonde for The 17th Century Lady
The Silence of the Archives for The Writing Coach
An interview for Boundless
Author of the week interview by Elizabeth Harris
Crow by Helen Masacz
Want to say hi or send me a message? Here's the place to do it ...