Ariana Franklin was the author of the acclaimed, award-winning Mistress of the Art of Death mystery series, as well as many historical novels. Ariana’s Adelia Aguilar novels won her the CWA Ellis Peters Award in 2007 and the CWA Dagger in the Library 2010, and were critically acclaimed and praised by authors such as Joanne Harris and Tess Gerritsen. She passed away in 2011, before she was able to deliver the manuscript for her standalone novel Winter Siege. Her daughter, Samantha, decided to complete the novel on her mother’s behalf.
Whether or not the news of Mum’s death came as a shock I’m still trying to work out because although she was without doubt the very best of women, she was also a deeply contrary one and she wasn’t supposed to be dying; not then, anyway.
Her time had come, or so we thought, six months earlier, when, out of the blue, she developed a rare, usually fatal autoimmune disease which attacked first her kidneys, then her brain and sent her in to a coma for three long, terrifying weeks. I remember with awful clarity the day we were summoned to the grim little room beside the intensive care unit at the local hospital, where the various doctors treating her warned that we should expect the worst and to prepare ourselves for the inevitable decision to turn off the machines keeping her alive.
So, at that point, we expected Mum to die, and were as prepared for it as any one can be, but then when she didn’t – when, in fact, against all medical expectations and odds, she actually came out of the coma and without brain damage, and even started writing another novel – I suppose, on some level, I began to assume that my marvellous, miraculous mother was somehow also immortal.
And then, just like that, it turned out that she wasn’t. On the night of 26th January 2011, having convinced us all that she wasn’t dying but recovering instead, she kissed my father goodnight, told him, as she always did, that she loved him and would see him in the morning, went to bed and died in her sleep.
Through the silent tsunami of grief which followed, my father, sister and I clung together buoyed against the huge waves of misery which washed over us by the love and support of our friends and family. Somehow we were able to organise the funeral and make decisions like what she should be buried with her – a pair of channel sunglasses, the trousers my father had bought her for Christmas and her favourite cashmere jumper with a packet of fags and her favourite novel, Pride and Prejudice, shoved in beside her for the journey.
Then a couple of months later I found myself moping around at my parents’ house – as I was want to do in those days – when the subject of mum’s last novel came up.
“You should finish it,” my father said. “She always wanted you to write and you know how much she’d hate it if it was left in the hands of a stranger.”
So that was it. The next day, too grief stricken to think of any excuses or to argue, or, indeed, do anything else, I sat down to write the remainder of my mother’s last novel.
And I was terrified, not least because I’d never written anything longer than 1,500 words before but also because mum hadn’t left any notes – certainly none that I could find. Not only that but there was also the added complication that most of her novels, including this, were set in the 12th Century. Fortunately I had read and loved them all and, therefore, had at least a passing acquaintance with medieval history but, when push came to shove, nothing like enough knowledge to take on a project as important as this. That was the point when it dawned on me that I was going to have to research like mad and learn like I’d never learned before.
With this in mind I joined the London Library, Mum’s favourite place in the world, and started plundering the back stacks just as she had, taking books off shelves which, I realised, had probably last been touched by her – after all how much demand could there be for a title like 12th Century Wooden Synagogues? Over the next couple of months I read mountains of books, wrote shedloads of notes, re-read all her novels and then I started writing.
It took more than a year to complete the first draft with many long spells – although they felt like weeks sometimes – floundering around trying to decipher what on earth she had intended by such and such and which way the plot should go. And yet, every time I came close to surrendering to despair a curious thing happened, as various narrative twists and resolutions came to me in sudden flashes and suddenly I would know, with absolute certainty, that they were exactly what she had intended.
The whole process of writing Winter Siege was, as my mother might have said, “a funny old business” yet it was also deeply cathartic, better than conventional grieving any way and in my more whimsical moments, of which my mother would not approve, I sometimes think that the unfinished novel was her last gift to me and completing it was mine to her.
Winter Siege by Ariana Franklin & Samantha Norman is published by Bantam Press on 9th October in hardback, priced £16.99. BUY IT
Photo © JOHN GRICE