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A few months ago, as I was working on Road to Murder, I found trouble in the form of a French town called Montreuil sur Mer.* Well, for various reasons, my sleuth Tom Walsingham finds himself spending a night there, much against his inclination, and I needed to have a good idea of the place for that…

Only, for once, even the All-Encompassing Web, this modern day Saint Patrick’s Well, was little help, no matter how much I scoured its depths. It’s not that I came up entirely empty: I could find a few books of local history, and references in more general works on French history, a few maps of later fortifications, a few transcribed documents, and several versions of an engraving showing the town, perched on its hill, seen from a distance… Still, all of it was a a little vague – all the more because Montreuil, a fortified place of varying importance through the centuries, underwent more than its fair share of destruction, rebuilding, and shifts in fortune, and it was hard to tell exactly what was where in November 1587…

But I needed to know. Where would Tom enter the town? Where would he spend the night? What would he see on his way there? And, before you ask, yes: it had to be Montreuil, and I couldn’t move the whole chapter to some easier place… believe me: I tried.

So… what to do? Find someone to ask, was the obvious next step. I’ve been doing this for ages, mailing museum curators and webmasters, historians, librarians, authors, Town councils, college professors, historical societies… why, once I even wrote to the Turkish Naval Attaché in Rome – and he put me in touch with someone at the Istanbul Naval Museum. It’s a historical novelist thing to do, and most of the times it leads not only to the information one needs, but also to interesting exchanges. Except…

Except, alas, for France. I don’t know, perhaps it is only me – but while almost everyone else responds to this sort of inquiries with helpful solicitude, the French… not so much. Mostly, they just don’t bother to answer – and it’s not even a matter of language, since my French is definitely good enough for correspondence. And I repeat: perhaps it’s just my experience – but the fact remains that, as of last November, I’d had one fruitful exchange with France in over twenty years. One.

And well, I’d rather given up in recent years – but I’d been trying again for Road to Murder, a good half of which takes place in France, and mailed a couple of museums, one historical society, and a webmaster over a few months, always with the same result: not a single answer.

So you’ll imagine that I wasn’t overly sanguine when I wrote to the Musée Citadelle de Montreuil sur Mer… it was just a last ditch effort before giving up, and resigning myself to be cautiously generic in my description.

And then…

Then, just to show that one should mind one’s tarring brushes, a prompt answer came from Montreuil! Prompt and enormously helpful, too. Monsieur G., a kindly and enthusiastic museum curator, not only answered my questions and sent over maps, and images, and scanned chapters – but also made suggestions, and put up with more questions as I pestered him for several days. I think he rather liked the whole notion, and was tirelessly kind.

So the Montreuil chapter will be much better than it could have been, and I’m very, very thankful, and some of my faith in this sort of correspondence has been restored, and brushes and tarring, and all. It won’t change entirely my wary opinion of French cultural institutions – but it certainly was a good experience, and I take back my generalisations.


* Yes, it’s the place where Jean Valjean becomes Mayor in Les Misérables.