On the surface, C. L. Francisco (pen name Blair Yeatts) shares a lot of qualities with her main character, Miranda Lamden. For instance: although Francisco is a Kentucky native, like Miranda she is the daughter of Virginia-born parents; she and Miranda are both religion professors; spirituality is endlessly fascinating to both, personally and academically. A writer with a definite mystical bent, Francisco could no more write a novel without “spiritual” elements than she could write in Sanskrit. Spirituality is her “normal” . . . and it makes her mysteries unique. These mysteries speak with Miranda’s voice, as a phenomenologist of religion—that is, someone who goes to great lengths to set aside her own beliefs and submerge herself in the culture of the people she studies. Francisco herself also studied phenomenology as part of her PhD in World Religions.
The real life events that inspired This Madness of the Heart offer a compelling reason for these similarities: Francisco witnessed a denominational “war” with many of the same destructive results she describes in Madness, although they are exaggerated and reshaped in the novel, and the characters completely changed. She wrote the book originally as an expression of her own anger and grief, which resulted (understandably) in the creation of a protagonist much like herself. The two have diverged since that early manuscript. But in Francisco’s own words, “Trying to read Madness’ original draft felt like Harry Potter opening the screaming book in the Hogwarts’ library: the anger flamed from its pages. I realized this at the time, and set it aside—for almost twenty years—until I could return and treat it as a mere story. Then I wrote most of the anger out, changing the storyline and crafting a fast-paced tale about a slimy charlatan with an honorary divinity degree in a haunted hollow in Appalachia.”
Francisco is best known for the critically acclaimed series, Yeshua’s Cats, Christian historical fantasies narrated by a number of cats acquainted with Jesus of Nazareth. Indie Reader chose both of her two latest books, The Cats of Rekem and Cat Born to the Purple, for their “Best of” lists for 2015 and 2016.
Unlike her Cats, the Miranda Lamden Mysteries are not Christian. Miranda looks at Christianity and the Church from the outside, as one religion among many—and from the point of view of a woman alienated from her roots, wary after the pain she experienced there. But you can feel Francisco’s calm assurance of a universe undergirded by love, even in the violence and horror that flood Miranda’s small Appalachian college. Miranda’s personal struggle for meaning is the deep stream flowing beneath the treacherous rapids in Madness—as well as in the next two books in the series. One thing Francisco assures her readers: Miranda’s journey will surprise you at every turn.
Why does Francisco choose to write mysteries? “I write books I’d like to read,” she says. “And I’ve always loved mysteries, even as a child. But I’ve never cared for simple whodunits–or cozies. I enjoy watching realistic characters evolve, and since I think a series does that best, I chose to write a series. Of course, a series also has the added bonus of guaranteeing the sleuth’s survival into the next book, which puts an agreeable limit on possible disasters! The protagonist creates order from chaos, evil is vanquished (more or less), and life goes on, even if the ending is bittersweet. In fact, that’s not a bad description of the Miranda Lamden Mysteries.”