Jeanne Matthews is the author of the Dinah Pelerin international mysteries published by Poisoned Pen Press. Like her amateur sleuth, Jeanne was born with a serious wanderlust. Originally from Georgia, she enjoys traveling the world and learning about other cultures and customs, which she incorporates into her novels. She currently lives in Renton, Washington with her husband who is a law professor. Where the Bones Are Buried, the fifth book in the series, is in bookstores now . You can learn more about Jeanne’s books at http://www.jeannematthews.com
Some books take longer to write than others. It took J.R.R. Tolkien sixteen years to write The Lord of the Rings. The 4,200 page typescript was so big it had to be published in three volumes. Victor Hugo began planning Les Miserables in 1830 and spent the next seventeen years toiling away to reach “The End.” It’s one of the longest novels ever written – 1,900 pages in French, 1,500 hundred in the unabridged English version. But neither of these weighty tomes holds a candle to the Codex Gigas, and the speed with which it was whipped out puts Tolkien and Hugo to shame.
Standing three feet tall and tipping the scales at 165 pounds, this so-called “giant book” was written in Latin on fine parchment made from 160 donkey skins. It contains the Old and New Testaments in jumbled order, some contemporary histories, a medical text, a series of beautiful illustrations, incantations for the exorcism of demons, plus instructions for casting spells, catching thieves, and finding treasure. It is an encyclopedia of everything that was known in medieval times, a state-of-the-art precursor to Wikipedia. But while Wikipedia is a collaborative effort by many people, the Codex was compiled and written by one man, a dissolute monk named Herman the Recluse, who’d been given a deadline – literally. If he didn’t complete this magnum opus in a single night, his life would be forfeit.
Herman’s fellow monks at the Benedictine monastery of Podlazice had grown fed up with Herman’s sinful ways and sentenced him to death. They walled him up alive and left him to starve. Despairing and hungry, Herman had a brainstorm. Writing had long been regarded as a form of atonement before the Lord. The popular belief was that if the number of words you wrote exceeded the number of your sins, even by one word, you’d be a shoo-in for heaven. Interestingly, the concept of repentance through writing has carried over to modern times in the American education system. My third grade teacher frequently ordered me to atone for my excessive talking by writing “I will not talk in class“ a hundred times.
But back to the 13th Century and Herman’s predicament. He bet the monks that if they let him live, he could write the biggest book in the world in one night. It was an impossible feat. But whether from curiosity or a sinful urge to gamble, they took his bet. They supplied him with paper, pen, and a large vat of ink and withdrew to wait for sunup.
As speedy and talented a scribe as he was, Herman soon developed writer’s block or writer’s cramp or writer’s inclination to wander off and do something else. Anything else! The clock was ticking, or it would have been ticking if they’d had clocks in the 13th Century. He realized that he was about to come up short on his word count and started to grow desperate. It was finish or be finished. With the dawn looming, he called upon his old pal, the Devil. “Please help me meet my deadline and I pinky-swear you can have my eternal soul.” Or words to that effect.
Satisfied with the terms of the exchange, the Devil took over the project. He dashed off a lightning blitz of meticulous calligraphy that modern handwriting analysts confirm to have been written by one, and only one, person. Experts estimate that if done today by human hand, it would take five years of non-stop writing to produce.
When the monks opened Herman’s cell the next morning, they were astonished. They spared his life and out of gratitude to his hornéd co-author, Herman added a large, full-page illustration of Lucifer on page 577. This tribute has given rise to the book’s alternate name, the Devil’s Bible. Legend has it that disease and misfortune have befallen those who possess the book. Currently it resides in the National Library of Sweden where I’m sure the curators say their prayers and take precautions. If you have occasion to visit, check out the exquisite penmanship of the Prince of Darkness and pause to reflect upon the price poor Herman paid to meet his deadline.
No one has threatened to kill me if I fail to turn in a manuscript on time, but a deadline does ratchet up the stress for a slacker like me. As the days dwindle down and that final plot twist has yet to be conceived, let alone written, I begin to panic. Friends ask, “What’s the holdup? It’s been two years already. Who do you think you are? Tolkien?”
Once or twice I’ve contemplated a Faustian bargain. Mind you, I’m not confessing. But if you happen to notice a strange reference on the Acknowledgements Page of my next book, don’t ask.