By Derek Gunn
My assignment this month was THE ROMANOV CROSS by Robert Masello. This one came in when I was in the middle of another novel. This is not normally an issue as I have two weeks or so to complete the book I am on, leaving me plenty of time for the new one. However, this time I was only half way through Ken Follett’s monster WORLD WITHOUT END. That’s over 1,200 hundred pages for those who have not read it. The reason I mention this is that I was really enjoying the book and hated to put it aside so I could read THE ROMANOV CROSS. Not the best frame of mind to give a book a fair hearing I hear you say, and you would be right.
However, Robert Masello didn’t need a fair hearing from me. The book grabbed me from the start and never really let go. This book is compelling. That’s not a word I use often in my reviews, you can check if you don’t believe me. The book shifts effortlessly between the time of the Romanovs just before the revolution and the present day.We are introduced to Anastasia, Grande Duchess and daughter of the last Tsar of Russia, Nicholas II as well as the always interesting Grigori Rasputin. There have always been suggestions that Anastasia may have escaped when the rest of her family were killed in 1918 by the secret police. Masello ties into this uncertainty linking reports of the families’ Haemophilia with a possible immunity for the Spanish Flu.
Masello puts forward the hypothesis that the young woman escaped to Alaska, then owned by the Russians. It was at this time that the Spanish Flu raged across the world killing over 50 million people and the small community on St Peter’s Island, a remote, forbidding island, just off the coast of Alaska that was wiped out by the epidemic.
The modern story kicks off with a crabbing trawler pulling a coffin from the raging seas around the Island. The coffin bears a crest that marks it as Russian, and the Trawler Captain sees jewels glinting within its dark depths. The trawler sinks and the Captain is the only survivor. His dreams of possible treasure on the island sparks off a story that will see the world threatened with the most virile and deadly plague ever known.
Frank Slater is an epidemiologist with a reputation for crisis management. He is sent with a hand-picked team to the island to ensure that no more of the island’s potentially deadly graveyard slide into the sea through erosion.
I will not give any more away; suffice it to say that this is merely the beginning of a great book. The characters feel real and you quickly find yourself caring for them. Their back stories are filled in without slowing down the pace of the story and you will end up spending some anxious moments wondering if your favourites will make it through.
The transition between timelines is done well and you never feel that you are wrenched from one to the other. Historical mysteries are always fertile ground for the modern thriller writer and the still questionable evidence of Anastasia’s disappearance allows the author enough leeway to create a plausible story.
Masello is certainly busy but he was kind to take some time out and address some questions I put to him about the book and his general style of writing:
You obviously belong to the conspiracies faction that believe Anastasia survived. Can you give us some idea of where your thoughts are now with recent revelations on DNA testing?
Yes, in recent years there have been discoveries, indicating that newly-unearthed bones are almost indisputably the remains of Anastasia, the youngest of the four Grand Duchesses. But the remains have been so damaged, so confused with and contaminated by the bones of her three sisters, other family members and even the family retainers killed and mutilated at the same time that the Romanovs were, that I felt I still had some leeway. Not to mention the fact that I’m writing fiction — as I see it, that’s my all-access pass!
I love the way you have thought of a way to resurrect the Spanish Flu as opposed to using some of the later, and less virulent viruses. Do you think we could successfully contain such an outbreak in this current age of easy travel and relaxed border movement?
The more I read about the flu when doing my research, the more alarming the various scenarios became. The Spanish flu pandemic was the greatest single killer the world has ever known, and in the present-day world, where everybody does indeed travel all over and where we’re all exposed to hundreds of other people, if not more, every day, the risks rise exponentially. On the bright side, we are more geared up, in the scientific sense, than we were in 1918, better able to identify and attack a new virus as it emerges, but the danger is still enormous.
I love the supernatural elements in the book. Did you start off with these in mind or did they evolve as the story progressed?
It’s hard to say why it is, but for me the supernatural element of a story is what makes it intriguing. It’s what gets me going somehow, maybe because I’ve always enjoyed being scared by books and movies. I knew I wanted the island in the book to be haunted — what beats a haunted island, I ask you? — but I was not sure by what, or how this supernatural menace would manifest itself. That sort of thing usually arises in the writing.
How do you write? Do you have a ritual, do you plan out every detail or do you see where the story leads?
I write with a pretty clear idea of where the book starts, a vague idea of where it will end, and a mounting dread of the middle, that vast uncharted stretch that I know will keep me up many nights, and tearing out what’s left of my hair the next day. I so envy writers, like my friend George, who outline every beat of their story in advance, and only start writing when all the major wrinkles have been ironed out. But I’ve never been able to do that. On some level (a VERY subconscious one), I probably enjoy the high-wire aspect of doing it the way I do. You just have to be prepared to fall off once in awhile, and I have the bruises to prove it.
The book comes out in hardback which is great to see. So many go straight to paperback now or e-book. Do you see the Hardback disappearing or will publisher’s keep supporting this wonderful edition do you think?
I love the look, the feel, the heft of a hardback, but even I have to admit that I seldom buy them. I hope they stick around, but I also love the improvements that have been made in recent years with the trade paperback editions. They, too, are looking better and more substantial. I’m told the mass market paperback is the endangered species, due to the e-book revolution. But who knows?
In between work and writing do you have any time to read? Who do you enjoy most?
If I can ever afford to retire, what I look forward to the most is simply reading for pleasure, all the time, whatever I want. For many years now, I have been limited in what I have time for — I’m always reading books for research purposes, as this book, and its four or five predecessors, all required a lot of fact to mingle with the fantasy. I have been studying everything from flu strains to the Russian Revolution for this one, and the Italian Renaissance for the last one. It’s not that I don’t enjoy it — I do — but sometimes it would be nice to have read some of the current books that everyone else is talking about.
Robert is a long-standing member of the Writers Guild of America and lives in Santa Monica, California. THE ROMANOV CROSS comes out on March 5th in hardback and ebook and is well worth the money. If you are looking for a good thriller with overtones of the end of the world then this one certainly has enough to keep you glued to your seat. Now it’s back to Mr. Follett’s monster.
Robert Masello is an award-winning journalist, a television writer, and the author of many books, including the supernatural thrillers THE MEDUSA AMULET, BLOOD AND ICE, VIGIL (a USA Today bestseller), and BESTIARY. He has also published many articles for the LOS ANGELES TIMES, NEW YORK MAGAZINE, PEOPLE and PARADE. Not content with that he also writes for Television; CHARMED, SLIDERS and EARLY EDITION.
To learn more about Robert, please visit his website.