On the Trail of Shakespeare’s Hidden Partner
Mary Sharratt’s talent for creating richly imagined worlds of the past, in novels such as Vanishing Point, Daughters of the Witching Hill and Illuminations, has won her multiple literary awards. In her new book, she brings to life a little-known woman of Elizabethan England named Aemilia Bassano Lanier, who was the first professional woman poet. As the world celebrates Shakespeare on the 400th anniversary of his death, THE DARK LADY’S MASK takes readers on a suspenseful journey that asks: Was this woman his secret lover and collaborator?
What drew you to the story of Aemilia Bassano Lanier?
Aemilia Bassano Lanier (also spelled Lanyer) was the first professional woman writer in England. She was such a strong woman and her life was so filled with drama, suspense, tragedy, and triumph that she completely swept me away.
Born in 1569, she was the daughter of an Italian court musician—a man thought to have been a Marrano, a secret Jew living under the guise of a Christian convert. After her father’s death, Aemilia was fostered by Susan Bertie, a high-minded aristocrat who gave her the kind of humanist education generally reserved for boys in that era.
Later young Aemilia Bassano became the mistress of Henry Carey, Lord Chamberlain to Queen Elizabeth. As Carey’s paramour, she enjoyed a few years of glory in the royal court—an idyll that came to an abrupt and inglorious end when she found herself pregnant with Carey’s child. She was then shunted off into an unhappy arranged marriage with Alfonso Lanier, a court musician and scheming adventurer who wasted her money. So began her long decline into obscurity and genteel poverty, yet she triumphed to become a ground-breaking woman of letters.
In England at that time, the only literary genre considered acceptable for women to write was Protestant religious verse. Lanier turned this tradition on its head. Her epic poem, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (Hail God, King of the Jews), published in 1611, is nothing less than a vindication of the rights of women couched in religious verse. Dedicated and addressed exclusively to women, Salve Deus lays claim to women’s God-given call to rise up against male arrogance, just as the strong women in the Old Testament rose up against their oppressors.
What I’ve stated above are the documented facts about her life. The theory that she may also have been the mysterious Dark Lady of Shakespeare’s Sonnets only adds to her mystique.
My intention was to write a novel that married the playful comedy of Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard’s Shakespeare in Love to the unflinching feminism of Virginia Woolf’s meditations on Shakespeare’s sister in A Room of One’s Own. How many more obstacles would an educated and gifted Renaissance woman poet face compared with her ambitious male counterpart?
A 17th Century Sleuth Like No Other
A DEATH ALONG THE RIVER FLEET is the fourth in the historical mystery series set in 17th century London by Susanna Calkins. The amateur sleuth is Lucy Campion, a chambermaid in the first book. In this fourth installment she works for a publisher, setting type, hawking tracts out on the street, and sometimes, penning a tract of her own.
And she solves murders.
Calkins, a former pirate (living history specialist), was inspired by a treasure trove of 17th century murder ballads, the penny press, and the kind of tracts that Lucy Campion sells. An oft-repeated tale in these sources featured a young woman, strangled or stabbed, found with a note—signed by her lover—tucked in her pocket. Her lover was rounded up, arrested, tried, and usually hanged for the crime. Calkins wondered, “Why would a young woman go to such a tryst, anyway? Why did the murderer sign the note? Why not remove the note after his victim was dead?”
Those questions are answered in the first novel in the series, A Murder at Rosamund’s Gate, set in London in 1665, right after London was hit by the Great Plague.
The second novel, From the Charred Remains, is set in 1666, right after the Great Fire. Early forensic science is used to find the killer.
The third, The Masque of a Murderer, is set in 1667. A man dying after what appears to be an accident reveals that he was murdered, and Lucy has to solve the crime. This novel was nominated for the Lefty, the Agatha, and the Mary Higgins Clark award.
Writing Car Chases With Chain Mail
By Dawn Ius
Put two readers of historical fiction in a room together and within seconds, the accuracy debate will begin. For writers of the genre, this can often lead to the daunting task of dodging ALL CAPS emails condemning everything from perceived inappropriate character depiction to the most minuscule detail—no matter how many sources the author has sourced to back it up.
For E.M. Powell, the author of three medieval thrillers, including THE LORD OF IRELAND, released this month, shouldering the weight of potential historical inaccuracy is just part of the genre—or perhaps, more accurately, part of being an author.
“You see it time after time: authors called out on a detail that’s not correct in legal thrillers, tech thrillers, medical thrillers, police procedurals. Or at least in the opinion of the commenter,” Powell says. “I have had thundering condemnation of things in my books for which I have at least three reputable sources. As for mistakes? Yes, despite my best efforts, I make them from time to time—as does every writer I know.”
Errors appear to be few and far between for Powell, though, as sales for her first medieval thrillers have launched her to a prime spot among her peers—book two in the series, The Fifth Knight became an Amazon UK #1 bestseller in Historical Fiction, and the series has sold more than 100,000 copies.
The key to her success, Powell says, begins with thorough research and ends with scenes that are rich with character—something she struggled with early in her career—and most important for readers of historical fiction, a strong sense of setting.
“Readers of historicals like quite a lot of setting, in much the same way fantasy and science fiction readers do,” she says. “It boils down to the fact that we’re trying to build an unfamiliar world and make it believable.”
An award-winner for her historical fiction on such Plantagenet-era figures as Margaret of Anjou, Jane Dudley and Eleanor de Clare, Susan Higginbotham, an editor and attorney, turned her attention to the American Civil War for her suspense-driven sixth novel. HANGING MARY tells the story of Mary Surratt, a Southern-sympathizing widow who owned a boarding house in Washington, D.C., that became a meeting place for John Wilkes Booth and his co-conspirators. After Lincoln’s assassination, the question was, how much did Mary Surratt know? It was a question with fatal implications.
How long have you been interested in the story of Mary Surratt and what led to the decision to move your fiction from historical events in England to America?
I’ve been interested in the Lincoln assassination since I was a child, but I really didn’t know about Mary Surratt’s story until the film The Conspirator came out a few years ago. James Swanson’s book Manhunt intensified my interest, as did a couple of biographies of Mary–which reach entirely opposite conclusions about her guilt–and when it came time to propose my next book, Mary Surratt’s story was the one of several options that my editor lit upon. Since I grew up in the Washington, D.C., area, it was a treat to set my story in an area that was familiar to me.
How difficult was it to research the novel and where did you find the most useful documents?
Mary’s story wasn’t at all difficult to research–it was more a matter of sifting through all of the sources, which include trial transcripts, the evidence the government collected, memoirs, letters from Mary before she was widowed, and newspaper accounts. Nora Fitzpatrick, the young boarder who narrates half the novel, was a trickier matter, as I knew very little about her other than the bare genealogical facts when I started to do my research. Unfortunately for Nora, however, she spent the last ten years of her life at St. Elizabeth’s, the mental hospital in Washington, D.C., and I was able to get hold of her file, which includes a lengthy letter from her brother to the superintendent detailing her education and her ill-fated marriage. (Interestingly, he says not a word about Nora’s history as one of Mary Surratt’s boarders!) It, and a couple of comments he made about Nora’s personality, gave me a key to her character.
An Unexpected Heroine From History
In his popular historical mystery series, Sam Thomas tells the story of Bridget Hodgson, a well-born widow in 17th century York. Specifically, the novels take place in the time of the English Civil War. Thomas discovered his protagonist while conducting research for his doctoral dissertation in York. In a will, he read the words: “I, Bridget Hodgson, of the City of York, midwife…” His depiction of her in the series is carefully drawn from historical research, though the murders she investigates are fictional. In an interview with The Big Thrill, he tells us more.
As an academic, you researched the lives of midwives in the early modern era. When did you have an “aha” moment and realize that a midwife would make an excellent protagonist for a historical mystery series?
Hmm, I’d never quite wondered that. Oddly enough, no! It’s because I came at the series from a somewhat different angle. I knew I wanted to write about midwives, but didn’t know what genre to choose? Straight historical? Historical thriller? Mystery? In the end, mystery seemed like a good idea, both from a practical and historical perspective.
First, in mysteries, you don’t have to worry as much about the plot, particularly where to start and end the story: You start with one dead body and you end with another dead body. (I don’t mean this as criticism: you could say the same thing about writing sonnets! You don’t have to wonder how many lines it will be, or what kind of meter you should use, but that doesn’t make Shakespeare a hack.)
Second, it turns out that midwives were key figures in law enforcement in England, investigating crimes ranging from bastardy and rape to infanticide and witchcraft. They also knew all the community’s secrets: what more could you want in the protagonist in a mystery series?
Why You Should Write What You Love
By R.G. Belsky
There are authors who write thrillers set in the present-day, authors who write historical thrillers–and then there’s Steve Berry.
Berry once again mixes fascinating historical facts (the War of 1812, secret U.S. plans to invade Canada, the 20th Amendment for presidential succession and the Cold War) with fast-moving action in THE 14TH COLONY, his highly-anticipated new thriller about a desperate hunt to find hidden nuclear devices in Washington on the eve of the inauguration of a new President.
“We read that the cold war is returning, for some people it never went away,” Berry says about THE 14TH COLONY – the 11th book in his best-selling Cotton Malone series. “It deals with an ex-KGB agent who had a lot of regret and tries to extract a revenge. It deals with Canada, the only country to defeat us on the battlefield. And it deals with the 20th amendment. I wove that all into a ticking clock like a 48-hour adventure.”
Cotton Malone is an ex-Justice Dept. operative who runs a bookstore in Copenhagen and still finds himself plunged into dangerous international crises – but Berry describes his series hero as basically an “ordinary” guy.
“He was born in Copenhagen,” Berry said when asked how he came up with idea for the Cotton Malone character. “I was in Café Norden there and he just came in my brain: he’s going to live here, run a bookstore and stay in trouble. And I went home and wrote The Templar Legacy which was my breakout book.”
“I used my personality for him because I didn’t know more. He talks and acts like me – but I don’t shoot guns or any of those things he does. He makes mistakes, he screws up, and he has faults. He’s not a James Bond character – he’s a guy with ordinary problems, but he can do extraordinary things when called upon. I think that’s what people like: he could be your next door neighbor, but he has these abilities.”
By David Healey
Before he wrote Leaves of Grass or became a famous poet, and long before he had a rest stop named after him on the New Jersey Turnpike, Walt Whitman was a newspaper reporter eager for a good story.
In SPEAKERS OF THE DEAD, debut author J. Aaron Sanders has imagined Whitman as a young man caught up in a story of life—and death—as he reports on the sordid world of body snatching while trying to exonerate a friend accused of murder.
The year is 1843 and the setting is New York City. Sanders, a professor of literature, has done impeccable research into this time and place. Much of what he describes in the pages of SPEAKERS OF THE DEAD is unsettling from our 21st century viewpoint.
It scarcely seems believable that the women at the Women’s Medical College of Manhattan were discouraged from practicing medicine and barred from voting. Justice in New York was often delivered frontier-style, at the end of a rope. Corruption was the norm. Newspaper reporters not only wrote articles, but set them in lead type and printed the papers themselves on hand-powered printing presses, thus earning the nickname “ink-stained wretches.”
All of this historical context smoothly woven into the pages makes reading this novel fascinating. It’s also fun to read about Whitman during a time before he achieved literary fame.
“I like to look for gaps when I’m writing historical fiction,” Sanders said. “How did he become the Whitman of Leaves of Grass?”
The plot focuses on events surrounding the medical college, founded by a couple who are Whitman’s close friends. The husband is apparently murdered by the wife after he allegedly has an affair with a younger woman. The wife is hanged for the crime. Whitman sets out to clear both of their names.
Writing the “Near” History Mystery Thriller
The majority of what we call “historical mystery” takes place during or before WWII. It used to be that the term “antique” could only be applied to things over 100 years old. But now it frequently includes items from as recently as the 1960s. Blame it on the increasing pace of today’s electronic life, but there is now a growing interest in thrillers that take place less than 50 years ago, especially if they involve a fascinating setting, theme, or character.
The Stan Wade, L.A. private eye series, including my new novel, STARFALL, is an example of a Near History Mystery Thriller.
STARFALL is an adventure story of a Los Angeles private eye who gets hooked up with several well-known personalities of the time.
Stan’s office is in a cramped little room at the back of the Brown Derby restaurant, which lets him and the reader encounter several famous Hollywood stars and other notables of the day. The boat where he lives is moored out where they’re dredging what will one day be the glamorous Marina del Rey. And his biggest client is a movie producer, whose initials are W.D. and who is secretly connected to the FBI.
Stan is hired to figure out who murdered the 8th candidate for what today we know as the Mercury 7 astronauts.
You would think that in 1959 L.A., everything was calm and quaint on the outside, but underneath we all had fall-out shelters and knew the world could end it any moment.
Where did you get the idea for STARFALL?
I came to the idea by thinking about all the great television shows that originally aired when I was a kid. What would happen, I wondered, if the characters of these programs had to team up and deal with the real historical events of the time? In other words, what if someone like Mike Hammer were to visit 77 Sunset Strip in order to work with Sky King or Joe Friday to help stop the commies or organized crime in L.A.
What is the setting of this series of books?
Stan and his associates live in the Los Angeles of 1959. I fell in love with the year 1959. It seems to me that the majority of great private investigators worked out of Los Angeles at one era or another, and I want to put the reader in a setting that’s full of wonder and historical significance.
Historical fact or alternate history fiction?
Practically every celebrity in Los Angeles 1959 becomes part of the Stan Wade saga. Bobby Darin, Lloyd Bridges, John Ford, Mickey Cohen, Jack Benny, George Reeves, John Wayne, Ross MacDonald, Noel Coward, John Steinbeck, Philip K. Dick, and the Kingston Trio. As well as significant places like Pacific Ocean Park, Marineland, the Hollywood Playhouse, all gone… but not forgotten.
1959 was an important point in time when:
- We still used the Univac to predict election outcomes.
- The first color TV programs were broadcasted.
- First use of those beeping hospital vital signs monitors.
- Secret Soviet missile bases in Germany pointed at the UK.
- Alaska and Hawaii become states.
At the back of each book in the series I’ve added “The Fact Behind the Fiction” which details the truth and gives deeper insight into the hidden underpinnings of our world today that began back in 1959.
What’s next for Stan Wade in 1959 L.A.?
The answer is another historical mystery thriller… and it’s a lot nearer than you’d think. Coming in April is a follow-up novel: SPADEFALL, where Stan searches for a lost Hammett novel (wherein the Op meets Sam Spade). The story propels our hard-luck L.A. PI first to Texas where he confronts Jack Ruby and then on to Hawaii where he risks life and livelihood to stop a Neo-Nippon threat to America’s new 50th state.
Born and raised in the heart of the heartland, Columbus, Ohio, John Hegenberger is the author of several series: Stan Wade LAPI in 1959, Eliot Cross Columbus-based PI in 1988, and Ace Hart, western gambler from Wyoming to Arizona in 1877. He’s the father of three, tennis enthusiast, collector of silent films and OTR, hiker, Francophile, B.A. Comparative Lit., Pop culture author, ex-Navy, ex-marketing exec at Exxon, AT&T, and IBM, happily married for 45 years and counting. Active member of SFWA, PWA and ITW.
To learn more about John, please visit his website.
By E.M. Powell
John A. Connell’s debut historical thriller, Ruins of War, introduced us to Mason Collins, a former Chicago homicide detective, U.S. soldier, and prisoner of war- turned-U.S. Army criminal investigator. Now Collins is back in Connell’s latest novel, SPOILS OF VICTORY, which is again set in Germany in the immediate aftermath of World War II.
This time, the action centers on the small town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, where extortion and corruption are rife and the black market flourishes. Mason’s friend, Counter Intelligence Corps Agent John Winstone, claims that a group of powerful men are taking over the lucrative trade. Winstone is about to share his evidence with Mason when Winstone, along with his girlfriend, is brutally murdered before he can do so. Mason is determined to find those responsible. This is easier said than done in the murky underworld he enters.
His investigation uncovers more deaths—and soon his own life is on the line, too. Mason is not only unsure of who to trust but also aware that some of his past has returned to claw him back to a very dark place. Connell has crafted an intriguing, pacey thriller, and the reader is with Mason every step of the way in trying figure out who is behind the murders.
I really liked Mason as a character and I wondered where Connell drew his inspiration from. “Actually, Mason Collins was a villain in a previous novel, may it rest in peace on my hard drive, but I found him so compelling that I decided to make him my hero in a new novel. This became my first in the Mason Collins series, Ruins of War. Despite Mason’s new status as the protagonist, I wanted him to have the potential to cross over to the dark side, to borrow a well-known phrase, which is only kept in check by a strict moral code. In SPOILS OF VICTORY, the pressure and drive to find the killers drives him close to that dark edge several times.”
As with all the best historical writers, the setting brings an extra life to the novel. Connell has a long-standing passion for history, with a huge interest in World War II since childhood. He more lately came to an era that is less well-known— its aftermath.
Connell says he was staggered by what he found. “Germany had been bombed back to the Middle Ages. Death by famine, disease, and murder had replaced the bullets and bombs. Take Garmisch-Partenkirchen, the setting for SPOILS OF VICTORY: a picturesque town in the Bavarian Alps, with gingerbread houses on Hansel-and-Gretel lanes. But in the first two years after the war, it became the Dodge City of occupied Germany.”
By Karen Harper
It was fun to interview such a versatile author–John Hegenberger writes everything from novels and short stories to nonfiction such as a comic book guide and a silver screen guide. Here’s what he has to say about his current thriller, SPYFALL.
Please tell us what SPYFALL is about.
In 1959, a hard-luck L.A. PI gets caught up in the international intrigue. It’s chock-full of the popular-culture of the day and based on actual facts. Plus, you won’t believe how close we all came from nuclear holocaust in September 1959.
On your website (and no doubt in much of your varied writing) your motto seems to be HAVE FUN. Can you expand on this? In writing? Reading? In life in general? Do your main characters ascribe to this philosophy?
We all want and need to do this, don’t we? Me, my characters, and my readers; all love to have fun. I mean… isn’t that why we read and write? A thrill ride doesn’t have to just be scary.
Likewise, I was really intrigued by the fact some of your stories are called “rollicking noir.” Can you explain this apparent contradiction as reflected in your work, especially SPYFALL?
Things are actually dark for our protagonist, Stan Wade, but he enjoys his chosen profession and surrounds himself with a host of friends who faced death with a smirk. Readers will have fun in Stan’s universe. Like a circus ride, it’s a high-speed, hilarious romp thru 1959 L.A.
Elizabeth Edmondson writes what she likes to call Vintage Mysteries, set in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. They’re stories of love, marriage, families and friendship, where the loyalties, feuds, secrets, and betrayals of the past cast long shadows into the present.
A QUESTION OF INHERITANCE has a very traditional setting: a small English town in the 1950s. Why did you choose this period and location?
The early 1950s in England (these mysteries scan a period from 1953-1954) were a time of transition. The effects of World War II were still being felt, and traces of wartime life lingered with austerity, shortages and rationing. Yet at the same time, people were turning their backs on those grim times and looking forward to a brighter future.
My imaginary cathedral town, Selchester, complete with a castle, is the perfect setting for a traditional English mystery. Selchester is a strong community, full of gossip and interesting characters who are more or less affected by the events that unfold in the book, including murder.
You have a series title: Very English Mysteries. Are the books linked?
Yes, they are, although each book is self-standing. The main characters return in this second mystery, including the sleuth, Hugo Hawksworth, and his chief collaborators including a closet novelist, a belligerent teenage girl and a suave Catholic priest. I like developing a place and a supporting cast book by book, and so many of the minor characters will also feature in multiple instalments.
He’s English, of course?
Yes. He’s an intelligence officer who took a bullet in the leg while on a mission in Berlin and has had to take a desk job in Selchester at Thorn Hall, a secret government establishment. He has a strong sense of justice and an inquisitive nature, so when in the first book A Man of Some Repute, the body of the long lost Earl of Selchester is unearthed under the flagstones at the castle, Hugo wants to get to the truth of who killed him. And he’s ably aided and abetted by the dead earl’s niece, Freya.
By Karen Harper
I was pleased to interview J. Sydney Jones because I love and write historical novels, and I’d read an earlier book of his for a review a while ago. My endorsement of his earlier “Viennese Mystery” said something like this: What Arthur Conan Doyle did for Victorian London and Caleb Carr did for old New York, J. Sydney Jones does for Vienna. This multi-talented author really brings place and character alive! And how perfect for an author to have lived for years in the setting for his mystery series.
What is THE THIRD PLACE: A VIENNESE MYSTERY about?
THE THIRD PLACE is the sixth installment in my Viennese Mystery series, set at the turn of the twentieth century and featuring private inquiries agent Advokat Karl Werthen and his partner in crime detection, the real-life father of criminology, the Austrian Hanns Gross.
In this series addition, Werthen and Gross investigate the murder of Herr Karl, a renowned headwaiter at one of Vienna’s premier cafés. As the investigation turns up new clues, Werthen and Gross are suddenly interrupted in their work by a person they cannot refuse. They are commissioned to locate a missing letter from the emperor to his mistress, the famous actress Katharina Schratt. Franz Josef is desperate for the letter not to fall into the wrong hands, for it contains a damning secret. As the intrepid investigators press on with this new investigation, they soon discover that there has also been an attempt to assassinate the emperor. Eventually, Werthen and Gross realize that the case of the murdered headwaiter and the continuing plot to kill the emperor are connected, and they now face their most challenging and dangerous investigation yet.
Of all the writers I’ve known or interviewed, you seem to have written in the most formats and genres: fiction and nonfiction and within those parameters, narrative history, mysteries, and stand-alone thrillers. You were a correspondent and freelance writer throughout Europe. Which came first for you and do you have a favorite? Is one form more challenging?
And may I add juvenile fiction to that mix. I published a YA novel a few years back, Frankie, about the Ludlow massacre, and my middle grade novel, Bach Is Back, will be out next year.
The Dangerous Life of a World War I Nurse
By Dawn Ius
Caroline and Charles Todd certainly aren’t the first mother/child team to co-write fiction—but for this duo, with more than two dozen thrilling books under their collective belts, writing together is a natural progression of their already close relationship.
As long as they’re not in the same room.
With the release of PATTERN OF LIES, the team’s seventh book in the popular Beth Crawford series, Caroline and Charles took some time with The Big Thrill to reflect on what made them join forces creatively, where this book takes readers, and what fans can expect next.
“When we started working together, we were over 400 miles apart,” Charles says. “So in many ways it was like working on your own, with somebody else there to talk about it. We still can’t write in the same room though—too easy to get off topic.”
“We were both history buffs, we’d seen a lot of the same movies, read many of the same books, loved going to England,” Caroline adds. “I had come to a point where I wanted to do something different and Charles was at a point where he wanted to do something else on business trips besides the bar scene or watching TV.”
To their amazement, it was an easy transition, particularly given their family’s great love of storytelling.
“After the first couple of weeks, I don’t think it mattered to me that I was working with ‘Mom,’ ” Charles says. “”She’s smart, she had something to say and so did I, and soon we were so wrapped up in the characters and the story that our relationships was nowhere near as important as what was happening on the computer pages. Caroline was the person on the other end of the phone call or e-mail, and each conversation resulted in a new way of thinking or a change in direction of a fresh view of a character—and a challenge for both of us to get it right. That makes for good writing.”
As evidenced by their long-standing partnership and multiple bestsellers. Together, they’ve written two stand-alone mysteries, eighteen books in the Ian Rutledge series, and seven books featuring Bess Crawford, a World War I British Army nurse. As with all series characters, Bess has grown with each book, but her beginnings were inspired by a gap in Caroline and Charles’ own storytelling that they felt needed to be filled.
The Big Thrill caught up with Jacquelyn to chat about genre-bending, magic mirrors, and dangerous men.
Ellie is such a smart protagonist. What inspired you to create her?
Ellie did not come naturally to me. When I set out to write THE SMOKE HUNTER, I started with the idea of a heroine who was something of a broken woman. I made it almost all the way through my first draft with her and hated almost every minute of it. Then this startlingly clear vision popped into my mind: a woman dragging her suitcase down the pavement, both terrified and exulted by the realization that she was a thief.
I lost the suitcase, but I kept the thievery. Instead of creating someone who was a victim of her circumstances, I found myself writing a woman who reached out and took hold of her own fate. The Ellie who made it into THE SMOKE HUNTER is smart and driven, unafraid of diving into circumstances other women of her time would find unthinkable.
You draw on a lot of history and mythology in THE SMOKE HUNTER. How much of it is true?
Quite a bit, actually. There were, in fact, stories of hidden cities of wealth and power that threaded their way through the Americas during the 17th and 18th centuries, from Mexico to Patagonia. This might simply have been a case of neighboring civilizations sharing and passing along the same myths and stories—or there might have been some sort of truth to them we’ve yet to discover. The same goes for the remarkable similarities between Mayan and Aztec origin stories, right down to the name of the city said to be the birthplace of their civilizations. Obviously, in THE SMOKE HUNTER, I take a few liberties in offering a slightly fantastic theory of what the City of Seven Caves might have been, but I don’t think we can entirely rule out that there may have been a real place behind these myths.
The Smoking Mirror is actually one way of translating the name of the Aztec god Tezcatlipoca, and disks of polished obsidian have been found in both Mayan and Aztec archaeological sites and are associated with prophecy and sacrifice in their iconography. That association between mirrors and the ability to see into the past and future, or across great distances, is one found in other cultures as well. Remember Snow White’s wicked stepmother?
Award-winning author JL Merrow describes herself as a rare beast, an English person who refuses to drink tea. But that’s not all that identifies her. She is also a prolific author. Case in point, TO LOVE A TRAITOR is her thirteenth novel, and she has also written seven novellas and more than fifty short stories. So, while she may eschew the art of drinking tea, her prolific writings clearly demonstrate her embrace of the authorial arts—much to the delight of her fans! She writes gay romance, mostly contemporary romantic comedies and mysteries, with an occasional foray into historical and speculative fiction. Ms. Merrow attributes her alternating between genres to having a short attention span, but anyone who can write that many books and short stories, and has garnered awards and nominations for multiple titles, does not suffer from that particular condition.
TO LOVE A TRAITOR falls into her historical category. Set in England shortly after World War One, Roger Cottingham is faced with a dilemma. He suspects Matthew Connaught spied for the Germans during the war, and that his actions led to his brother’s death during a patrol into no-man’s land. Though Roger worked in Naval intelligence during the war as a cryptographer, he’s certainly not trained to investigate a potentially dangerous traitor. Despite the risks, he is determined to uncover the truth, but what he doesn’t count on is falling in love with the very person he’s investigating. What is he to do if, as the mounting evidence suggests, he finds Matthew guilty? Is he TO LOVE A TRAITOR, or see that Matthew is punished for acts leading to his beloved brother’s death?
JL Merrow was kind enough to answer some questions for The Big Thrill.
I’m sure you’ve had to field this question before, but could you tell us why, as a woman, you tend to write stories with male protagonists?
Honestly? I just feel more comfortable writing about men, particularly for longer works. I think I find it easier to be objective about male characters—women in our society are basically taught to judge themselves against one another (as I’m sure men are too) so when I’m writing about a man and his motivations, I find I have a lot fewer hang-ups!
THE FLAWED DANCE is a story that has been simmering on my memory burner for 50 years. I finally decided that Erin Matthews, my protagonist, has been waiting too long. She literally demanded I tell her story. I’ve hesitated this long because, in essence, her story parallels mine.
Erin’s story begins in 1968 upon her arrival in Philadelphia, after convincing a co-worker at the restaurant where she worked as a waitress to drive her from New Jersey. She has run away from her long-time lover after hitting him over the head with an iron skillet, rendering him unconscious, if not dead. After being submissive and quiet most of the five years she spent with him, nursing him back to health after he experienced a fall that fractured both feet, and being his constant companion and lover, she is unable to cope with what she has done. Never mind that she was only 22 and Johnny was 52 and running from a hit man sent by the Mob—she never dreamed she would be capable of attempted murder. Guilt becomes her motivator as she seeks redemption.
Erin moves in, sight unseen, with the brother of her driver, an elderly African-American, who once had his own issues with the Mob. As the only white girl in the neighborhood in an era of racial unrest, Erin is determined to make a new life for herself. At the same time she must watch her back in case her past catches up with her.
The steps she has to climb to reach her destination are fraught with hidden dangers, exacerbated by her own naivety and being quick to trust the wrong people. After several missteps and bad decisions, she lands a few jobs, first as a waitress, then a medical transcriber at a hospital, and finally as a go-go dancer. The last pays more than the others but also brings her into the arms of the Mob. Intrigue, betrayal, and murder follow Erin and she must do some fancy footwork to avoid getting killed herself.
Their investigation into a series of claim-jumps near the booming mining community of Wallace, Idaho, suddenly turns deadly as one witness after another turns up dead. It turns out that the theft of land and mineral rights is only the beginning of a much deeper conspiracy…
Matthew and Chance follow the leads as best they can, knowing full well that their investigation has turned into a game of cat and mouse … but who is the cat in this deadly contest?
Starting in the deep woods of North Idaho and culminating in the finest, most exclusive ballrooms of high society in Seattle, Washington, follow Matthew and Chance Wilcox as they match wits against one of the worst criminals they have ever faced!
The year is 1290–twilight of the Crusades. War-weary Knight Templar, Jonathan St. Clair, is garrisoned in the port city of Acre and more interested in learning Kabbalah than fighting Moslems. He possesses an ancient scroll with a cryptic inscription, the key to unlocking the secrets of Jerusalem’s Temple Mount.
But none of the Jewish scholars in Acre can decipher the inscription. And time is running out. Acre will soon come under siege, and the one man able to decipher the scroll’s meaning, Rabbi Samuel of Baghdad, has been targeted for assassination.
Deep in enemy territory, St. Clair apprentices himself to Rabbi Samuel as they travel to Jerusalem, risking everything to fulfill their shared and sacred destiny as guardians of the Temple Mount.
On the surface, my work doesn’t have much in common with contemporary medical novels. Today’s thrillers with medical themes often involve highly educated professionals—doctors, nurses, surgeons—while I’m invested in a peasant from the 14th century, whose medical education includes bleeding patients to balance their humors, the belief that water spreads disease, and the use of human anatomical charts based on pig dissections.
My adventure-based historical fantasy series, the Dark Apostle, which continues July 2 with ELISHA REX, began with reading far too many books about medieval medicine, until the facts and the anecdotes exploded into the idea for a story. My research began with a single title: Devils, Drugs, and Doctors by Howard W. Haggard, M. D. I have the Pocket Book edition of 1940, the fifteenth printing of a work that first came out in 1929.
This is a rambling and engaging popular volume which follows the history of medicine through a variety of approaches, none of which involve footnotes or a bibliography. It frames this history through the window of childbirth, a common biological event, yet one fraught with risk for both mother and child. I wouldn’t recommend this book as a sole reference, but as a source of inspiration for medical fiction, it’s a treasure trove. It doesn’t shy away from lurid tales and speculations, but includes lots of quotes from historical sources, including illustrations and broadsheets from the past. It is, in short, just the sort of work that gets a writer curious, then excited, to learn more.
Mid-way through reading Devils, Drugs, and Doctors, I had an idea for a character, a barber-surgeon, during a problematic childbirth. This is when the true research began. I drilled into Haggard’s text, searching for other references, finding more books, and running my interlibrary loan librarian a bit ragged in my quest for knowledge. It also led me to Kalamazoo, to the International Medieval Congress, an annual gathering of medieval scholars, and a great place to pick up ideas and research materials.
By Karen Harper
Colin Edmonds is a writer who wears many hats—including his unique debut novel, STEAM, SMOKE & MIRRORS. A successful script and comedy writer for British TV, he has written a steampunk thriller/mystery with brilliant characters. As an Anglophile and lover of Victoriana, I was amazed at the book’s range of plot and people, the real and the fictional. Ladies and gentlemen—sit back and enjoy (and be frightened) for the show is about to begin!
What is your novel about?
STEAM, SMOKE & MIRRORS is set in the swirling fog-filled streets of London in 1899. It’s a thriller-mystery which chronicles the adventures, often misadventures, of a couple of Music Hall/Vaudeville stage magicians who are reluctantly seconded by Superintendent William Melville of London’s Metropolitan Police Special Branch (the forerunner of the British Secret Service MI-5) to help solve the unsolvable. You know, those uncanny curiosities, unfathomable mysteries, bizarre and arcane crimes which defy logic and, frankly, baffle the authorities. My magicians, who also work a twice nightly show at The Metropolitan Theatre of Steam Smoke & Mirrors in West London’s Edgware Road, are the devastatingly handsome Michael Magister, Bronx-born conjuror who has performed in England for just over a decade, and his equally brilliant, drop-dead gorgeous British assistant Phoebe Le Breton.
Because magicians are masters of misdirection, deception, sleight of hand, and all manner of subterfuge, Michael and Phoebe are the Special Branch’s obvious go-to advisers when mysterious crimes start getting just a little too weird.
In this opening case, a former Music Hall hypnotist has escaped from Hanwell Asylum, vowing to murder all the performers who appeared in her final show. Michael and Phoebe must employ all their cunning and experience chasing down this mind-bending killer, whose gruesome revenge makes The Ripper look like a novice. Especially as Michael Magister’s name appears on her Death List.
As the murders mount up and the mystery unravels, history-changing secrets are revealed; not only magic trick secrets and state secrets, but the secrets Michael and Phoebe have been keeping from one another.
All this is set against an exotic backdrop of national conspiracies and steampunk. But is anything what it seems? Or is it all steam, smoke, and mirrors?
You might recognize J. Sydney Jones as the author of the Viennese Mystery series. Or you might know him from his nonfiction. Whether you are familiar with Jones or not, you’ll want to check out his latest stand-alone novel, BASIC LAW.
According to Jones, “ex-pat American journalist Sam Kramer is burned out: too many dead bodies, too many wars covered, too little meaning in it all. He’s got a dead-end job at the Daily European as the correspondent in Vienna, where nothing happens now that the Cold War is over. And that’s exactly how Kramer likes it.
“But his private neutral zone is shattered with news of the suicide of Reni Müller, a German left-wing firebrand and Kramer’s long-estranged ex-girlfriend. To his surprise, Kramer suddenly finds himself the executor of Reni’s literary estate—but the damning memoir named in her will is nowhere to be found. Tracking down the manuscript will lead Kramer to the unsettling truth of Reni’s death, drawing him back into the days of the Cold War and showing him the dark side of the woman he loved.”
Jones reports that the idea for BASIC LAW is based on a personal real-life experience. As he tells it on his blog, Vienna in the late 1960s and early 1970s was a haven for spies. Not only were there the expected factions representing both East and West, Austria had a rather large intelligence service of its own. “It’s also vital to note Vienna had a lenient twenty-year statute of limitations against Nazi war criminals. Thus, as with one’s friends and spying, you never knew if your cheery landlord was a former SS or not.”
One day while writing at a “dive of a café,” he realized he wasn’t in Kansas anymore when a drunken man approached him, asking what he was writing. When told a short story about Vienna, the man sat himself down, bared his arm and whispered he had stories. It didn’t take Jones very long to realize the man was former SS.
A spy flits from shadow to shadow across Oxford-town, pausing at last to study the doorway of the main library, wherein a secret that could threaten all of England may be found. There are two guards there, guns at the ready, and the spy knows that a single misstep could prompt them to open fire and spill his blood onto the cobblestone streets.
In the plus column: The spy is invisible.
In the minus column: The guards are zombies.
Had you there for a minute, I bet. The passage above is a quick-and-dirty summary of a scene in my latest book, THE VENUSIAN GAMBIT. That first paragraph could describe any number of thrillers—the last two lines winnow the matter down considerably.
Let’s go a bit further. What if I told you the guards’ guns were muskets? That the zombies were part of Napoleon’s army in 1809, an army that had successfully invaded England? And that the secret was something guarded by diminutive lizard-men living on Venus? Now we’re talking historical fantasy and space opera. But we’re also still talking about a thriller.
There can be a certain “get your chocolate out of my peanut butter!” mentality when it comes to crossing genres, but that’s never stopped me. Some of the best thrillers I’ve ever read are outright science fiction—particularly the ones dealing with nanoviruses or high-tech perils. More plausible than Napoleon’s zombies? Sure. But not happening in the present day. They’re speculative—and speculation is at the heart of science fiction and fantasy.
By John Darrin
Talking about bodice-ripper novels with a voluptuous women’s body from the neck down on the cover, Karen says, without guile: “The only time I’d want a headless character on a book cover is if the neck was gushing blood, her head having been chopped off in the story.”
Thus we begin my article on Karen Maitland and her latest medieval thriller, THE RAVEN’S HEAD.
What? Gushing blood? From this historian and member of a popular comedic speaker’s troupe?
When asked about this seeming contradiction, she says, “We go for ‘gallows humor.’ Years ago, when I worked in a hospital, I often had to go down to the morgue. The mortuary technicians were the funniest guys I’ve ever met before or since.” Maybe she should recruit some for a stand-up tour. They could call themselves “The Body Snickers” or “Embalmapalozza.”
To say I was taken aback would be an understatement. My research into this very knowledgeable and intelligent historian had led me to make a note that said, “She has a depth and intellect that seems to repel humor and sarcasm.”
By David Healey
Long before there was the Walther PPK or the Glock—long, long before—there was the handgonne. In an age of swords, knights in armor, and pikes, the arrival of firearms was both world-changing and sinister.
Though primitive by today’s firearms standards—handgonnes resembled metal pipes attached to broom handles—and so unwieldy that two men were required to fire them; they were deadly nonetheless.
When several bodies are discovered in London with strange new gunshot wounds in the year 1386, it falls to “middling poet” and purveyor of secrets John Gower to investigate the case. What are these strange new weapons, who is wielding them, and what secrets are at stake?
This is the premise of Bruce Holsinger’s intriguing new historical novel, THE INVENTION OF FIRE, recently selected as an Amazon Best Book of the Month. The novel follows on the heels of 2014’s A Burnable Book, in which readers first met the main character.
Though fictionalized, Gower is based on a real person, a fourteenth-century man of law and letters who was a close friend of Geoffrey Chaucer. Much more is known about the author of The Canterbury Tales, of course; and Chaucer figures prominently in both books. To put these novels in historical context, it may help to know that they are set during the reign of Richard II, near the onset of the Hundred Years War.
By Dawn Ius
Few eras inspire more passion—and controversy—than the Tudor Dynasty, a period of tumultuous change in England, and of course remembered for many of King Henry VIII’s exploits. Between denouncing his religion to marry Anne Boleyn and then beheading her, to his most well-known legacy of being somewhat of a (ruthless) womanizer, it’s no wonder the Tudors have front lined hundreds of books, TV shows and movies, and even today continue to feed the pop culture machine.
As an author entering the well-documented Tudor era, it might be easy to get lost in the milieu—but Nancy Bilyeau, author of the award-winning Joanna Stafford series, has carved out her own niche by writing thrilling plots set within the “real” time, while focusing not only on the more recognizable characters of the past, but also on some of the lesser knowns—like Sir Walter Hungerford, for instance, who was executed alongside Thomas Cromwell and, according to Bilyeau, may—or may not—have been a debauched madman.
“Almost everyone writes fiction in the Tudor era from the Protestant side of the Reformation,” she says. “I don’t. I have given a great deal of thought to how it felt to survive the Dissolution of the Monasteries when you were a committed Catholic. As a daughter of a Catholic mother and a Protestant father, I know what it’s like to be divided—I am drawn to stories of religious strife. An English friend of mine said, ‘This is so interesting, to hear about history from the losers.’”
Bilyeau’s fascination with these historical characters stems from a deep-rooted love of English history. While her library is well-packed with non-fiction texts, this is only the beginning of her extensive fact-finding mission for each book. As a trained Journalist, whose editorial credentials include Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly, Bilyeau understands the value—and importance—of a well-researched novel. Particularly in the case of her Tudor-inspired thrillers.
One of the most appealing aspects of the thriller genre is its sheer breadth. Thrillers can be modern or historical, grounded in gritty realism or cloaked in supernatural fantasy, or any range of flavor in between. For thriller lovers who at least occasionally like their thrills served with a western flare, The Big Thrill recently caught up with Linell Jeppsen, previously the author of several works of science fiction, paranormal romance, and fantasy, to talk about her latest novel, LUCKY CHANCE, and how it fits into her more recent fictional universe of western action-thrillers.
Thank you for taking the time to join us at The Big Thrill and congratulations on your newest novel! While your latest books are action-adventure thrillers, they’re also very much westerns in the classic sense. What made you pick that type of genre and setting for your stories after having been writing in the fantasy and science fiction realm?
I really don’t know-—except for the fact that the first of the Deadman series percolated in my head for many years. It took about three paragraphs to realize that writing historical fiction was a whole different kettle of fish from my usual fantasy and science fiction! The first book starts in 1864… I mentioned “barbed wire” and thought, “Wait! Was barbed wire even invented then?”
Since then, I have gone on to write many more books in the series, I am far more comfortable with the research aspects of historical writing-—although it can still be a pain.
Tell us about LUCKY CHANCE, your most recent release. What do you think readers of The Big Thrill would find most intriguing about the book and its characters?
LUCKY CHANCE is meant to serve as a bridge between the Deadman and the Chance series. Many of the characters are the same—only seven years have passed and the age and circumstances of the characters have evolved.
LUCKY CHANCE is about boxing during the turn of the century. Chance Wilcox was a heavy weight boxing champion in the Army, so he is uniquely qualified to determine whether or not the culprits in this tale are guilty of “loading” their gloves with plaster of Paris. This was a fun little story but again… called for a TON of research.
John Connell spent years working as a cameraman on some of the biggest films and television shows in the country, including Jurassic Park and NYPD Blue. He loved the travel, the excitement, and the art of bringing stories to the screen. He also learned a lot about storytelling from some of the best in the business. Though he loved the work, he longed to move from behind the scenes helping bring to life someone else’s story, to writing his own. So, he left the industry, and began writing full time.
He was not an overnight success.
It took a decade, four defunct novels, and countless rejections before Connell landed a publishing deal. But the hard work and determination paid off. His novel, RUINS OF WAR—a unique, historical thriller set in postwar Germany—is already garnering national acclaim. And Connell, well, he’s considered a debut-to-watch.
The Big Thrill caught up with Connell at his home in Paris, where the author graciously agreed to answer a few questions.
What prompted the idea for a thriller set in postwar Germany? Do you have a personal connection to the period?
I’ve been a WW2 buff since I was a kid. I’ve read tons of books about the strategies, the politics, the rise and fall of Nazi Germany, though it’s the personal accounts of the individual soldiers that are my favorites. I felt I knew a good deal about the years leading up to and during the war, but I had neglected one vital part of that incredible era: its aftermath. My previous notions of relative peace and order were turned upside down while I was researching the backstory of the antagonist in an earlier, now defunct, novel.
By Basil Sands
Thomas F. Monteleone is a writer who has not been wasting his time. Thomas has published more than 100 short stories, 5 collections, 7 anthologies and 27 novels including the bestseller, New York Times Notable Book of the Year, The Blood of the Lamb. A four-time winner of the Bram Stoker Award, he’s also written scripts for stage, screen and TV, as well as the bestselling The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Writing a Novel (now in a 2nd edition) which sits on the bookshelf of this reviewer. His latest novel is a global thriller, SUBMERGED, and I must say I found myself Immersed in Submerged.
He lives in Maryland with his wife, Elizabeth, and all the high taxes. He is also co-editor of the award-winning anthology series of imaginative fiction, Borderlands. He is well-known as a great reader of his own work, and routinely draws SRO at conventions. Despite being dragged kicking and screaming into his sixties and losing most of his hair, he is still in many circles considered to be one who thinks he is dashingly handsome—let’s humor him.
Thomas, tell us about SUBMERGED.
It’s a thriller in the tradition of the best Ken Follett novels that use recent historical events that somehow still have great influence on us today. Having always had an abiding interest in World War II, and especially the astounding technologies of the German war machine, I have admired the novels of Frederick Forsyth and Greg Iles and Jack Higgins. I Like the challenge of using historical facts to make fiction ring true with credibility. So what if . . . . the Kriegsmarine had launched a super-sub—and underwater aircraft carrier with the ability to launch a bomber over the USA?
Jess Faraday, to list everything she has done professionally would leave you reading for a while. To name a few, Faraday is the author of the Ira Adler series, which includes The Affair of the Porcelain Dog, a Lambda short-listed book, and Steam-punk thriller The Left Hand of Justice, as well as, some short stories, non-fiction articles, and she’s even worked as a mystery editor for Elm Books.
Faraday realized that she wanted to try writing when she found herself more focussed on finishing all her tasks quickly so she could create stories. Her newest novel, FOOL’S GOLD, continues with Ira Adler finally in a better place until something upsets the balance and then puts him on the trail of a larger scale plot, and leaves him questioning his choices. Faraday was kind enough to take time out to talk to The Big Thrill.
Tell me about FOOL’S GOLD.
FOOL’S GOLD is the third historical mystery featuring accidental sleuth Ira Adler. In this instalment, Adler, a confidential secretary, has just gotten his life together—financially, personally, and professionally—when an explosion turns everything upside down. With his London life falling down around his ears, he accepts an invitation to accompany friends to California, where he uncovers a plot that stretches from the back streets of Whitechapel to the dusty dirt roads of Porterville. In addition, some chance encounters make him question whether he wants to return to London at all, or to pursue a new life in a new country.
How can you tell if a historical mystery is going to be as exciting and suspenseful as any futuristic technothriller? Well, if it’s crafted by Thriller Master David Morrell, you can count on it. He proves that with INSPECTOR OF THE DEAD, brilliantly merging historical fact and fiction.
Set in Victorian England, Morrell’s latest novel brings us eye-to-eye with a killer who targets the highest levels of British society. To battle this brilliant murderer, Morrell plucks one of the most sensational personalities from the 1800s and brings him to vibrant life. That protagonist is Thomas De Quincey, whose notorious Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, was the first book about drug addiction.
“It made De Quincey so famous that for the rest of his life he was called the Opium-Eater,” Morrell says. “Because of his opium dreams, he theorized that the mind had caverns and abysses, layer upon layer, with secret chambers in which alien natures could hide undetected. Basically, he anticipated the theories of Freud by three-quarters of a century. In fact, he invented the word ‘subconscious.’ He also influenced Edgar Allan Poe, who inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to create Sherlock Holmes.”
Adding to his accomplishments, De Quincey created the modern true-crime genre. In his On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts,, he dramatized the first media-sensation mass killings in English history, the shocking Ratcliffe Highway murders of 1811. Morrell says De Quincey’s blood-soaked depiction of those killings hooked him into writing about De Quincey.
“The premise of my first De Quincey novel, Murder as a Fine Art, is that someone uses his detailed essay as a blueprint for committing the murders anew,” Morrell says. “INSPECTOR OF THE DEAD continues De Quincey’s adventures when the Crimean War is raging. For a week, the shocking mismanagement of the war actually caused the fall of the English government. The premise of INSPECTOR OF THE DEAD is that someone uses this crisis as the ideal time to try to assassinate Queen Victoria.”
In reality, there were eight attempts to assassinate Queen Victoria, and Morrell incorporates elements of those attacks into his story.
De Quincey works with Scotland Yard detectives in the fascinating early days of crime-scene investigation, but even more interesting is the role played by his twenty-one year-old daughter, Emily, who provides an affectionate view of her opium-eater father, persuading readers to sympathize with him as much as she does. But writing from a female perspective can be a challenge for a male writer, and writing that character in a historical period is even harder, as Morrell says.