Bristol House by Beverly Swerling

By Don Helin

In this historical thriller, Beverly Swerling unleashes a plot so exciting that Booklist says “Elements of romance, religious mythology, cultism, and the supernatural abound as this genre-blending thriller stretches back and forth through time to a suitably dramatic denouement.”

Annie Kendall – American, architectural historian, ex-lush – takes an assignment that sends her to London seeking information about a man from Tudor times known as the Jew of Holborn, and his trove of ancient Judaica. The flat she’s subletting has two remarkable features: an extraordinary black and white mural, and an even more extraordinary ghost in whom she, of course, does not believe. Until she meets a TV pundit who looks exactly like him. And learns that the man bankrolling her assignment is up to his ears in very questionable Middle-Eastern politics, and has an agenda in which Annie is not the hunter but the hunted. The key to survival, for Annie and many others, is figuring out who the Jew of Holborn really was and what happened to him, a story that unfolds for Annie and the reader in the voices of the Jew himself, and the Carthusian monk now haunting Annie’s flat.

According to Beverly she was: “… born in Boston, went to school in the Midwest, long based in NYC while living in England, France, and Spain. Have been writing and publishing for … let’s say quite a while. Married to Bill Martin. Also quite a while. At the moment living in a Victorian Row House in Philly, which has the advantage of being an hour and a half out of New York, and allowing us three times as much space as we could afford in the city.”

I managed to catch up with Beverly the other day and had a chance to ask her a few questions.

Is there anything special you’d like to tell us about BRISTOL HOUSE?

When I first started thinking about the story that became BRISTOL HOUSE I didn’t realize I was going to play with genre quite the way I did.  I got the voice of Dr. Annie Kendall first.  She’s the contemporary American woman, a historical architect, who drives the story.  I immediately saw the outlines of the plot – including the twist in the tale.  Thing is, I also had an insistent “mystical” thread – two first person voices from Tudor times.  I was worried about blending historical fiction with what some readers would see as fantasy – I see it as speculation – and a thriller.  But books, like children, tend to come with their personalities intact. All the parent can do is maybe punch the raw material into shape.  If I was going to write this particular novel, it had to be what it was.  Otherwise I’d have to forget it and do something else.

Since I couldn’t forget it, I began to write it.  From the first I realized that the speculative elements had to themselves be grounded in Tudor reality – since I’m accustomed to historical research, that discipline came naturally.  But I soon learned that the “what if” elements of the thriller require that same devotion to accurate detail.  Long time thriller writers probably know this – that the facts support the fiction – I had to work within the genre to discover it.  So when my excellent editor suggested I need not be so detailed and specific about the location of hero Geoff Harris’s London house, I realized I had to defend that technique or lose a vital tool for helping my reader “suspend disbelief.”  I dug in my heels, and eventually she agreed.

Did any particular event inspire the plot?

BRISTOL HOUSE was inspired by a picture and a place.  The picture is that of the mother of a dear friend, the novelist Sally Nicoll.  Sally’s mother is around seventeen in the WWII era shot.  And she’s wearing the uniform of a US WAC.  Which is odd because she’d been a German-Jewish child brought to England in 1938 as part of the Kindertransport and raised there.  (That effort to get children out of Germany, Austria, and later Czechoslovakia and Poland, lasted from five days after Kristallnacht – November 15th – until Britain declared war on Germany, September 1, 1939. It rescued some 10,000 children from the Nazis.)  Because her mother died when Sally was quite young, and her father soon after, the mystery was never explained.  Sally gave me permission to riff on her mother’s story and that gave me a hugely important way into mine.  There are three vitally important codes in BRISTOL HOUSE and I needed professional code breakers.  So I created Maggie, the mother of Geoff Harris and most people’s favorite secondary character, with her background as a Kindertransport child who’s conscripted into the WACs by Wild Bill Donovan to do German-English translations at the code-breaking site, Bletchley.  When we meet her in the novel she’s in her 80s and living in a cozy flat in London’s posh Primrose Hill. (That flat is in fact my friend Sally’s, but I changed her furniture!)

As for the place – the action in the novel centers around flat no. 8 in Bristol House on London’s Southampton Row.  That’s a real apartment in a real building and I know it well.  It belongs to my son’s in-laws and I first saw it twenty years ago.  I always knew someday I would put it in a book. Not only does it epitomize a certain kind of shabby chic “Englishness,” it’s spitting distance from the British Museum.  Then there were stories of a mysterious monk who had shown up in the life of one of the flat’s owners, and intriguing murals in one bedroom.  So twenty years later all that morphed into the coded black and white mural, the ghost in the back bedroom, and how Annie sublets the flat because her research requires she be close to the British Museum.

What are you doing to promote BRISTOL HOUSE?

Viking is being wonderful.  We’ve done galley giveaways on GOODREADS and in SHELF-AWARENESS, and there will be more SHELF-AWARENESS ads.  I’m also doing guest blogs about the historical events that inspired the fiction and ten of them will run and be interlinked on pub day.  Plus ads on GOODREADS, FACEBOOK, and many other blogs. We’re doing a feature in Bookmovement.com and given the Carthusian Monk connection, we’re thrilled that a brand new pope has just been elected and has the world’s attention.  I’ll also be speaking and signing books at Five Stones Bookstore in Lebanon, PA on April 9th, Nicola’s Books in Ann Arbor, MI on April 10th, Lake Forest Book Store in Lake Villa, IL on April 11th, and Murder by the Book in Houston, TX on April 12th.  (All at 7:00 p.m. except Houston which is at 6:30.)   And of course I encourage book clubs to get in touch and set up an interaction either as an Ask-Me-Anything on Reddit, or a Skype call, or whatever works best for them.

What’s next?

Well, suppose you are a Jewish woman living in Prague in the 1930’s, and you have a chance to kill Hitler and you don’t take it.  Then you don’t just survive the war, you come out of it with enormous wealth and an invaluable secret.  And sixty years later, in New York, your great granddaughter is plagued with existential guilt she doesn’t understand, and pursued by international killers who want something she has no idea she has.

When you’re not writing, what are you doing (hobbies, family, etc.)?

I spend a lot of time as a consultant to other writers (on matters of representation and writing), and while that’s part of my job description, helping new talent surface is very exciting and rewarding. I’m also a passionate cook (a professional for a short once-upon-a-time), and I struggle to create a jewel box garden in the handkerchief-sized plot behind our Victorian row house in Philly.  And I’ve just discovered Pinterest which is supposed to be part of what publishers call my “online presence,” but which I’m learning is an addictive avocation!

What reviews are saying.

KIRKUS: “An intricately woven plot with voices from the past give Swerling’s latest historical thriller an otherworldly aura.”
It’s too early for much more on Bristol House, but for other books the LA Times has called my historical fiction “near perfect.” The Washington Post says it’s “…riotously entertaining.” ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY spoke of my “vivid tableau” and the NEW YORK PRESS calls my work “compulsively readable.”

Your book sounds terrific, Beverly.  I look forward to reading it.

Don Helin

Photography Credit: Sigrid Estrada

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