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By Selena Robins

In THE BARBED CROWN, the sixth Ethan Gage adventure, the American adventurer journeys to Paris in the company of a beautiful comtesse to thwart Napoleon’s ascension to emperor and avenge his wife. Being Ethan, he finds the royalist conspiracy in ruins, his wife unexpectedly alive, and his wealth in jeopardy, and is recruited to spy for both the English and French. He’s also on the path of a medieval relic and the Crown of Thorns from the crucifixion of Jesus. Caught up in Bonaparte’s desperate plan to invade England, the adventure takes Ethan from the catacombs of Paris to the battle of Trafalgar, tangling him with Talleyrand, Nelson, Emma Hamilton, and a host of other historical figures.

William Dietrich recently answered some questions for the Big Thrill:

For the readers who have not read your previous novels which feature Ethan Gage as your protagonist, please give us an overall review of his character, his strengths and weaknesses.

Ethan is an American adventurer and treasure hunter caught up in the Napoleonic Wars. He’s a protégé of Benjamin Franklin and thus an “electrician,” a sharpshooter with an American long rifle, a gambler, a would-be womanizer in the earliest books (he soon meets the love of his life) and an independent man in a violent world where everyone is choosing sides. He’s an opportunist and a rascal, but moral in his own way. He’s also funny.

What do you think readers will like about Ethan Gage?

Ethan has a sense of humor and doesn’t take himself too seriously, so he’s a witty swashbuckler whose first-person viewpoint wears well. He has a journalistic curiosity about the world, and his skills draw him into the orbit of famous people such as Napoleon, Jefferson, Admiral Nelson, and Talleyrand. Like the rest of us, he’s sometimes wrong, gets into trouble, and is constantly struggling between the precepts of his mentor Franklin and his self-admitted vanity, ambition, greed, lust, and instinct for self-preservation.

Readers identify with him because he’s a relatively powerless figure making his way in a big, ruthless world, which is not that different from our own condition.

It’s scary out there.

What is your favorite historical period and why?

I like the Napoleonic period because of its color and naked ambitions. Uniforms, dresses, and ships were gorgeous, lives reckless, philosophies heated: it was life as grand opera, and fun to try to capture.

It was the best and worst of times, to paraphrase Dickens; genteel and cruel, idealistic and cynical. For much the same reasons I like the Roman period¾I’ve set two novels there¾and the Nazi period¾two more novels. You could not make Napoleon or Hitler up. Their lives were too outrageous to be invented.

What type of reader do you think will enjoy THE BARBED CROWN?

Thriller and mystery readers who like historical fiction will be drawn to the book, as will history fans and lovers of sprightly adventure.

The humor and observations are inspired by such tales as Robin Hood, The Three Musketeers, Flashman, Indiana Jones, James Bond, and other thrillers about partial rogues that have a dash of tongue in cheek.

Harrison Ford in his younger days would have made a good Ethan. The novel also has strong female characters in Ethan’s wife Astiza and Comtesse Catherine Marceau. I’m quite serious about two things: creating a convincing portrait of an early 19th Century world, and making sure the reader has a lot of fun while he/she is there.

Any interesting tidbits you can share with us that you experienced while researching for THE BARBED CROWN?

I researched the locales in France and England, especially Paris. Oddest was trying to visualize Bonaparte’s encampment from a supermarket parking lot in Boulogne. But when I got to have a drink with a pretty French editor in an outdoor cafe with a view of Notre Dame (my wife was there, too) I thought, Well, this is as about as good as it gets.

I tramped around Notre Dame, where Napoleon had his coronation, and the Paris catacombs with the bones of six million dead.

In Portsmouth I visited Nelson’s flagship “Victory” for the novel’s climax at the Battle of Trafalgar, and marveled at how that carefully restored ship brings back the era. The nearby men’s restroom had a poster over the urinal explaining what seamen in those days used for toilet paper. That factoid made its way into the novel.

Has your career as journalist and Pulitzer Prize winner for coverage of the Exxon Valdez oil spill helped with your fiction writing and developing your characters?

Many skills are similar. My books are carefully researched, and the journalistic imperatives to tell a good story and cut out the blather suit a novelist well. I don’t model fictional characters after specific people, but many people I met journalistically inspire whom I invent.

The discipline of newspaper deadlines helps, too. But journalism is a straitjacket in which you want facts that stop short of speculation, while fiction is a wilderness in which facts are mere servants in pursuit of higher truth. I’m blessed to have had the opportunity to do both.

Without giving away any spoilers; which scene in THE BARBED CROWN was the most fun to write and which scene was the most difficult to write?

I always like comic scenes that have social commentary, so enjoyed unexpectedly reuniting Ethan with his missing wife while on the arm of a lovely comtesse, and that noblewoman’s wry commentary on Paris habits and mores. It’s also fun to occasionally humble my main character by dashing his hopes.

This novel was unusually complex in the way it moves Ethan around so that his first-person view observes many famous events, and so it was challenging at times working out the motives of all characters who that it was plausible he would work for first this side and then the other, bouncing like a ping pong ball and relating real history. The coronation scene not only is one of the climaxes of THE BARBED CROWN but sets up the action of the next novel, so I wrestled with that. I tried to make my Rubik’s Cube read simple, but I sometimes feel I’m a thriller writer not smart enough to write thrillers. More like a blind watchmaker.


“I am a big fan of William Dietrich’s Ethan Gage novels and THE BARBED CROWN is a great addition to the series. Gage is a rascal and he’s in trouble again–Napoleon, Lord Nelson, a pack of British spies and a sexy, seductive Comtese all want him dead. An exciting, funny and educational read.” –Phillip Margolin, author of CAPITOL MURDER.

“Brilliantly conceived and crafted from the first word, Dietrich puts great characters in seemingly impossible situations on every page. A fun, fast, exhilarating read. I haven’t read a historical novel this good since Ken Follet’s PILLARS OF THE EARTH.” –Robert Dugoni, author of THE CONVICTION.


William Dietrich is the NY Times bestselling author of the Ethan Gage series and the author of seventeen books. His work has sold into thirty languages. He was a career journalist, shared a Pulitzer for coverage of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, and worked as an assistant professor of environmental journalism at Western Washington University. His novels include Napoleonic, Roman, and Nazi-era thrillers.

To learn more about William, please visit his website.

Selena Robins
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