City as Character: La Serenissima


Photo credit: johngregory via Compfight

There are books and movies in which the place – the setting of the events – is as much a character in the plot as the main players. Think of London, in the Sherlock Holmes stories, or New York in Woody Allen movies. But there are also many other examples, where the atmospheric sense of the story would simply dissipate if it were set somewhere else – Barcelona in Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s Shadow of the Wind, Savannah, Georgia in John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, or Los Angeles in Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress (or really any one of his books featuring Easy Rawlins). You get the idea – location can be a crucial element of a story well told. I was thinking about this the other day, and it struck me that it would be an interesting exercise to look at places in the world that are compelling or unforgettable in ways that would make them a prime candidate for being a character in a novel.  This is completely subjective, of course (that’s what makes it fun, right?), but the first name that popped into my head when I came up with this idea was Venice. What other city can one think of that almost invites mystery and intrigue into it, as though to say, this is the offspring that I am destined to nurture in my womb?

Think about it – this is a city that sits atop over one hundred islands on a marshy lagoon in the Adriatic, has no cars or roadways, and yet has a rich cultural, political and artistic heritage stretching back over more than a millennium. It’s barely a quarter the size of London but has over 400 bridges. The main means of transport is by boat, yet it has a maze of streets, including one of the tiniest in the world, a mere 53 cm wide. Houses are numbered by district, not according to the street, which makes it so confusing that even the mail workers can’t figure it out.  This is the city of carnivals, masked people, and acqua alta (the high tide that floods the famed Piazza San Marco). What an ideal setting for murder, mayhem, conspiracy, and subterfuge! And to my immense gratification, Venice does not disappoint, at least in this sense. I did not have to wander long in my trove of mystery and historical fiction to discover a rich vein of material set in this City Most Serene (a clever façade, if ever there was one).

Let’s start with Donna Leon and her series of contemporary police procedurals featuring Commissario Guido Brunetti. These are all set squarely and unapologetically in Venice, a city, which ironically (according to the author) boasts “very little violent crime.” Death at La Fenice, for instance, chronicles the death by cyanide poisoning of world-famous conductor Helmut Wellauer during a performance of La Traviata at the famed opera house, Teatro la Fenice. The New York Times Book Review calls the book a “stunning procedural which lures us away from the glittering Rialto into the working class heart of Venice.” Another review gushes about how Leon has spun a “challenging mystery, a sophisticated drama, and a unique glimpse of a medieval society that still flourishes.” As a complete aside, Donna Leon, for those of you who care for that sort of thing, is on Hillary Clinton’s reading list.

Venice and La Fenice again feature in John Berendt’s City of Falling Angels, which weaves an intriguing tale around the real-life fire that almost completely destroyed the opera house in 1996. In his trademark atmospheric style (very reminiscent of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil), Berendt evokes all the magic, mystery, and decadence of Venice in this story, filled with richly detailed characters and enough plot twists to fill, well, a John Berendt novel. Not unexpectedly, given its medieval and mystical flair, Venice also makes a prominent appearance in one of Dan Brown’s thrillers, Inferno, where it’s home to a particularly significant plot point and the eventual denouement.

And finally, just to tread a little off the beaten path, here’s a work that doesn’t quite fit neatly into any one genre, but is a hidden gem in its own right – Invisible Cities, by Italo Calvino, which is a fictional depiction of the encounter between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan. Calvino is sometimes spoken of in the same hushed tones reserved for the likes of Umberto Eco, so he’s no lightweight when it comes to spinning a yarn with a delicate balance of literary heft and popular appeal. Invisible Cities has all the magical realism, historical detail, and romantic fantasy that a city like Venice deserves. Even Kublai Khan ultimately realizes that every fantastical place that Marco Polo describes in their encounter is some version of the Venice he loves.

And what more can a city ask for, than to become a character in a novel?

Books mentioned in this post

Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, John Berendt

Devil in a Blue Dress, Walter Mosley

Death at La Fenice, Donna Leon

City of Falling Angels, John Berendt

Inferno, Dan Brown

Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino

Ancient Hillforts, and Other Welsh Mysteries

Welsh Hillforts

The Welsh have always had an air of mystery about them. Perhaps it is their homeland, with its strange and varied landscapes: from rolling hills shrouded in mist, to craggy promontories hiding all manner of caverns and grottos, to its dark and forbidding moorlands. Or it could be their Gaelic tongue, with its hint of the ancient and the magical, full of unpronounceable words that sound like incantations to the netherworld. Legend and folklore have done their bit to add to this mystique, with stories of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, myths and tales of hauntings, and sightings of strange and bizarre events. The Welsh, by their own admission, live in “one of the most haunted countries in the world,” one that is “overflowing with mystery.”

Small wonder then, that Wales has its share of historical and archeological enigmas, to embellish this general reputation for the peculiar. While other parts of the world have their crop circles and their Stonehenges, Wales has its hillforts — strange man-made Bronze Age constructions that are as inexplicable in their design as in their density. A mere 150 square mile area in northern Wales, for example, has no less than 30 of these formations, whose size and shape continue to baffle present day archeologists. At first blush, they seem to be conventional fortifications, situated on hilltops to provide the advantage of higher ground against the enemy. But their size begs the question of how they would have been defended — and the type of crude weaponry available in those times equally raises the question of why they would have needed much defending in the first place. Perhaps these hillforts were settlements intended to provide clans and tribes with a secure place to live and store grain for parts of the year. Or perhaps their locations (vantage points over the valley) were emblematic of a power structure within those tribes and clans — the occupation of a hillfort being a status symbol in the hierarchy of those groups. Many of these Welsh hillforts are yet to be thoroughly excavated — so perhaps with more archeological activity over the next number of years, we may start to get some answers to these questions.

In the meantime (as we wait for these questions to be answered), it turns out that there is a considerable body of writing to keep us occupied, featuring Welsh mysteries of the fictional kind. Given Wales’ reputation for everything from the merely puzzling to the ghostly to the downright sinister, writers of historical mysteries have not lacked for enthusiasm in setting their thrillers in uniquely Welsh locales. Sharon Kay Penman‘s series on Welsh princes is set here, as are some of the stories in Ellis Peters’ Cadfael chronicles. Mary Stewart‘s series on Merlin and the Arthurian saga is, of course, set in Wales as well. Candace Robb‘s historical sleuth, Owen Archer, is a Welsh spy who plies his trade in medieval York. Sara Woodbury‘s medieval mysteries (featuring her protagonists, Gareth and Gwen) are set in northern Wales. In fact, the first book in the series, The Good Knight, is currently available free on Amazon.

So Wales, in short, has much to offer to those of us who congregate at the crossroads of history, mystery and writing. Given what a difference backdrop and atmosphere can make to mystery fiction, it’s not difficult to see how Welsh locales can add a touch of the creepy and the ominous to the historical page-turners we love to read. Check out some of the recommended readings in this post, and let us know what you think!

C is for Cuspius

Our minds often work in strange ways, flitting from one thought to another, like bees seeking nectar — and then not even dwelling on one long enough to extract anything from it. Or maybe it’s just me. I was just thinking earlier today that it’s about time we did another post on what we are reading these days. That got me reflecting about Mary Beard’s The Fires of Vesuvius, which in turn reminded me of our post on Pompeii, our review of Pompeii: Day of Fire, and our subsequent podcast on a related theme. Somehow or the other, that whole thought process led me to this charming little article on one of the characters in that collection of stories — the Aedile Pansa.

Such are the little delights one finds in wandering the garden paths of history. Or perhaps this is merely an interesting footnote on a real inhabitant of a little Roman settlement that was wiped out in the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79. I’ll take either interpretation — but more importantly, what do you think?

Pompeian Connections

One Pompeian family that has always intrigued me is the gens Cuspia. Besides generally being prolific in civic and political affairs, the family has been memoralised in one of the grand houses of the city, and more creatively, as one of the characters in Edward Bulwer-Lytton’sThe Last Days of Pompeii. Bulwer-Lytton always identifies him, a close friend of the protagonist Glaucus, as the aedile, often running off to deal with organising the next round of contests in the amphitheatre or sorting out the aerarium which he claims is in disrepair, typically with a large number of clients in tow. Della Corte identified one of the large houses in Region VI as the House of Pansa (VI.6.i), although according to Bulwer-Lytton, Pansa’s taste in decor left something to be desired:

“‘Well, I must own,’ said the aedile Pansa, ‘that your house, though scarcely larger than a case…

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Books of April

book_coverI think we can all agree that there is something magical about Spring, with buds beginning to bloom, and fresh greenery for the eyes to feast on. The days are longer too, after the brief blink-and-you-miss-it periods of sunlight during the cold, dark winter months. It’s a time of renewal at home when we clean out the closets and get the dust out of rooms that haven’t breathed the outdoor air for months. It’s also the perfect time to make new lists of books to read – so we can look forward to spending the coming summer months curled up with one, while parked underneath a beach umbrella, or swinging gently in a hammock in the backyard. And that, at least, is something we know we can help you with.

So, without further ado, here are our reading recommendations, culled from our blog posts over the last month or so. Each is a historical mystery, with its own unique setting in time and place:


D.T. Niane, Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali

Rafael Scott, Beyond Mali

The 15th Century

Philippa Gregory, The Other Boleyn Girl

PC Doherty, The Serpent Amongst the Lilies

Margaret Frazer, The Novice’s Tale

Alex Rutherford, Raiders from the North

CC Humphreys, A Place Called Armageddon

The Vikings

Bernard Cornwell, The Last Kingdom

Medieval England

Ellis Peters, An Excellent Mystery

Peter Tremayne, Absolution by Murder

Ancient Greece

Paul Doherty, The House of Death

We hope you find something on this list that catches your fancy. In any case, do let us know what you think, both about the list itself, and the books that are on it.

If Attila Met Augustus

History mashupsLike other parents with young children, I have been through many a parental summer rite of passage in my life. No, I’m not talking about baseball games or vacations to Disneyland — I’m talking about being the designated chaperone for those popcorn-filled orgies that are called children’s movies. Sure, there was the occasional Toy Story or Finding Nemo, but more often than not, I had to sit through the mind-numbing torture of the likes of Nacho Libre, Daddy Day Care, and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. So, when I was commandeered some years ago to take my kids to see Night at the Museum, I feared the worst — my only faint hope was that a movie featuring Ben Stiller had to have some redeeming qualities. And redeem itself it did — because the movie, quite literally, brought history to life.

The central conceit of the movie, as some of you may know, is that a mysterious Egyptian artifact with magical powers causes the exhibits at the American Museum of Natural History to come alive between sundown and daybreak. Imagine a wild party each night, featuring an eclectic guest list that includes Teddy Roosevelt, Attila the Hun, Sacagawea, a Roman general, a Neanderthal, and a cowboy from the Wild West, and you’ve got yourself much more than the setup line of a two-part joke. I was thinking about this the other day and it struck me that this could be an extraordinary way to blend history and fantasy in a way that’s quite different from what’s been done before. Tolkien and his modern day successor, George R.R. Martin, invented whole worlds and mythologies in the Lord of the Rings and the Game of Thrones respectively. Others, like Michael Crichton, have cannily blended history and science fiction (with a dose of cinematographic screenplay thrown in for good measure), in books like Timeline. And then there is the even more complex fantasy space occupied by works like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, which combine historical settings and characters with fantasy and horror.

But instead, what if we took a bunch of real and fictional historical figures from different eras, different geographies, and cultures, and made them inhabit the same narrative space? What would the story-telling arc look like if we pitted Attila the Hun and Augustus Caesar against each other? Or if we sent William of Baskerville forward in time to investigate a poisonous death orchestrated by the Borgias? Of course, we may have to make appropriate concessions for the clash of eras and cultures — adjustments would be needed for at least one side of the historically mismatched characters, in terms of language and attire and worldly knowledge. But for all we know, these perceived obstacles may well turn out to be just the literary devices we need to free us from the shackles of historical fact and let us explore the unfettered world of fantasy.

Needless to say, I have looked at this idea very much from the naive perspective of someone who has not really researched whether it’s already been done. But it seemed too delicious a dessert to wait for — having sampled the appetizer, and smelled the aroma of what’s baking in the oven, can one be faulted for wanting to skip the veggies and the roughage to get straight to the final course? Moreover, if it indeed has been done before, that should be no deterrent to doing it again, and perhaps even doing it better. I think this has the makings of a meal comprised almost entirely of dessert.

Let me know what you think.


Vikings in America



Photo credit:

We all like to play what-if games every now and then. What if I hadn’t taken that French 101 class in college? Answer: I wouldn’t have met my future wife. What if she hadn’t said “Yes” when I asked her out? What if I had accepted that job in France instead of working in New Jersey? You get my drift — sometimes, the outcome of single events can change the course of lives. What makes these what-if questions even more interesting, though, is when the answers could potentially change the entire course of history. What if Germany had won WWII? Answer: we could be living under Nazi rule in America, as the TV show The Man in the High Castle so chillingly imagines. What if the right-wing nuts and religious fundamentalists take over the US of A and turn it into the Republic of Gilead? Answer: you would get Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, a dystopian vision of the future in which America becomes a totalitarian theocracy.

So, when I read an item in the news about some recent research into the Viking exploration of North America, I couldn’t help but wonder: what if those fearsome Norsemen had gotten a foothold here, from sea to shining sea? Would I be writing this in some suitably Nordic language? Or would this continent be a collection of native American and Viking nation-states? Could 12.5 million Africans have been saved from enslavement and shipment to the Americas? What would have happened to the proud (and rapacious) dynasties of England, Spain and Portugal? Or would the Viking occupation of North America have been a 300-year flash in the pan as it was in Great Britain?

Somewhere in those what-if questions are a set of historical fantasies that are ripe for the taking. Imagine Viking longboats making their way up and down the Mississippi. Imagine them encountering the Sioux, the Illini, the Choctaw, and the Osage along its shores. Imagine John Cabot and his English cohorts arriving in Bristol and getting their backsides kicked (or worse) by Leif Eriksson’s descendants. Imagine Columbus, Pizarro and Cortez as mere footnotes in history, if at all.

Perhaps Bernard Cornwell will take up this challenge (his series of historical novels about the Viking occupation of England are an excellent read). Or perhaps, you, our readers, might find this intriguing enough to examine. Which in turn illustrates the point that “going boldly where no one has gone before” applies just as much to the realm of imagination as it does to the exploration of Earth and space.

Let us know what you think.

From Hammurabi to the Pinkertons

Roman Justice

When I was a kid in elementary school in India, a lot of the children’s books we used to read in English were relics from our former colonial masters. Characters like Billy Bunter and Biggles, and stories about life in British boarding schools, were the stuff that populated our imaginations. One author, in particular, held our attention like no other – her name was Enid Blyton, and her literary output was prodigious. Among the many children’s series she wrote (the Secret Seven, the Famous Five, the St. Clare’s series), my personal favorite was the Five Find-Outers. The name fascinated me – purposeful, yet so simple. What better way to describe sleuths than as a group of people who find things out. It may not be a stretch to say that it was the Five Find-Outers who ignited my life-long interest in detective fiction. From there, I graduated to Agatha Christie, Sherlock Holmes and Ellery Queen, and much later, combined that with an equally deep fascination for historical fiction to arrive right here – where you are reading this now.

Reminiscing about the Five Find-Outers got me thinking about questions that are at the heart of our quest on this blog – when did the business of sleuthing start? Who were history’s first detectives? Who were the first bunch of people who wanted, and were presumably paid, to “find things out?” I don’t know if there’s a definitive answer to these questions, but there are some useful clues. The Code of Hammurabi, one of the earliest formal legal systems (dating back to 1700 BC), established that both the accuser and the accused in a legal case had the right to present evidence in support of their arguments. Presumably, either they themselves, or their hired help, would have to collect such evidence – so we could speculate that these “evidence collectors” were the first private investigators, sleuths, gumshoes, or whatever we care to call them.

Of course, more formal systems of criminal justice prosecuted by rulers and their regimes later arose in many parts of the world. Take China, for instance, with its system of prefects who reported into local magistrates and were charged with law enforcement. Other cultures such as Japan and Korea also devised and established similar systems. Ancient India had its formal systems as well, codified in scripture in the Manusmriti and the Vedas, with a formal structure that included plaintiffs, defendants, written statements, trials, advocates, juries, and judges. The power to enforce the law flowed from rulers to their representatives to communities, village watchmen, and intelligence agents.

However, in pre-modern Europe (ancient Rome and Greece, for instance) crime was largely viewed as a private matter, in so far as its investigation and prosecution. Once the plaintiff had a case, it could be brought before the courts for a verdict and penalty – but the process of getting there was the individual’s responsibility. I suspect this is the context and background for authors like Steven Saylor to invent characters like Gordianus the Finder – for private citizens in such societies would have a need, and be willing to pay, for someone to look into crimes committed against them so they could be brought to justice.

In terms of modern criminology, though, most historians believe that the “first” private investigator and detective was a Frenchman named Eugène François Vidocq in the late 18th century and the early 19th century. A former criminal, Vidocq was not only the head of a private detective agency but also later in life (in 1813, to be precise) established the Sûreté Nationale, the French equivalent of Scotland Yard and the FBI. Scotland Yard, in turn, was established a few years later (in 1829), resulting in an official cadre of police detectives, soon followed by the New York City Police Department in 1844. The rest, as they say, is history. Criminology became a formal profession, not only spawning real-life crime-solvers of the private and public varieties, but a whole genre and subculture of fiction to keep us turning pages deep into the night.

So the next time you enjoy stories about your favorite historical detective, whether it’s Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael, or Peter Tremayne’s Sister Fidelma, or PC Doherty’s Telamon, spare a thought for the rich lineage of real-life “find-outers” throughout history that these fictional sleuths owe a debt of gratitude to – from the evidence collectors of Babylon to the prefects of ancient China to the sheriffs and crowners of medieval England, all the way to the “bobbies” and Pinkerton agents of more recent times.

The Feminine Mystique

Female Sleuth

Photo Credit: drumgirl313

Tuesday, March 8, is International Women’s Day this year. When I mentioned this to my cousin, she retorted (in her characteristic fashion): “Why celebrate the day? We should celebrate women instead!” And she had a point.

So without wasting another moment, here I am, to celebrate the women who write historical mysteries, and the female sleuths who solve them. From Agatha Christie to Ellis Peters, and from Phryne Fisher to Miss Marple, both of those worlds are richly populated — a treasure trove of feminine mystique, for our collective reading pleasure.

Here are two excellent places to start exploring that treasure trove, as my friend Srikrishna pointed out to me recently:

The first is a blog post on women in detective fiction, on the Mystery People site, which explores women writers in this genre from Mary Shelley all the way to contemporary women writers of detective fiction such as Megan Abbott and Meg Gardiner.

The second is the Guardian’s listicle on the top 10 fictional female sleuths, according to Anne Holt (herself an accomplished writer of crime thrillers). Here you will find familiar characters like the aforementioned Miss Marple, and the more recent Lisbeth Salander, but you will also meet a few that you may not know, but should.

So if you haven’t already explored this space, use this Women’s Day to begin your journey (or if you need more time, take all of March, which is Women’s History Month). And don’t forget to let us know what you find!


Fossils of Ariyalur – In the News

Image: The Newsminute

Both Ramesh and I are big readers of science news. And where history is involved, science is rarely far behind. And as readers of historical mysteries, both history and science — even if it’s occasionally of the pseudo kind — interest us.

So when folks wonder with bated breath, if indeed Nefertiti’s tomb is hidden behind Tutankhamen‘s – we sit up and take notice. Similarly wine-making or even fish-sauce making has its share of science. Swords and other weapons of war too fascinate us – Damascene swords (that came from India), iron pillars that don’t rust – are all inanimate things that animate us. Another whole class of inanimate things are fossils, the only remnants of often extinct, birds or animals – dinosaurs, fishes, nautiluses, which help us solve many a mystery about the world around us.

Recently I read about the Fossils of Ariyalur.  Despite having grown up in Chennai, less than 200 miles away, I knew nothing about them. Luckily this video (below) and article introduced me to the wonders of Ariyalur fossils. Like far too many things in India, these are not valued as much as they should, but hopefully, stories such as these will change that. Check out the video and share with us your own favorite fossils and stories about them. Read the original article here.

Flapper Detective – Phryne Fisher

Cocaine Blues coverClearly the advent of Netflix and Amazon Prime has changed our TV watching habits. Now it’s debatable whether we are better for it – but as with anything new, the family and I have taken to it with gusto. Imagine our surprise when we discovered the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (that ABC) has brought Phryne (pronounced Fry-nee) Fisher, the irrepressible Flapper, to the (not-so-little) screen and thanks to Netflix we were able to catch the entire first season in one short week of binge watching.

Readers of this blog are old enough to recall when the Lord of the Rings trilogy (or if you are older, Superman) was going to first make it to the silver screen. I recall hoping that they don’t ruin the darn thing. I first encountered Kerry Greenwood’s 1920s English socialite Phryne in Book #1 Cocaine Blues. A sale on BookBub (if you haven’t subscribed, you should) for the Kindle is what brought Cocaine Blues to my attention.

I’ve met my share of unusual and interesting female detectives on said Kindle (Julie Smith’s Rebecca Schwartz, Pamela Fagan Hutchins’ Katie, my own favorite Patricia Mason’s Imogene Tuttle aka Mo, to name just three). But Phryne Fisher went one step further, combining a great detective (independent-minded socialite risen from a poor childhood) in a not-so-common setting (’20s Melbourne) with a sizable cast of supporting characters. Check it out on Netflix, and let me know what you think!