When I was in Australia a few years ago, a fellow librarian and good friend recommended Peter Temple’s The Broken Shore to me. I got a copy, read it there, and was blown away by just how good it was. At the time, though, it wasn’t published in the U.S. Now, however, it’s available here, and now, after a second reading, I can assure any reader on the hunt for a powerful and complex crime novel with a social conscience that this is a book that shouldn’t be missed. After being brutally assaulted in a Melbourne stake-out that went horribly wrong, homicide detective Joe Cashin is reassigned, for a period of recuperation, to the sleepy, relatively crime free, ocean-side town of Port Monro, where he spends his time mostly brooding on the past, drinking to deal with the residue of the physical and emotional pain from the attack, and going for long walks with his two large black poodles. But when Charles Burgoyne, a Port Monro entrepreneur, is discovered in his ransacked house on the verge of death, Cashin finds himself back at work. Suspicion falls on two aboriginal boys who live in the nearby ghetto known as The Daunt. But are they guilty? To find the truth, Cashin has to deal with the seemingly endemic racial prejudice against the Aboriginals, corrupt and inept colleagues, and the residue of his own past. The American writers Temple most resembles are Richard Price, Dennis Lehane, and George Pelecanos – all of them look squarely at the depths of depravity that humans are capable of (and write like fallen angels). But the fiction writer whom Temple most reminded me of is his fellow Aussie, Tim Winton, perhaps because they both have a powerful talent for evoking the setting and soul of Australia. Here’s Temple describing the small, rundown town of Port Monro, where Joe himself spent part of his childhood: “But the year had turned. May had come, the ice-water rain, the winds that scoured skin, and just the hardcore left-the unemployed, pensioners, people on all kinds of welfare, the halt, the lame. Now he saw the town as you saw a place after fire, all softness gone: the out-crops of rock, the dark gullies, the fireproof rubbish of brown beer bottles and car skeletons.” (It’s also interesting for American readers to note that several years after this book was published, the Australian government, under the leadership of newly elected prime minister, Kevin Rudd, formally apologized to all the indigenous peoples of the country for past wrongs. Joe Cashin would have approved.)
It’s lucky that I’m not one of those readers who insists on starting every series with book one and only reading the rest in strict numerical order. Because, despite the fact that I seem to be connected to a book during every one of my waking moments, I frequently find that I’ll pick up an interesting-looking novel, read it, thoroughly enjoy it, and discover only later that it’s the third, or fourth, or seventh in a long-running series. Whoops! Then, of course, I feel that I have to go back and read the earlier ones as well. This happened, most recently, with an historical mystery by Ruth Downie, entitled Semper Fidelis. It’s set in Roman Britain, a time period I really enjoy reading about. (If, after reading Downie’s novels, you want to delve further into those centuries, try Sword at Sunset or Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff.) In any event, I was thrilled with Semper Fidelis (which I highly recommend to any fan of mysteries or historical novels), and so happy that Ruth Downie offered to answer some questions about her books for the Book Lust website.
How does SEMPER FIDELIS differ from the past books in the series?
This is the first time any ‘real’ historical characters have appeared in the books, except in a very peripheral manner. The characters in SEMPER FIDELIS include the Emperor Hadrian and his wife, together with a couple of members of Hadrian’s staff – one of whom, Suetonius Tranquillus, was better known as a writer of scandalous imperial biographies. He was bright enough not to write about anyone still alive, though.
As a writer, were you excited to return to the Medicus series?
I’m very fond of Ruso and Tilla. And ever since I realized that Hadrian had made a trip to Britain during the period I’m writing about, I’ve been looking forward to finding out what Ruso would make of it. It must have been a massive occasion – the first visit of an Emperor since Claudius came to tell the Britons they were under Roman rule eighty years before.
Did you have the entire series planned out before you began writing the first Medicus novel?
Oh no, not at all! In fact the first book began as three chapters written for a ‘start a historical romance’ competition. While I wanted to write about Roman Britain I had no plans to complete the story. Apart from not wanting to write a romance, while it’s possible to bluff for three chapters it would soon become obvious that I knew nothing about Roman doctors.
However – when the chapters were printed in a magazine an agent got in touch to ask about the rest of the book. I realized I’d be crazy not to try, so I had to do some very rapid research. Luckily there turned out to be plenty of material. It was the agent who suggested I should turn it into a crime novel.
On reflection, forward planning is not my strong point.
How do you take on putting historical figures into a fictional story (i.e. Emperor Hadrian and Empress Sabina)? Do you feel a pressure to stick to the history or do you enjoy using artistic license?
I try to stick to the history as far as we know it. Not only is it more interesting for the writer to have that sort of challenge, but it’s less likely to annoy readers who know a lot about the period. I know stories like ‘Gladiator’ successfully included a lot of artistic licence, but when a recent film began by naming a governor of Britannia who’d actually been dead for decades by that time, I went straight into Sad Pedant mode and couldn’t enjoy the rest of it.
Having said that, although we know a great deal about Hadrian there are still huge gaps, and the records tell us very little about Sabina. What we do know is that they deeply disliked each other, and that there was some sort of scandal involving her and her husband’s staff that probably happened while they were visiting Britannia. So the history was a gift, really. All I had to do was fill in the missing details.
Is the character of Ruso based off of anyone in history?
No, he’s his own man.
Semper Fidelis ends on a bit of a cliff-hanger. What can readers expect to come next for Ruso?
Britannia was a busy place in those days, with all the legions in the province sending men north to build the Emperor’s Great Wall. I imagine that, given the risks of all that heavy work, not to mention the disgust of the locals, they’d need quite a few medics…
Do you see yourself departing from Medicus and working outside the historical fiction genre in the future?
I think I’d enjoy a change for a while, although probably still within a historical context. I have one or two ideas but I’m still debating exactly where to go.
What do you enjoy reading and which writers have you been influenced by?
Oh dear, I have a feeling this answer changes depending on what I’ve just read! I have a degree in English Literature and while I’m glad to have read a lot of the classics it took me many years to get over the foolish notion that fiction was there to be analysed and evaluated rather than enjoyed (which in practice meant I always tried to find something else to do).
Now, however… I’ve just thoroughly enjoyed the first book of the Hunger Games, and Ian Rankin’s new Malcolm Fox series is great. Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell books are a joy, and I always look forward to Martin Cruz Smith’s next episode of Renko. Finding Lindsey Davis’s Falco novels was a delight and a relief, because I finally realized that it was not considered weird to write normal dialogue in a historical novel. In fact I love people who use dialogue well. Elmore Leonard, Janet Evanovich…
I’ll stop there. After all, why listen to me rambling on about enjoyable books when you could be reading one?
I love reading the end of the year “best” book lists that are appearing everywhere. I get lots of ideas of what to read next from these lists. I especially like it when I know the person whose list it is, and when it’s unlike most others that I see. This list, from my good friend Lillian Dabney, fits all those criteria. Here are her 2012 Top Books:
1. Les Miserables – Victor Hugo
2. David Copperfield – Charles Dickens
3. The Sisters Brothers – Patrick Dewitt
4. This Side of Brightness – Colum McCann
5. Winter Journal – Paul Auster
6. Galore – Michael Crummey
7. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas – John Boyne
8. A Supposedly Funny Thing I’ll Never Do Again – David Foster Wallace
9. The Razor’s Edge – William Somerset Maughm
10. The End of Your Life Book Club – Will Schwalbe
Those I can’t bear not to mention:
11. Snow Angels – Stewart O’ Nan
12. A Gay and Melancholy Sound – Merle Miller
13. A Few Short Sentences About Writing – Verlyn Klinkenborg
14. The Loss Library – Ivan Vladislavic
15. Under Heaven – Guy Gavriel Kay
And now, I’d love to hear about ten or so of your favorite books from this past year of reading.
I was a horse crazy 8 year old when my father’s novel The Cowboy and the Cossack was first published. My father had always been slightly bigger than life to me, not unlike the characters in his books, with his ever present cowboy boots and Stetson, sky blue eyes and warm smile and even as a very young girl I knew it was a profound honor to have my name right there in the dedication of his novel. To be referred to as a “Cossack in Los Angeles” seemed like a wildly romantic notion to me and it appealed both to my love of horseback riding, and an adventurous spirit that my Dad all too correctly prophesied. I read the book for the first time before it had even been published, the week he gave me his original watermarked manuscript, and I have continued to reread it every few years since then. Each time the book speaks to me in different ways, and seems to frame the different chapters of my life with his passion, philosophy and spirit. I remember crying the first time I read about Igor tying that silver bell around his horse’s neck, and I feel pretty sure I have cried at that moment each time since, thinking about my own horses and the spiritual bond we share. And the sequence with the cattle coming off the ship when the cowboys arrive in Russia remains one of the great openings of a book ever, and the dream of every stuntman I have known in Hollywood for 20 years.
But over the years, a novel that was a grand exciting adventure as a young girl and teenager had transformed as I became a young adult and I began to see it as a profound allegory about the commonality of all men. How our shared humanity transcends both borders and cultures, language and ethnicity. Without proselytizing, my father was able to entertain people, and tell an epic tale while the underlying subtext spoke of true men judging one another not by their cultural or racial differences but by the content of their characters.
Clair died decades too soon at the age of 63 when I was 25 years old. The poem that Old Keats writes for Lt. Bruk are the words I chose to put on his epitaph. Again after his death, I found myself picking up Cowboy to reconnect with him and perhaps look for answers. Carl Sagan wrote that books “Break the shackles of time… proof that humans can work magic.” And in those months and years after Clair passed, his magic was in full force. I could hear his voice speaking to me as I read his words. In a way he wasn’t gone at all, but right there with me, sitting by the fire with his Great Dane, or under the oak tree he planted in the yard, and his passages both about death and living life to the fullest stood out as they never had before. The notion that if you leave an strong imprint on those you love and cherish, perhaps you never really die but are carried on in the memories and hearts of those you have touched along the way.
As the years went by and I stumbled into middle age, my father’s ability to touch people and live on through his words and characters was again opened up to me in a dramatic and unexpected way. The far reaching hands of a little gizmo called the internet allowed me to search articles, and read personal reviews and thoughts on Clair’s work which I might never otherwise have been aware of. When I was young, dad kept a few treasured file boxes of yellowed letters he had received from readers and admirers of his work. Now I found myself reading reviews on Amazon and other sites from readers all over the world. Families in Russia who considered their page worn copy of The Cowboy and the Cossack a family treasure. A wife who read the book out loud to her husband when he was ill and bedridden. An American soldier who brought me to tears when I read about how Cowboy was his favorite novel, and very first thing that went into his backpack each time he left for duty. For over a decade he carried with him his ragged paperback copy of The Cowboy and the Cossack that he bought in a used book store to dozens of countries and it was read and reread until the pages were frayed and worn, and passed among his fellow soldiers for strength and inspiration .
My publisher at Amazon suggested perhaps I talk in this blog about what it means to me to have my father’s book republished after all these years. That’s a tough one. When you follow in footsteps as big as his, words seem almost destined for failure. It is almost impossible for me to begin to convey not only what it means to me, but infinitely more importantly what it would mean to him, to have his words, his story and his characters reborn to a new generation of readers. It is a profound honor for me to be able to continue my father’s legacy by inviting new readers into an epic adventure tale which at its core illuminates the essential traits that my father believed a true man should steadfastly possess: honor, courage, integrity, and quiet strength. In our modern world where old fashioned values seem to somehow have been forgotten or misplaced, and strength of character and commitment to truth often feel like antiquated ideals from a bygone era, perhaps a novel which celebrates these things unabashed and without apology will find a new generation of readers.
When I was a girl, the door to my father’s house was never locked. It was a big two story colonial built in 1926 a half a block from the famous Sunset Strip. For decades that old house was a constant landmark and traveling stop for writers and directors, actors and stuntmen, and even cowboys. Everyone was welcome. If the pool table upstairs could talk it could tell wild tales of story telling and laughter, raconteurs and rapscallions, high stakes 8 ball, whiskey drinking, food and friends, music emanating from the juke box, and long nights around the poker table with cigarette smoke hanging thick in the air. Most of the men whose stories filed those rooms have passed on by now. Their memories live on in old western movies and picture books filled with black and white photos of Monument Valley landscapes, John Ford movies and the heyday of the Hollywood western. Sometimes it seems to me that God just broke that mold and it may not be found again. And yet, over the decades, my father’s spirit continues to live on in me and his readers through his writing.
His last book was a novel about his parents and the first lines read… “In the beginning, there was the earth. And then, there was music.” The echo of my father’s words in his books, remains to this day, the music of my life.
I hope they ring to you as well.
Tim Kreider’s We Learn Nothing: Essays and Cartoons (Free Press, 2012) is a remarkable collection. There were points in every one of them where I found myself nodding in agreement and wondering how he could so consistently express my feelings, and express them so much better than I ever could (or ever have). There are essays on how hard it is always to be appreciative of simply being alive (personalized by recounting the days, months, and years following the time he was stabbed in the neck and almost died); gender (made meaningful by his account of keeping his friend, novelist Jim—now Jenny—Boylan, company for her convalescence following Boylan’s gender reassignment surgery); meeting his birth mother and half-sisters (when he was in his 40s); and an especially lovely essay, “An Insult to the Brain” about mortality that was occasioned by spending a good deal of intense time with his mother when she was in the hospital, and reading Tristram Shandy aloud to her. It’s the best analysis of and tribute to Laurence Sterne’s novel that I’ve ever read: if this essay doesn’t make more people want to read this 18th century novel I can’t even imagine what will. This is not a memoir: although we do learn a lot about the author, it’s always in the context of some larger idea. Rather, it’s a splendid example of what my old high school journalism teacher, Mr. J. Rodger Gow, described as “the personal essay.”
In the fall of 2004, Morning Edition’s Steve Inskeep and I talked about great first lines, and one of the books I cited was Rose Macauley’s The Towers of Trebizond (Farrar, Straus, 2012). Rose Macauley loved three things above all others: Anglicanism, travel, and animals. Her first line reflects all three of these. Here it is:
“Take my camel, dear,” said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.
An opening sentence as brilliant as that sets a high bar for the rest of this bittersweet comedy of manners, but Macauley doesn’t let us down. Aunt Dot, Father Hugh-Chantry-Pigg, and Laurie, the novel’s narrator, are traveling through Turkey with a psychotic (and unnamed) camel in order to spread the blessings of the Anglican Church (especially important as Billy Graham and his followers have preceded them there). They also plan (in the case of Father Hugh) to search for relics of dead saints for his collection, collect material to write a book about their travels (Aunt Dot), and provide illustrations for the book (Laurie). One of the reasons this novel is endlessly fascinating is that Macauley never tells us whether Laurie is a man or a woman. The clues she offers (an unhappy love affair and a country house weekend among them) only add to the mystery. Despite my regular re-readings of The Towers of Trebizond I’ve never quite been able to decide. (I’ve also got to say that this new edition of has the best cover of any that I’ve ever seen.)
In Sara Levine’s Treasure Island!!! (Europa Editions/Tonga Books, 2012), an unnamed twenty-something narrator finally reads Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novel and realizes that if she models her behavior on that of young Jim Hawkins, she can change her life!!! For the better!!! She’ll be intrepid!!! Resolute!!! Independent!!! “Careless, clearheaded and brave!!!” Steals an Amazon parrot named Richard from her job at the Pet Library!!! Loses job!!! Lars, her endlessly patient and loyal boyfriend becomes less patient and loyal!!! Endlessly loyal and patient parents become less patient and loyal!!! How will this obsession play itself out? This being the 21st century, with an intervention, of course, something Jim Hawkins (a young man of the 19th century) never had to endure. As might be apparent, I found Treasure Island!!! to be a total hoot. Outrageous!!! Delightful!!! And a good part of the fun for me came from the fact that I became so involved in the lives of the characters that I found myself frequently wincing at their behavior and wanting to enter into the pages of the novel to tell them in person to stop acting so foolishly.
I think that I could probably subsist on a reading diet of first novels. Finding a new writer whose work I love reassures me that the end of storytelling is nowhere near. I felt this way recently when I encountered Jennifer DuBois’s Partial History of Lost Causes on the shelves of my local book store. Two people find their lives intersecting: a former chess prodigy who decides to challenge Vladimir Putin for the Russian presidency and an American woman in her 20s who knows her life is going to be cut short by Huntington’s disease. We are first introduced to Aleksandr Bezetov in 1979, when he arrives in what was then Leningrad to attend a chess academy. We meet Irina Ellison in 2006, shortly after her father’s difficult death from the genetic disease that will likely kill her, too. When she discovers in her father’s papers an old (and apparently unanswered) letter from her father to Bezetov asking him how he copes with those games he knows he’s going to lose, she decides on the spur of the moment to go to Russia and see if she can confront Bezetov and have him answer her father’s question. I can’t remember reading another novel—at least not recently—that’s both incredibly intelligent and also emotionally engaging. I really cared about Irina and Bezetov: their attempts to outrun (or at least accept) their individual fates was both moving and tragically real.
I know that the first two letters of “memoir” spell “me,” but the kind of memoir I like best is one that goes beyond being simply a personal account but rather tells a larger story. The Map of My Dead Pilots by Colleen Mondor (Lyons Press, 2012) does exactly that. From 1993 to 1997 the author worked as the dispatch coordinator for an air transport company headquartered in Fairbanks, Alaska. This isn’t a neatly narrated, chronological account with a clean beginning and a clear end. Rather, in lyrical, impressionistic prose she relates the stories she tells of the pilots she knew—some still living and some now dead—to the myth and the reality of Alaska. It’s a story of danger, of loss, of courage of unsavory landing strips and forbidding mountains, of delivering mail and making mercy flights, of adrenaline and prayer, of unpredictably changeable winds and oncoming storms, of snow, of difficult decisions, of good fortune and bad luck, and, always, of the unbelievable cold. But it’s also about why we choose the lives we do, how we rewrite our pasts to make sense of ourselves to the person we’ve become, what we choose to remember and how and why we forget what we do: it’s about mythmaking, storytelling, and memory. Mondor says: “If I remember the stories, then I know the life I lived was true; I know it happened; I know that once upon a time this is was who we were and how we lived.”