Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Bouchercon VII: Gods and ends

(Indiana War Memorial)

John Maddox Roberts sets his S.P.Q.R. mysteries in the first century BC in the waning days of the Roman republic. Kelli Stanley set her novel Nox Dormienda in the first century AD under Domitian, not by reputation one of the good emperors. I asked Stanley and Roberts which periods they would choose if they were to set a book in a different period of Roman history.

Roberts would go back earlier into the Republican period, because once the empire was instituted, he said, politics started getting dynastic and boring. Stanley, on the other hand, would jump forward, to the fourth century under Constantine, who granted official approval to Christianity. Stanley said she was interested in the various religions to which the Romans were open.

One author is attracted to political unrest, another in change of the religious kind. The common factor: Upheaval is good, at least in historical crime fiction.

(Stanley is a classicist by training. So is Lindsey Davis, author of the Marcus Didius Falco series. Davis sets her books in the time of Vespasian, who came to the plate two spots before Domitian in the imperial batting order. Had a good chat with Stanley about Italy and its art at the convivial post-convention dinner Sunday night.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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20 Comments:

Blogger Kelli Stanley said...

Peter, I had such a great time getting to talk to you this Bouchercon!! The post-convention feast was really special ... brought back old memories of Italy and studying art history. :)

Thanks for all the wonderful conversation, and the ideas for the Between the War panel--and looking forward to seeing you in San Francisco!

Kelli

October 20, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Likewise. It was fun to reminisce about resting my tired feet by Trajan's Column. You love the Mannerists, I love the Renaissance, and yet we could find common ground in Baroque sculpture.

The post-convention feast has been a highlight at both Bouchercons I've attended, and I shall book an extra night at every convention I attend from now till the end of time and even after 2012.

Cool post-con note: My shuttle driver to the airport Monday afternoon was the same guy who taken Lauren Henderson both to and from the airport in her Sunday-night mishap.

October 20, 2009  
Anonymous Leighton Gage said...

Hey Peter,
I can't recall if I mentioned it at Bouchercon, but this Saturday (the 24th) at 12:30 PM Eastern time, I'll be hosting a program live on BlogtalkRadio.com.
The guests are Yrsa Sigurdardóttir, Stuart Neville, Cara Black and Michael Stanley (the Stan you know and perhaps the Michael you don't, checking in from South Africa.) Listeners can call in with questions. If you can't catch it live, the program will remain archived for a month. For more details, just go to www.blogtalkradio.com and type my name into the site's search function. And please talk it up, because it's right up the street of the majority of your readers.

October 20, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You did mention it, but I don't think with quite that many guests. I certainly will give the show a mention and ask readers to think of some good questions. Thanks.

October 20, 2009  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

In this general time frame of the Late Antique era are the John [the Eunuch] the Lord Chamberlain mysteries by Mary Reed and Eric Mayer, set in the court of Justinian. Sixth century Constantinople is well researched ("comes alive," I guess a dust jacket blurb would say) and Byzantine politics provide a natural background for murder mysteries.

October 20, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I talked to Mary Reed some time ago for some posts on this blog. She acknowledged that Justinian's time (which means Theodora's, too) offers ample opportunity for good, dirty fun.

October 20, 2009  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Mea culpa; I should have run a "search blog" before I sent the earlier.

A friend of mine threw down in despair one of David Wishart's Marcus Corvinus Roman mysteries because of all the modern-isms, (esp. the contemporary-style cursing referenced by you in another context in an earlier post).

For historical fiction set in the Late Antique/Early Byzantine period one can't do better than Gillian Bradshaw (incl. "The Bearkeeper's Daughter" -- Theodora, of course) and Cecelia Holland's "The Belt of Gold."

October 20, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

No mea culpa needed. It's an interesting place to bring the subject up again, especially since Kelli Stanley edged toward Late Antiquity in her choice of an alternative period. (She has just weighed in with a historically illuminating comment on the cursing comment, if you'd care to take a look.)

Thanks in re Bradshaw and Holland. I hadn't heard of them.

October 20, 2009  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Thanks, I went back to the earlier post for Kelli Stanley's most recent comment. I agree that period anachronisms are jarring to our modern sensibilities and should be altered to suit. (I think of the many and wonderful Restoration-period vulgarities I had to look up when reading 17th c. plays! But I don't want to do that when I'm reading "Forever Amber" -- or whatever...).

But as you, she, and other readers have commented there seems to be a balance in writing historical fiction (crime or otherwise) that is as dicey to maintain as that in translating fiction.

Too many period-set novels are contemporary in tone, dialogue, character (particularly those in which women behave or have "empowering" roles similar to their contemporary successors, to make the latter want to read about them, I suppose), etc. I think my friend thought Wishart had gone too far in the other direction; she felt she had been yanked out of her stola (as she described it) and shoved into a miniskirt. She's a former Byzantinist who reads Greek and Latin and I value her opinion when recommending fiction set in ancient Greece, Rome.

October 20, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Ariana Franklin tiptoes close to the contemporary-atitude line without quite going over it, I think, in Mistress of the Art of Death.

Her Adelia travels from Italy to England for the book, which gives the author license to comment on English society and its attitudes. I don't about the real twelfth century, but in the novel, women apparently had lots more freedom in the practice of medicine than they did in England. What might seem anachronistically pro-feminist may reflect historical reality.

Readers with more knowledge of the period than I have are invited to weigh in.

October 20, 2009  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

My poorly composed comment made it look like my friend was saying Wishart had "period-inappropriate" female characters. Not so. It was the overall contemporary tone of one of his novels that she objected to. Hence the stola-miniskirt reference.

Certainly there were many periods and places throughout history when women in various social strata had prominent, even protofeminist roles/activities.

Today many people tend to see, wrongly, the Victorian female stereotype as the culmination of an unchanging timeline of woman's secondary role in society. When historical accuracy can serve as the basis for novels featuring an empowered woman character I enjoy reading them. It's when an author makes an attempt to insert a feel-good female lead into a role a woman would have been very unlikely to have held during the historical period in which the novel is set that I lose interest.

October 20, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You're too tough an editor of your own work. I did not think your friend had accused Wishart of creating female characters inappropriate for their period. I merely invoked Franklin's book as one example of a work some readers might suspect of anachronism, but I acquitted her of the charge. In fact, I decided there was insufficient evidence to even go to trial.

October 20, 2009  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

I'm glad, because I loathe courtroom procedurals...

I hesitate to mention it as I can't remember the title of the novel... but it took place in the so-called Dark Ages and the barbarian woman ruler who had inherited the throne upon the death of her husband (it really wasn't a Conan-type story) took her Arab doctor as her adviser/counselor (and subsequently lover). I recall thinking his role as teacher to an intelligent and open-minded woman ruler provided a good example of a historically legitimate way of introducing early modern thought into a story set in the Early Middle Ages -- considering how far ahead of the West the Arab world was in the 9th c.

October 20, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Peter Tremayne's Sister Fidelma novels feature a protagonist who would likely be congenial to our own sensibilities, and apparently is, because the series has been running a long time.

Fidelma is a lawyer and woman religious in seventh-century Ireland. That she can occupy such a professional role, that she takes a lover, and that male and female religious could and did marry sounds refreshingly up to date. But the author's historical introductions take great pains to point out these features were indeed present in seventh-century Ireland, and he is proud of the freedom women enjoyed under this Brehon law.

October 21, 2009  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

387 BC when the Celts kicked some Roman ass!

October 21, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

With the ancestors of Asterix and Obelix in their vanguard.

Yeah, that was a traumatic moment in Roman history. I understand that the Gauls destroyed most or all Roman records, which is why nothing in Roman history before then can be regard as certain. I wonder if Romans of the time regarded the event as the trauma that we recognize today.

October 21, 2009  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

They must have been scared. They never dared come to Ireland even though it was only 15 miles across the water from Caledonia. It would have been the Teutoburg Forest all over again.

October 21, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Or a sort of proto-Teutoburg.

Funny, but we never learned much about Celts, Germans and other barbarians in school.

October 21, 2009  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

The oral transmission of culture can give you problems with posterity it must be said.

October 21, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I wonder how many other instances there are of so precise a line as that between pre- and post-387 BC Rome in the matter of reliability of ancient history.

Hmm, sounds like a task for an author with a fantasy writer's imagination and a historian's professional sensibility. Maybe David Liss will take an interest in the period some day.

October 21, 2009  

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