“I’m thinking at this point that I may leave Russia behind for a while.” – Author William Taubman discusses Gorbachev

“A true believer and an honest man, he also knew how to maneuver and play the game of bureaucratic politics.”

“At 33rd Street you pass the Empire State Building, which for many years was the tallest building in the world and is still a VERY tall building indeed. But when you pass it in a car there’s this phenomenon – a kind of parallax phenomenon – that any building that’s nearer it, or even a person, will seem taller because you can’t gauge it’s full height until you get a bit of distance. And if you get a good run of green lights on 5th avenue and you look out of the back of the taxi as you go down and down and down the Empire state building rises and rises and rises – like a rocket. It actually goes up and up and up as all the buildings close to it are revealed to be so much smaller.”

Stephen Fry’s comparison of the emergence of Oscar Wilde from his 19th century milieu as being like the emergence of the Empire State Building on the New York Skyline might also stand for Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev. Gorbachev was born in the Stalin years. He lived through the Soviet Union’s decades of turmoil and decay. He rose from the humblest of origins to become one of the most revered and yet reviled statesmen of the 20th Century. Fry’s summary of Wilde’s reputation – “The best of his age and getting taller and taller with every decade which comes” – might also stand for the man who led the Soviet Empire to its peaceful dissolution.

William Taubman is the Bertrand Snell Professor of Political Science Emeritus at Amherst College. His biography, Khrushchev: The Man and His Era, won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award for biography. Taubman is also the author of Stalin’s American Policy: From Entente to Détente to Cold War, and co-author with his wife, retired Amherst College professor of Russian Jane Taubman, of Moscow Spring. He has received the Karel Kramar Medal of the Czech Republic and the Order of Friendship of the Russian Federation. He lives in Amherst, Massachusetts.

Gorbachev: His Life and Times was published in September 2017 by Simon & Schuster. To find out more click here.

Why Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev?

Gorbachev changed his country and the world, although, it must be added, he changed neither as much as he wished. All political leaders have power—by definition. But some, like Soviet leaders, unencumbered by the rule of law, constitutional constraints, or a free press, have more than others. Moreover, Gorbachev used that power in a way that was unique; No other Soviet leader would have done what he did. And that uniqueness cries out for biography–to try to explain how his character helps to account for what he did.

If Plutarch were to parallel the life of Gorbachev, whom among his contemporaries outside the Soviet Union might he select?

The two American leaders to whom I most often compare Gorbachev are Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama. Since the two of them were so different (an arch-conservative Republican and a liberal Democrat), how can Gorbachev resemble both? Reagan and Gorbachev shared a commitment to the abolition of nuclear weapons. But in addition, personal similarities (including some striking parallels in their marriages to Nancy Reagan and Raisa Gorbachev) created personal chemistry that, in turn, led them toward major agreements that ended the cold war.

I explore such similarities in my book, but recently Jack F. Matlock, Jr., American ambassador to Moscow during the Gorbachev years, confirmed them. I was describing my impression of Gorbachev during the eight interviews my wife, Professor Jane Taubman, and I had with him over the course of ten years: he was warm, natural, informal and with a sense of humor. Lacking similar exposure to other world leaders, I told Matlock, I couldn’t compare Gorbachev with them, but I doubted many of them came across the same way. “There’s at least one such leader who did,” Matlock replied. “Ronald Reagan.”

As for Gorbachev -Obama parallels, I’d list the following: Both were highly educated and thought of themselves as intellectuals; both were deeply devoted to their wives; both tried to reserve supper time for dining with their families rather than politicking; both wanted to carry out radical reforms in their countries; both failed in the end to achieve their grandest goals owing to the fierce political opposition they faced.

Nixon and Reagan occasionally met off camera during the latter’s presidency – is there any evidence Gorbachev once had / or is having a similar direct input into the thinking of his successors?

On the contrary. Gorbachev initially praised Putin when the latter assumed the Russian presidency in 1999-2000 and supported him for reelection in 2004. But they have since become estranged and have rarely, if ever, met since Putin was elected again in 2012, Gorbachev seemed closer to Dmitri Medvedev, who served as president between Putin’s second and third terms, but he evidently had no direct input into Medvedev’s thinking either.

Has Gorbachev found a meaningful role beyond the Kremlin?

After being forced out of power in December 1991, Gorbachev established a foundation, the International Foundation for Socio-Economic and Political Studies (also known as the Gorbachev Foundation) which, in addition to charitable endeavors, has sponsored conferences and publications on issues domestic and international. He has also chaired Green Cross International (an ecological organization), and the World Political Forum. He has commented regularly on political issues, and in 1996 he ran for the Russian presidency, but received less than one percent of the vote.

The portrait you paint is of a true believer coming up through an undergrowth of hacks, cynics, and hypocrites. Might Gorbachev have found more success if he had been more cynical?

Gorbachev was brilliantly successful at rising through Communist party ranks to become Soviet leader–successful because although he was a true believer and an honest man, he also knew how to maneuver and play the game of bureaucratic politics. He was equally adept at using his power as party general secretary to browbeat his more hardline colleagues into supporting radical reforms that transformed the Communist system. But Gorbachev wasn’t nearly as skillful at playing the new game of electoral politics (Boris Yeltsin turned out to be more adroit), and he shrank from using force to hold the USSR together when that might have discouraged restive ethnic minorities from breaking away.

Wasn’t the ultimate problem, for anyone trying to maintain the USSR, the inescapable reality that, despite everything, so many Soviet citizens simply didn’t want any part of it?

It is true that by 1991 many Soviet citizens did not want any part of the USSR. Not only non-Russian republics, but many Russians, too, preferred national sovereignty and independence. Since then, however, many Russians have missed their inner empire (the USSR) and their outer empire in Eastern Europe, and hence have strongly supported Putin’s efforts to resurrect Russia as a great power.

The role of China is relatively peripheral in the story you tell. Is that something later authors are likely to revise as new sources and perspectives become available?

Many observers have wondered whether Gorbachev could have been more successful if he had adopted the Chinese model of reform: if had prioritized radical economic reform while maintaining authoritarian political rule (as the Chinese did when they crushed the massive demonstrations in Tiananmen Square). But if Gorbachev had done so, he would not have been Gorbachev, the man determined to democratize the USSR.

At least one recent book, Chris Miller’s The Struggle to Save the Soviet Economy: Mikhail Gorbachev and the Collapse of the USSR, argues that quite a few Soviet experts tried to direct Gorbachev’s attention to Chinese economic reforms, but that powerful interest groups (central ministries in Moscow, the collective farm lobby, and the military-industrial complex) were strong enough to resist such reforms, whereas in China, weakened by the effects of the Cultural Revolution, they were not.

In his biography of Scott of the Antartic, Ranulph Fiennes urges armchair historians not to take the catty carping in primary sources – such as expedition diaries – too seriously, lest what is safely and quietly vented into private journals be mistaken for a precise record of the moral and material situation. Is there a similar danger with the testimony of close aides to public figures – after all no man is a  hero to his valet?

During pre-Gorbachev Soviet times, it would have been impossible to interview Soviet leaders or their close aides. Post-Soviet Russians who write memoirs or give nterviews became much freer to tell the truth, but only as they remember (or choose to remember) it.  Many of them have long-standing scores to settle, which they do with more relish than regard for the facts. In that sense, documents now available in archives provide an important corrective to memoirs, which in turn check them. In the case of certain former Gorbachev aides who had become his mortal enemies (such as Valery Boldin, Gorbachev’s chief-of-staff who joined conspirators in the anti-Gorbachev coup-attempt of August 1991), I was careful to use only selected bits of his testimony which had the ring of truth.

Does Gorbachev consider himself to have been a success?

One of Gorbachev’s greatest admirers, the late Soviet historian Dmitry Furman, wrote that for Gorbachev to have resorted to force and violence to hold on to power would have been “a defeat” since it that would have gone against his principles. In the light of those principles, Furman continued, Gorbachev’s ”final defeat was a victory.” Well, it certainly didn’t feel that way to him at the time.  Later, when he seemed depressed, friends assured him that he had given his people freedom, and that if they had made a mess of it that was their own fault.

Gorbachev’s latest book, published in 2017, is titled, I Am Still an Optimist. He still insists he is happy. If so, that is because he rightly believes that he laid the foundations for eventual democracy in Russia—by sponsoring the first free elections since 1917, by establishing a genuine working parliament to replace the rubber-stamp Supreme Soviet, and by turning glasnost into virtually free speech. How long it will take for Russia to be more fully democratized is another matter. Gorbachev himself has said that it may take “decades,” even “the whole twenty-first century.” But in 2011-2012, when demonstrators swarmed the streets of Moscow protesting against what they called rigged elections, Gorbachev couldn’t contain his basic optimism, his hope that the march toward a freer country had begun again.

What (or perhaps who) will your next big project focus on?

I’m not entirely sure what my next project will be. I’m thinking at this point that I may leave Russia behind for a while and that, together with my brother, Philip Taubman, former New York Times correspondent and editor, I may write a book about the late American Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara.


“I’m not keen on speculation.” – Author James Shapiro discusses The Year of Lear

“I’m of two minds about OP. Yes, from a narrowly academic perspective, OP offers a fresh way of hearing the plays. But why stop with pronunciation?”

Was Shakespeare an Elizabethan English or an early British Jacobean playwright? Was he a fully fledged European, forged in the classical, moulded in the renaissance? Was he a proto-American laying the groundwork for the intellectual and political revolutions fermenting across the pond? Rhetorical questions will tend to take centre stage in Shakespearean studies, while concrete answers will sink the over-confident scholar beneath a tide of uncertainty and lack of material evidence.

James Shapiro is the preeminent walker of those fine lines between what we know, what we think we know, what we are yet to know, and what we would like to know about the inscrutable Swan of Avon. Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Shapiro has degrees from Columbia and Chicago. He has strutted his professorial stuff in the US and abroad, serving as the Samuel Wanamaker Fellow at the restored Globe Theatre, London. Shapiro is the recipient of more laurels, prizes and plaudits than Katharine Hepburn got Oscars. His critical treatment of the Oxfordian Theory (that Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare) has been described as “decisive.”

1606: William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear was published in October 2015 by Faber & Faber. To find out more click here.

Why 1606?

Why not 1606? It was a year in which Shakespeare was working on three extraordinary tragedies –Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra – in the immediate aftermath of a failed terrorist attack (the Gunpowder Plot), during an outbreak of plague that reached Shakespeare’s doorstep.

Shakespeare wrote many of his most famous plays after James VI and I came to the English throne. Why do we tend to think of him as an Elizabethan playwright?

I am as guilty as the next person for speaking of Shakespeare as an Elizabethan, but after 1603 he was
Jacobean – and English subjects (as far as King James was concerned) now British ones. Shakespeare’s career (from now on as a King’s Man), and the political and religious concerns of his audience certainly shifted once a Scottish King succeeded the last of the Tudors, Queen Elizabeth.

As a ruler (and as a man) did James VI and I confirm, alter, or refute his English subjects in their anti-Scottish prejudices?

That depended on which subjects you asked. The Gunpowder plotters might have offered one answer; those who profited by James’s reign another; English courtier displaced by new Scottish favorites yet another. There were very few Scots living in London under Elizabeth, so I’m not even sure how deep anti-Scottish sentiment ran.

Shakespeare used his history plays (on both British and classical themes) to reflect the concerns of the paying punter. Your work unpacks the social, cultural, and political content subtly packaged by Shakespeare. Did the early Stuart establishment share your sense of Shakespeare’s value as a political weathervane?

I’m not quite sure there was a Scottish establishment in the modern sense you suggest. I’m not entirely sure that King James and those in his immediate circle – who saw many of Shakespeare’s plays staged at court – fully grasped their full range of historical and political concerns. I’m not sure I do either, for that matter. So I don’t quite know with confidence, nor did they, which way that weathervane pointed.

Original pronunciation is helping to clear a fresh path in performances between texts and audiences. Has OP any academic value to scholars?

I’m of two minds about OP. Yes, from a narrowly academic perspective, OP offers a fresh way of hearing the plays. But why stop with pronunciation? Why not other aspects of original staging – natural light performances in the afternoons, bear-baiting next door, nobody showers for weeks before entering the theater, urinating in the corner of the theatre, paying a penny for admission, real weapons used in stage combat, sumptuary laws in place concerning what playgoers could wear, etc. Why privilege pronunciation over other aspects of original performance?

Most scholars agree that Shakespeare wrote his plays, but is there anything to suggest that he took an active role in editing them for print? Could Shakespeare have had any role preparing the First Folio, eventually published 7 years after his death?

There is no evidence whatsoever that Shakespeare was involved in preparing his plays for publication in the 1623 Folio. But that hasn’t stopped speculation. I’m not keen on speculation. I tend to put myself in the camp that believes that Shakespeare wrote primarily for the stage (from which he earned a living) rather than the page (from which he earned little besides our infinite gratitude centuries later).

If you could ask Shakespeare one question, what would it be?

Why are some of your plays – like The Comedy of Errors – so short, and others, like Lear and Hamlet, so much longer, impossible to stage in two or even three hours?

If you could take credit for having written one line of Shakespeare’s (and get away with it) which would it be?

One line is not much to brag about. But I’d take any of them.

You’re working on a new book. What can we look forward to?

I’m writing about Shakespeare in a divided America. The history of Shakespeare in America is markedly different from that in England, Ireland, Germany, etc. As Shakespeareans increasingly turn to a global perspective I thought it a good time to focus on the local. The book should be out before the next presidential elections here.


“If this question is sarcastic, see my answer to Question Five.” – Author David Damant discusses The Luck of the Devil


“I can imagine that Sullivan’s music for the Devil would have been excellent, and Gilbert would have loved the plot.”

Vienna, May 1931. The Baron Bretzenny is a worried man. His banking house is bust. It seems nothing can prevent the Bank Bretzenny from becoming just another casualty, lost amid the global wreckage of the Wall Street Crash. As one of Vienna’s foremost public atheists, the Baron literally hasn’t got a prayer. Then a mysterious visitor offers the Baron a way out of his troubles… but at what price?

The Luck of the Devil is the coruscating debut comedy of financial guru turned scribbler, David Damant. Damant is at once both a respected elder statesman in the realm of finance, a pioneer of Modern Portfolio Theory in Europe, and also a keen observer of his fellow creatures, their vanities and profanities.

At his London club David has, in addition to the world premier of The Luck of the Devil, arranged for a performance of the melodrama Maria Martin and the Red Barn, as well as more than a dozen operas or parts of operas, each directed by the celebrated Jamie Hayes. These have included Dido and Aeneas (starring Jean Rigby), the second act of Tosca (Sue Bullock & Robert Hayward), the essential scenes from Don Giovanni (Robert Hayward again), and no less than four performances of Offenbach’s Not In Front Of The Waiter.

A browse of his social media profile reveals that David’s interests include food, wine, opera, history, and conversation – he has even, on suitably rare occasions, been known to allow his interlocutors to get a word in… although never the last one.

The Luck of the Devil was published in March 2017 by 49Knights. To find out more click here.

Why the Devil? Why an Austrian banker? Why the interwar years?

I had been revolving in my mind for some time the idea of a Faustian contract in which, unusually, the Devil has to ask for help. After the stock exchange crash in New York in 1929 the trigger for the serious depression on this side of the Atlantic was the failure of the Viennese bank the Creditanstalt in May 1931, so I thought that an Austrian banker in trouble at about that time would need money and would provide the basis for the plot.

I then added the idea that the Roman Church was about to issue an Encyclical saying that the Devil was no more than a psychological construct – something that the Devil would not like at all – and he needed human help to stop the Encyclical – the name of which Ad Deliramentum Expellendum was crafted for me by an expert in Papal Latin. I have portrayed the Devil in an fairly honourable light (accepting his standpoint as the Father of Evil).

LOD 3You’ve been involved in dozens of productions down the years. How did those experiences shape The Luck of the Devil?

Except for one play before this one, all the productions I have been involved with since 1987 have been operas in whole or in part. But operas are drama so I suppose that I learnt a bit from those productions. A greater influence was P G Wodehouse, who used to construct his novels as though they were plays, with the scenes balancing each other in the sense of what happens in each, and the various characters given balanced appearances – one cannot introduce a big character and then drop that character half way through. So I followed that rule in my play.

You’ve not written a play before, but you have written on financial matters, history, music etc. How have your previous endeavours informed this one?

Writing so much taught me to write clearly……in any case a lot of what I wrote in the financial world had to be translated, or anyway read by those who were not native English speakers – so I had to be clear. A lot of writing these days is not transparently easy to follow, My aim is always to have the reader (or the listener to the play) able to concentrate on the ideas which I (or a character) is expressing, and not have to work out from the language what the point might be.

When I thought of writing the play I read quite a lot of other plays to get the structure in my mind, and was pretty dismayed by the sordid or unhappy nature of the plots – failed marriages, hopeless careers, children and parents at loggerheads etc etc.

The drama centres on a banker who has run out of money and needs bailing out. Where did you get such an incredible notion from?

See the answer to Question One. If this question is sarcastic, see my answer to Question Five.

Your own background is in banking and the city. Bankers aren’t massively popular at present. What can they do to improve their public image, and what should us non-bankers always bear in mind about the sector?

The general view of bankers is completely unbalanced. The main reason for their unpopularity is the financial crash, which was caused not by them but by the Central Banks keeping interest rates too low, by the Regulators not checking on balance sheets, and by the Chancellor (Gordon Brown) stating frequently that he had abolished downturns. What does one expect bankers to do in such an environment? Sit on their hands with all that cheap money and refuse mortgages?

Of course bankers have behaved badly in specific areas, but one does not attack the game of football because FIFA was corrupt, or attack athletics because many athletes take drugs, The financial system is a tremendous asset to this country – we have a great talent in that area – but I cannot see the image improving much. Most people do not understand the enormous value of efficient capital markets in using everyone’s savings more efficiently, and of attracting vast amounts of business to this country…… another difficulty is that the salaries seem so high. I see that several football managers earn more than £10 million a year. But people understand football.

LOD 2Do you believe in the Devil? Is he abroad in the world of men?

I believe that the Cardinal Archbishop of Vienna in my play was right (originally). The Devil is no more than a psychological construction in the mind of the human race, but has even so some importance as part of the human psyche. Jung said that if the Christian religion was not true, it had to be psychologically valid, since otherwise it would not have succeeded, and the Devil is part of that analysis. Incidentally, the real Cardinal Archbishop of Vienna in 1931 was Cardinal Pifl……..

What makes for good theatre?

This is a matter beyond my sphere of expertise. Chekhov stands out, and is of great interest in any attempt to answer your question.Often very little happens in a Chekhov play until the middle of the second act, when they all meet and decide not to go to Moscow. Yet his plays stand out as an amazing analysis of the human predicament. Note that the plot is merely the skeleton on which the real drama is hung. That is why so many films of great novels miss the point. They can tell the story, maybe a good one, but miss the dimension which make the whole thing a great work of art.

Wuthering Heights is the extreme example. Shakespeare is in a different league from everyone else – one can only be astonished at his genius. Incidentally, it seems clear to me that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. It is impossible to imagine that he could have been in and around the London theatre scene for so long without anyone noticing the difference between his plays and his mind in conversation, not to mention having to wait whilst he rushed off the get input from Bacon or Lord Oxford. Also the comments by Ben Jonson and others.

What has been the response to The Luck of the Devil thus far?

The response is enthusiastic by those who have read it, but not many have read it outside my circle. Those in my circle are probably amazed that I have written a play at all. All profits from the first printing of the first edition went to a Charitable Trust.

LOD 1What’s next for The Luck of the Devil?

I have sent it to the BBC as it is perfect for radio. As regards a second play – Wodehouse when talking of novels always said that the second one was the real test of a writer, and no doubt the same is true of plays – I have started on a plot dealing with the incompetent bureaucracy of Heaven, where Stalin on arrival is not recognised (he uses his real name Josef Vissarionovitch Dzhugasvili) and is given the wrong papers, so that he is very nearly through the Pearly Gates, much to the delight of Satan.

What should be playing on the stereo when we’re reading The Luck of the Devil?

This is not an easy question. Any reference to the Devil brings to mind the Charles Williams piece The Devil’s Gallop, which the more ancient of your readers may remember as the theme for Dick Barton, Special Agent on the BBC, which was succeeded by the Archers (the Archers have never been the same since Squire Lawson-Hope sold the village). But the Gallop is for a melodramatic Devil, and for my play we need something more sophisticated. Handel’s Zadok the Priest would do, since the long and restrained build up is full of tension, relieved by the triumphant ending.

If the play were to be made into an opera, I think that Gilbert and Sullivan would have done it rather well. I can imagine that Sullivan’s music for the Devil would have been excellent, and Gilbert would have loved the plot. Or even better Offenbach – we have put on his Not in Front of the Waiter four times at my club. His humorous wit is sophisticated and some of his music might also do for background music when reading the play.


“I like having a central character who’s rather out of his depth among the intrigues, but with the willpower to battle through them. A just man in an unjust time, perhaps.” – Author Ian Ross discusses The Twilight of Empire IV The Mask of Command

“I’ve always been drawn to periods of revolution and change, and the possibilities of viewing this very volatile era through the eyes of a man caught in the midst of it, not knowing what the future might bring, were compelling.”

When a treacherous act of murder throws the western provinces into turmoil, Aurelius Castus is ordered to take command of the military forces on the Rhine. But he soon discovers that the frontier is a place where the boundaries between civilisation and barbarism, freedom and slavery, honour and treason have little meaning.

At the very heart of the conflict are two vulnerable boys. One is Emperor Constantine’s young heir, Crispus. The other is Castus’s own beloved son, Sabinus. Only Castus stands between them and men who would kill them. With all that he loves in danger, Castus and a handful of loyal men must fight to defend the Roman Empire. But in the heat of battle, can he distinguish friend from enemy?.

Ian Ross was born in England, and studied painting before turning to writing fiction. After a year in Italy teaching English and exploring the ruins of empire reawakened his early love for ancient history, he returned to the UK with a growing fascination for the period known as late antiquity.

Ian has been researching and writing about the later Roman world and its army for over a decade. His interests combine an obsessive regard for accuracy and detail as well as a devotion to the craft of storytelling.

The Mask of Command (Twilight of Empire IV) (published by Head of Zeus, December 2016). To find out more click here.

Why the age of Constantine?

The Roman era is always going to attract the imagination, I think: perhaps it’s the combination of the recognisable and the very alien, or just the sheer scale of the empire and the drama of its history. The early fourth century is probably rather less familiar to many people, but it was a fascinating period, simultaneously gloomy and ornate, sophisticated and brutal. The empire had been through tremendous upheavals and was in a process of transformation; it was still a resolutely Roman culture and society, but the old certainties of the classical world were gone. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to sense the gathering storms of the empire’s collapse, so there’s a sort of background of darkness that makes the action stand out in even greater clarity.

I’ve always been drawn to periods of revolution and change, and the possibilities of viewing this very volatile era through the eyes of a man caught in the midst of it, not knowing what the future might bring, were compelling. We also have a reasonably good idea of the main events of the time, and a cast of extraordinary historical characters!

Did your research include much travel? Are there places where the visitor can catch a glimpse of the world your characters inhabit?

I’ve tried to visit all of the main sites I write about in the books, yes – an advantage, as I find travel sharpens the imagination greatly. My research so far has taken me from Scotland to Turkey, but this book is mainly set on the north-west frontier of the empire, along the lower Rhine and its hinterland. In Cologne (Colonia Agrippina in the novel, Castus’s centre of operations) you can see the remains of the Roman praetorium, or governor’s palace – and an extraordinary stretch of old sewer tunnel beneath it, which found its way unexpectedly into the novel! In Trier the audience hall of the imperial palace still stands, an enormously impressive building, while in nearby Mainz you can see full-size replicas of the smaller type of Roman river galley.

Downstream at Xanten there’s an entire Roman legionary fortress, with some excellent reconstructions. Often it’s the smaller finds that draw me, though – those glass cases in museums filled with everything from kitchen implements to dice, bits of armour to votive figurines; the things that people of the distant past would have handled in their everyday lives.

When did you first “meet” the hero of the novels, Aurelius Castus? When and how did he first appear in your mind’s eye in roughly the form he takes in the novels?

Castus appeared to me very quickly; I found I could picture him distinctly almost from the first moment I started thinking about the story. I wanted a protagonist who fitted with the era, rather than a sort of superhero figure, but someone with the depth to develop and remain central to the successive stories. Castus is a traditionalist, fiercely loyal to his own rather idealistic sense of the empire and the emperors, and he has a blunt and straightforward view of the world that often makes him clumsy in social situations. But he has a strong sense of ethics and honour, that throws him into conflict with the more duplicitous morality of the times.

The later Roman Empire was a complex and often murky place, with emperors rising and falling, and murderous conspiracies and treacheries on all sides; and I like having a central character who’s rather out of his depth among the intrigues, but with the willpower to battle through them. A just man in an unjust time, perhaps.


Where did Castus learn to fight i.e. where did you learn to write authentic battle accounts and war stories?

I’m glad you find them convincing! I would guess it’s safe to say that few, if any, people today know what the actual experience of fighting hand to hand in ancient battles would be like, so authenticity is hard to judge. We have accounts from the period, some very vivid, that can tell us how Roman soldiers fought, how their formations were arrayed, and how particular clashes developed. There are reconstructions and re-enactments that can tell us even more. But beyond that it’s a matter of imagination and a sense of empathy, I think: we all know what fear and shock feel like, what adrenaline does to us, and fiction can build on that knowledge and take it somewhere new.

All novels are about empathy in that sense, about imagining the experiences of somebody else doing something entirely unfamiliar, and when that person is living in an historical era the imagination has to stretch that bit further. So when I’m writing these scenes I’m trying to evoke the sense of action and speed, the sense of danger, but keep everything focussed on the experiences of the individual man, Castus himself, who actually feels quite at home in the violent world of the battlefield!

Castus is the hero, but he is not the narrator. Did you ever consider telling the story in the first person?

I didn’t really, no – Castus is a man of relatively few words, and his taciturn nature wouldn’t really suit a narrator’s role. He’s always going to be at the centre of the story, although I have increasingly used other character’s perspectives alongside his own. In this book, there are viewpoints from Fausta, the emperor’s wife, and a certain rather dangerous eunuch as well; I often find it appealing to write from the perspective of people very dissimilar to myself.

220px-p1070865_louvre_tc3aate_de_fausta_ma4881_rwkYou’ve been researching the period for over a decade. What’s the greatest liberty you have taken with your sources in order to tell the story?

I’ve always tried to take as few liberties as possible with the historical facts – which isn’t actually all that difficult, as our sources tend to be pretty scanty for this period, and there’s plenty of leeway for interpretation! But I haven’t deliberately changed anything so far, and only start inventing things once I reach the furthest borders of the evidence. With the new book, The Mask of Command, I’ve had to be a lot more inventive though: the historical record tends to follow Constantine quite exclusively, and in this book my story leaves him in the eastern provinces and heads back west to the turbulent Rhine frontier.

We know there was some sort of war with the barbarians, and the emperor’s son Crispus claimed a victory, but beyond that things get a bit hazy. So my reconstruction of events is necessarily speculative, although almost everything that happens is at least based on something recorded from the surrounding era. More generally, though, I’ve never found the facts of history – or what we can establish of them – to be a hindrance in storytelling. It’s a lot more fruitful, I find, to try and build a story around the surviving fragments of the past, with all their awkward gaps and contradictions, rather than trying to bend history into a new shape that fits the ideas I already have.

Which novelist of the Roman Empire have you most tried to emulate, or is there one you’ve tried hard to avoid?

There are plenty of great writers around at the moment producing stories set in the ancient world, but I think with my own books I was trying consciously to reach back to works from a previous generation, the sort of thing I read when I was younger, and perhaps more impressionable! Rosemary Sutcliff would be obvious choice – mainly her novel for adults, The Flowers of Adonis, which is fabulous. Also Mary Renault, Wallace Breem and Alfred Duggan, and Robert Graves of course. I’ve tried to capture something of the subtlety and detail of those writers, and combine it with the more action-driven sort of narratives that we’re familiar with today.

If you could meet one of the historical personalities featured in the Twilight of Empire series who would it be?

There are quite a few! Fascinating as it might be to meet Constantine himself, I doubt he’d reveal much beyond his public persona. Actually, it would be more interesting to meet his wife: Fausta plays a significant role in the novels, but she’s a shadowy historical figure, the daughter, mother, and wife of emperors, but perhaps very conflicted in her allegiances. No doubt she could give an illuminating insider’s view on what was really happening in the imperial court! Maxentius, who appears in the third book, would be fascinating too, I’m sure: the pro-Constantine propaganda portrays him as a monstrous tyrant, but he was very popular at the time, and I suspect he was a lot more sympathetic than he often appears.

The Mask of Command is the 4th book of the series. What’s next?

There are going to be six books in The Twilight of Empire series, covering a period of about thirty years. I planned them, rather roughly, before I started work on the first, and I’ve just finished the fifth. Despite all the planning – I try to plot everything out in as much detail as I can before I start a new project – things do always change once I’m into the writing process, so the story can always develop in unexpected ways. But you can expect further challenges for Castus, a lot more conflict and imperial intrigue, and some dramatic new locations too.

What should be playing on the stereo when we’re reading Twilight of Empire IV The Mask of Command?

I never listen to music when I’m actually working, as it’s too distracting, although when I’m in the planning and preparation stages I sometimes do: anything from Holst to medieval Sicilian music, whatever helps to summon a certain mood. But if anyone wanted a musical accompaniment to reading the book, I’m sure the soundtrack to Gladiator would be quite suitable!


“I sensed that if I could draw solace from these two stories, then so might an audience.” – Author Mark Farrelly discusses Soho Lives


“I hope Patrick is not revived. I much prefer him to be a cult that only a small number of us know about. In this sense he is the literary equivalent of “Withnail and I”. Pass the secret on – but not too loudly.”

Soho Lives is a collection of two hit solo plays exploring the extraordinary lives and losses of two great Soho writers, Patrick Hamilton and Quentin Crisp. Greeted with huge acclaim since their debut productions, Mark Farrelly’s plays offer actors and audiences laughter, heartbreak, and an urgent, passionate reminder that the only thing that ever matters is being true to yourself.

Patrick Hamilton (1904 – 1962) was a shooting star playwright and novelist. His stage thriller Rope made him a hit on both sides of the Atlantic by the age of 25, and the play was later filmed by Hitchcock. Patrick repeated his success with the Victorian chiller Gaslight, while his highly regarded novels include Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky, Hangover Square and The Slaves of Solitude. His output – witty, cynical and beguilingly empathetic of all those “battered silly by life” – was cut brutally short by the loss of his battle with chronic alcoholism.

Quentin Crisp (1908 – 1999) was variously a rent boy, artist’s model and full time layabout. Shunned and beaten by London society for his flamboyant effeminacy, he concentrated simply on Being, and spawned a philosophy which enlightens to this day. After being portrayed by John Hurt in the classic TV film The Naked Civil Servant in 1975, he became an unlikely international treasure. Moving to New York in his seventies, he spent the rest of his life telling anyone who would listen ‘How to have a lifestyle’. Asked to give a young fan some life advice, he replied: “Remember – you don’t have to win”.

Mark Farrelly is an actor/writer. He was born in Sheffield and graduated with a double first in English from Jesus College, Cambridge. His West End credits include Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? opposite Matthew Kelly at Trafalgar Studios. Mark is a veteran of numerous arts festivals and a regular favourite at the Edinburgh Fringe. He has performed his two hit solo plays, The Silence of Snow: The Life of Patrick Hamilton, and Quentin Crisp: Naked Hope over one hundred times. Mark’s latest project is as writer and co-star of Howerd’s End, celebrating the centenary of comedy legend Frankie Howerd.

Soho Lives: Two Solo Plays by Mark Farrelly (published by 49Knights, March 2016). To find out more click here.

Why Patrick Hamilton and Quentin Crisp?

Though I didn’t consciously know it at the time, they deeply mirrored aspects of my own life journey. Patrick’s personal life was a perpetual, drink-sodden mess (just read the highly autobiographical Hangover Square for a sense of this febrile fragility). I wasn’t in that league, but my personal life was certainly dysfunctional a few years ago. Around this time, me and my girlfriend of fifteen years split up, and I was truly on my own for the first time in life.

Horrifyingly, I found that adulthood could be postponed no longer (it seems that human adolescence now stretches to the age of 40). That’s where Quentin came in – the great guru of loneliness and laughing in the face of adversity. I was understandably drawn to Quentin’s story because it’s the tale of a man sitting in a flat on his own thinking life is over, which was very much me in 2012 /13, but then eventually things change and he ends up being the toast of New York.

I sensed that if I could draw solace from these two stories, then so might an audience… because we’re all suffering aren’t we? It’s a big part of what life is. The trick, as Quentin knew, is never to try to deal with it like Patrick – by running away.

Joining the two Lives is Soho. What was Soho like in their day and did Hamilton and Crisp ever meet there?

Soho (at least until recently) has always been what you want it to be. It’s a cipher for everyone’s inner ideal of a sanctuary from the harshness of life, but also a metaphor for the danger we like to flirt with in our younger days. So, for Patrick, it’s initially a boozy bolthole, a safe haven, idealised as a realm of “bottley glitter”. Later, as Patrick’s worldview darkened in the shadow of Hitler, Soho becomes a feeding ground for human sharks… conmen, narcissists, and also suicidal depressives.

Quentin likewise saw Soho initially as a refuge, hiding in what he called “layabout cafes”… until a “rough” or the police hassled him, angered by his brazen selfhood. Later he withdrew from it, and it existed only as a memory: “Soho used to be a more exciting place. You used to be able to get your throat cut on a really big scale”.

Did Patrick and Quentin ever meet? Unlikely. But I like to think they once unwittingly brushed past each other. Like so much of human interaction – almost connecting… but somehow never quite managing it.

Why have the novels of Patrick Hamilton dropped off the radar, and is he due a revival?

I suspect they dropped off the radar because there aren’t that many of them. He only wrote twelve books. The early ones are apprentice works, the later ones are blighted by the alcoholism that killed him at 58 (“I’ve been battered silly by life”), so for me that leaves only five flat-out great novels. They also have a narrowness of focus, compared to say E.M. Forster (another man who ‘only’ produced five great books). I hope Patrick is not revived. I much prefer him to be a cult that only a small number of us know about. In this sense he is the literary equivalent of Withnail and I. Pass the secret on – but not too loudly.

Quentin-Crisp.jpegDo John Hurt’s much celebrated portrayals of Quentin Crisp make it easier or harder for another actor to play him?

It didn’t really affect me. There have been thousands of Hamlets so I knew the world could cope with two Quentin Crisps. John Hurt (a great portrayer of victims, of whom it was rightly said “he suffers so well”) played to the hilt the bizarre upward inflections that Quentin sometimes spoke in. I deliberately toned this down for a solo play, as it would have become a bit annoying. So, at the wise encouragement of my superb director Linda Marlowe, I allowed some of my own voice to come into it. After all, the whole point of Quentin Crisp: Naked Hope is to encourage people to have the blind courage to be themselves at all times, however tough it is. Quentin said: “I simply refuse to bevel down my individuality to please other people”. Please dwell on what a great statement that is.

How do you go about researching your biographies, what sort of people do you meet, and what’s the single best insight you’ve gained?

The best research for writing a biographical piece is to have lots of psychotherapy. Find out who and what you are, what’s really going on beneath your behaviour patterns and your unexpressed wishes. Deeply explore why you are drawn to your subject, and what that says about you and the wider human “condition”. You’ll likely discover that your subject is what Jung called your shadow… some split-off, disowned part of yourself that you abandoned as a child in the face of criticism and aggression.

And now the soul burns to reconnect with all its parts. You’ve grown exhausted of listening to those dismal voices in your head, that embalmed Normal Bates gag reel of guff that keeps telling you that life is hopeless, you’re a failure and so on. It’s just a ghostly echo of everyone whose negativity you co-opted as a child, and you’ve spent years vainly trying to find the dimmer switch.

If (and it’s quite a big if) you are able to do this, then everything else will flow. Your reading, meeting surviving relatives, creating something of value… it will happen, though not necessarily in the manner you expected. The best insight (beautiful word) I had was when meeting Frances Ramsay, Quentin’s octogenarian niece. She said that whenever she was with Quentin, he would introduce her to his friends as “My niece Frances. She comes from real life”. And there it is. Quentin was an alien. Gloriously ironic that knowing yourself very deeply makes you an alien. And it does. Ninety percent of people I’ve met are phonies, imposters. I should know – I used to be one too.

14702423656_ac23f53089_k.jpgIf you had the chance to take Patrick Hamilton and Quentin Crisp to dinner where would you go and who would you also invite along?

Even after all my experience (I’ve played both men on stage over 100 times) I don’t know whether they would “click”. It would certainly be an interesting speed-date. I think we should go to the Garrick Club. Patrick (rare for him) felt at home there, and Quentin would, even today, raise eyebrows with his appearance. I would like no other diners present, I would want them all to myself. However, if I could freely subvert the known laws of space and time then I would like to be joined by Tim Welling, my dear friend who committed suicide in 2012. He helped me in the early days of these projects, and was one of the few people I’ve met who, like Quentin, was entirely himself regardless of who he was with or where he was. I miss him deeply.

You’re next project is a play about Frankie Howerd. If you’ll let us peek over your shoulder at the portrait while it’s still in progress, what’s emerging on the canvas?

I’ve realised that Frankie is the archetype of the human condition – nervous, haunted, hunted, desperately trying to keep the plates spinning before the whole lot disastrously crashes down. Of course, as Frankie’s partner of 40 years, Dennis Heymer, knew, letting the plates crash down might be a very good thing, but Frankie could never take that Rubiconic risk. This meant that he created a brilliant, brave, timeless form of stand-up comedy, but had the classic unhappy inner life. His act was a band-aid solution to the problem of being Frankie Howerd.

Next year is Frankie’s centenary, and we’ve never had a big comedic anniversary like this that I’m aware of. I think it’s extremely healthy for people to have proper goodbyes in life. I realised this when I went to see Monty Python at the O2 in 2014: we, and they, were getting a chance to say goodbye formally, and that’s very healing, allows you to move on in life. Two big romantic relationships of mine ended without a proper goodbye (“closure”) which did me a lot of damage.

So the play (Howerd’s End) is partly about how to let go properly. Dennis lived on for seventeen years after Frankie died in 1992, was often found clinging to the grave weeping, never came to terms with the loss. So what he and the audience have to learn during the course of the play is how to let go of Frankie. After all, one day we’ll have to let go of ourselves.

Above all: I want the play to be bloody funny. We’re apt to make our clowns very dark for the sake of drama. Every stranger I’ve spoken to about Frankie grins and says “Oh I loved him”, and so although I certainly want to provoke a few tears, I also want the audience to ride big waves of happiness. I asked Barry Cryer about this. He wrote for Frankie, and said that he’d seen a TV biopic about Frankie that “was so bleak you’d never have guessed Frank was a funny man”. Well, exactly. The world in 2016 is a pretty dark and frightening place, bombs seemingly going off by the hour… and I think we could all do with a damn good laugh. I know I could.

How important has your time at Edinburgh been for the development of both scripts?

Invaluable. Edinburgh is a brutal forcing house for new projects, and if you can survive it, possibly even get good reviews and interest from producers, then you’ve done very well indeed. There are three thousand shows in Edinburgh every year. When I first appeared there in 2002 it was one thousand. Gives you some idea of what you’re up against. Edinburgh to me is like the painting of the raft of the Medusa… thousands of egos fighting over a small bit of attention. It’s actually quite unpleasant, and when I performed there in 2014 I stayed away from much of the craziness by retreating, Quentin-style, to my room and listening to meditation tapes to remember how beautiful and special it is to be alive, because you can easily forget that in Edinburgh in August.

What’s the one thing anyone contemplating bringing a solo show to Edinburgh needs to consider?


What should be playing on the stereo when we’re reading Soho Lives: Two Solo Plays?

For Patrick, a selection of his beloved Ella Fitzgerald (he adored These Foolish Things).

For Quentin, complete silence, which was the soundtrack to many years of his life in Chelsea (“If I want anything, it’s peace. Quiet. The opportunity to stay in my room and just stagger on”). Then after you’ve read it, listen to Open All Night, Marc Almond’s beautifully dark album from 1999. It’s truly atmospheric, evocative of a lost Soho that probably never existed, and I think Patrick and Quentin would especially appreciate track 3: Tragedy.


“No murderers at dinner, please, no politicians, and I think no soldiers if their talk would all be of blood and battles.” – Author Christopher Redmond discusses Lives Beyond Baker Street


“People admire superheroes, the larger-than-life figures who fight for justice. They also enjoy hearing about eccentrics, and Holmes certainly is an eccentric.”

Like insects trapped in amber, preserved in situ for all time, the cast of characters who populate the environs of 221B Baker Street offer a glimpse into a vanished milieu. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote what he saw. The canonical Sherlock Holmes stories are filled to bursting with charmers and charlatans, machiavellians and muddleheads inspired by, or taken directly from, the Victorian and Edwardian eras. In March 2016 MX Publishing will be setting 800 Sherlockian period portraits in a single gallery, a biographical dictionary to accompany fans as they journey in company with Holmes and Watson.

Canadian author Christopher Redmond is a Sherlock Holmes expert of exceptional standing. His Welcome to America, Mr. Sherlock Holmes (1987) chronicled Conan Doyle’s 1894 tour of America, while his In Bed With Sherlock Holmes (1984) examines the sexual elements in stories of the great detective. Arguably Christopher’s most important contribution thus far is his A Sherlock Holmes Handbook (1993) which went into a second edition in 2009.

The editor, past and present, of leading scholarly journals focused on all things Holmes, Christopher is also a founder and guiding genius behind Sherlockian.​Net – the web portal about Conan Doyle’s most famous creation.

Lives Beyond Baker Street: A Biographical Dictionary of Sherlock Holmes’s Contemporaries
(published by MX Publishing, March 2016
). To find out more click here.

Why the lives of Sherlock Holmes’s contemporaries?

Most people who are interested in the original Sherlock Holmes are interested in the world in which he moved, and the people around him. Most of the characters in the Holmes stories may be fictitious, but they are convincing portrayals of how people lived and behaved in that era. Standing just behind them (and, surprisingly often, making brief appearances in the stories) are the real people of the 1880s and 1890s. I wanted to introduce them to readers, in more depth than the footnotes in an annotated edition can do.


Each biography is a paragraph long. How on Earth do you go about scaling down the great and the good to fit that frame?

Of course it means leaving out lots of details and many accomplishments, but it’s always possible to summarize who an individual was and what he or she did. I was constantly asking myself: what would an encyclopaedia say about Willam J. Burns? How would I tell my grandchild the story of Nelly Bly? What’s the elevator pitch for Sir Thomas Lipton?

Lives Beyond Baker Street is going to contain the lives of names who remain household even today, but who’s the who in there who’s been most unfairly overlooked?

That would be Bertha (Ringer) Benz, the wife of automotive engineer Karl Benz, who drove his prototype car 120 miles cross-country in 1886 to demonstrate that it worked, and invented brake linings during her trip. Without her efforts at marketing and technical improvement, the “100-horse-power Benz car” mentioned in one of the Sherlock Holmes stories would never have existed.

What kind of sources have you been using?

My introduction to the book lists a number of Sherlockian sources that have helped me identify people I should include. General information about them came from reference books and, primarily, online reference sources. I have to acknowledge constant use of Wikipedia, which contains a mountain of information about both well-known and obscure historical figures; the hard part is knowing which details to pull out and how to combine them into a narrative that’s interesting and doesn’t waste words.

Why only 800 biographical sketches? Or why so many?

I set that as the target early in the project, when I thought that each biography could be limited to 100 words. Eight hundred paragraphs each 100 words long would make 80,000 words, which I thought was a reasonable size for a substantial book. Unfortunately I rarely was able to stick to the 100-word target. I did manage to write exactly 800 biographies, if my count is correct, although one reviewer has already said that he thinks there are 806.

Why does Sherlock Holmes continue to fascinate, especially North Americans?

People admire superheroes, the larger-than-life figures who fight for justice. They also enjoy hearing about eccentrics, and Holmes certainly is an eccentric. Discriminating readers admire his dedication to sheer logic, pure reason, at the expense of emotion and human frailty. And, to justify my book a little further, the Victorian age in which his life is set has a great appeal because we see it as stable and reasonable, a time when inventors and reformers were making life a little better every year.

How did your own love and fascination for Holmes begin? Does it extend to Conan Doyle’s other work?

I read Sherlock Holmes as a young teenager — most people did in those days — and never really grew out of my enthusiasm. I have read most of Arthur Conan Doyle’s other books but don’t often return to them.

Conan Doyle wrote the original Sherlock Holmes stories, inspiring others to take up his characters and carry on writing where he left off. Sir Arthur was the first Holmes writer, but is he still the definitive and best?

Yes indeed. Of course he is the definitive author because he is the one who created the character and his immediate setting, his Watson and Mrs. Hudson, his Baker Street sitting-room and magnifying glass and all the rest. Any subsequent Sherlock Holmes is based on the original, either trying to match it or deliberately varying from it. And ACD is the best author of Sherlock Holmes because of his brilliantly clear, simple, straightforward and yet imaginative style, which has not been equalled and is infuriatingly hard to imitate.


If you were having a dinner party, and could only invite two of the figures profiled, who would you invite?

I can eliminate many of the 800 immediately: no murderers at dinner, please, no politicians, and I think no soldiers if their talk would all be of blood and battles. I would love to dine with Caroline Otero, but perhaps that meal should be tête-à-tête rather than with a party! So perhaps I’ll choose Anthony Hope Hawkins, who wrote some of the Victorian era’s other popular adventure fiction including The Prisoner of Zenda, and music-hall star Bessie Bellwood, who was known for her uninhibited repartee. That should keep the conversation lively.

What should be playing on the stereo when we’re reading Lives Beyond Baker Street: A Biographical Dictionary of Sherlock Holmes’s Contemporaries?

I don’t have a close relationship with music, and I don’t play anything when I’m reading or writing, but perhaps it would be pleasant to hear something by one of the composers or performers mentioned in the book. I wonder if there are any recordings of Sir Charles Hallé’s orchestra, which Sherlock Holmes himself supposedly heard in concert.


“Like Chicago, DD is stubborn, sassy, determined, and loyal to her friends.” – Author Diane Gilbert Madsen discusses The Conan Doyle Notes: The Secret of Jack the Ripper

“Dr. Bell kept the name of his confederate anonymous, but I have deduced that he was Arthur Conan Doyle. Who better to work with on the Ripper case than the world-famous mystery author?”

Could Sir Arthur Conan Doyle have deduced the identity of Jack the Ripper? That’s the premise of novelist Diane Gilbert Madsen’s third book featuring ace investigator Daphne December McGil.

Author Diane was born in Chicago and has an M.A in English literature (specializing in the 17th century) from Roosevelt University. Cited in both the World Who’s Who of Women and the Who’s Who in Finance and Industry, Diane worked a range of government jobs from Deputy Village Clerk, to Director of Economic Development for the State of Illinois. She oversaw the Illinois Film Office during the filming of Blues Brothers.

Diane became a writer after moving to Florida with her husband, Tom. Her acclaimed DD McGil Literati Series of murder mystery novels also includes Hunting for Hemingway & A Cadger’s Curse.

The Conan Doyle Notes: The Secret of Jack the Ripper (published by MX Publishing, August 2014). To find out more click here.

Why Conan Doyle and Jack the Ripper?

First of all, thanks so much Dan for interviewing me about The Conan Doyle Notes. I must tell you that I love your questions. I’ve always been a fan of Doyle, and I’ve always been interested in the Ripper murders. These two passions fortuitously came together resulting in my third book.

It all began because I was fortunate to know Ely Liebow when I lived in Chicago, and we talked about his book, Dr. Joe Bell, model for Sherlock Holmes, which mentions that Joe Bell was given access to the Ripper files and that he solved the case with “another friend who liked solving deep problems.” Bell himself wrote in an article in Tit-Bits in October of 1911 that “there were two of us in the hunt, and when two men set out to find a golf ball in the rough, they expect to come across it where the straight line marked in their mind’s eye to it, from their original positions, crossed.

In the same way, when two men set out to investigate a crime mystery, it is where their researches intersect that we have a result.” Dr. Bell kept the name of his confederate anonymous, but I have deduced that he was Arthur Conan Doyle. Who better to work with on the Ripper case than the world-famous mystery author? Doyle and Bell were friends and colleagues, and it stimulated my imagination. Dr. Bell and his anonymous friend, according to Ely Liebow, deduced the murderer and each wrote a name on a piece of paper, put the paper in an envelope and then exchanged enveloped.

Both men had the same name, and Dr. Bell sent a report to Scotland Yard. A week later, the Ripper murders ceased, but no report has ever been found. This incident forms the basis of the plot in The Conan Doyle Notes, and I have endeavored to include only factual information about the Ripper case. Although I name the suspect whom I believe was deduced by Doyle and Dr. Bell, I include the clues I used to arrive at my conclusion. I had lots of challenges writing this book, but I loved doing it and hope my readers enjoy it as much as I do.

The Conan Doyle Notes: The Secret of Jack the Ripper is inspired by Sir Arthur’s historical trip to Chicago. When and why did that happen?

Conan Doyle arrived in Chicago on October 12, 1894 when he was 35 yrs old, in the prime of his life and famous world-wide for his Sherlock Holmes stories. He was booked in 15 northeast cities for a series of 67 “set” lectures including Readings & Reminiscences and Facts and Fiction. He wanted to see the states – his favorite childhood books were American wild west adventure stories, especially those of Bret Harte.

The US population at this time was double that of Great Britain and a big market for selling his stories. He stayed at the Grand Pacific Hotel, a 6 story luxury hotel where Oscar Wilde had stayed in 1882 on his 1st tour. He was shown the Water Tower, the elevated and Marshall Field’s, and he took a lot of snapshots whenever he could with his Kodak camera. It is highly likely that he met the Chicago lumber baron, David Gage Joyce, on this trip. Joyce is another character I used in The Conan Doyle Notes because David Gage Joyce did in fact own the manuscript of Doyle’s The White Company, which is now at the Newberry Library.

Doyle arrived a year after he’d written The Final Problem, killing off Sherlock Holmes. In Britain, Doyle had been shocked when over 20,000 people cancelled their Strand Magazine subscriptions in protest. The magazine nearly went under, and the staff referred to Holmes’s death as “the dreadful event.” Although the Chicago press greeted him warmly, they too all wanted to know WHY he’d killed off Sherlock Holmes. Doyle was dismayed. He didn’t want to talk about his detective, and he revealed his true feelings when he said: “I have been much blamed for doing Holmes to death, but I hold that it was not murder, but justifiable homicide in self-defense, since, if I had not killed him, he would certainly have killed me.”

Interestingly, Doyle was asked about the Ripper murders on his tour of America in 1894. He must have given some thought to the Ripper case, as he outlined to an American journalist just how Sherlock Holmes would have set about tracing the culprit:

“I am not in the least degree either a sharp or an observant man myself. I try to get inside the skin of a sharp man and see how things strike him. I remember going to Scotland Yard Museum and looking at the letter which was received from the Ripper. Of course it may have been a hoax, but there were reasons to think it genuine, and in any case, it was well to find out who wrote it.

“It was written in red ink in a clerky hand. I tried to think of how Holmes might have deduced the writer of that letter. The most obvious point was that it had been written by someone who had been in America. It began ‘Dear Boss’ and contained the phrase ‘fix it up’ and several others which are not usual with Britishers. Then we have the quality of the paper, and a round, easy, clerky hand. He was, therefore, a man accustomed to the use of a pen.

“Having determined that much, we cannot avoid the inference that there must be somewhere letters that this man has written over his own name, or documents or accounts that could readily be traced to him. Oddly enough, the police did not, as far as I know, think of that, and so they failed to accomplish anything. Holmes’ plan would have been to reproduce the letters in facsimile and on each plate indicate briefly the peculiarities of the handwriting. Then publish these facsimiles in the leading newspapers of Great Britain and America and in connection with them offer a reward to anyone who could show them a letter or any other specimen of the same handwriting. Such a course would have enlisted millions of people as detectives on the case.”

What do we know for certain about Conan Doyle’s own reaction to the Ripper murders?

Here’s information I’ve collected on Doyle and the Ripper murders:

  • Doyle visited Scotland Yard’s Black Museum on December 2, 1892, four years after the Ripper murders. He was shown one of the Ripper letters. He said that the murderer might have dressed as a woman.
  • On April 19, 1905, nearly 7 years after the murders, a number of police gave Doyle a guided tour of all the Ripper murder sites in Whitechapel. Doyle said the police knew who the Ripper was.
  • Nigel Morland, who died in 1986, possessed an enormous library of books on criminology and his wide circle of friends shared his considerable knowledge of the subject, especially the mystery of Jack the Ripper. Morland said Edgar Wallace had told him he knew the Royal identity of Jack the Ripper and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle told him the same thing.
  • Doyle and Dr. Joseph Bell, one of the world’s first forensic pathologists, were friends and colleagues. Few people know that Bell was part of the police net that was thrown around the Ripper, in spite of the fact that Dr. Bell lived hundreds of miles from the Ripper murders in London. Dr. Bell was set up in Edinburgh while the Ripper murders took place in London. However, the London force was under so much pressure, they were ready to try just about anything. Dr. Bell was given all the facts of the case by the Metropolitan Force. Based on this, he wrote a report which named the suspect he believed was the Ripper. However, Dr. Bell’s report disappeared and has never been found.
  • Doyle’s son, Adrian Doyle, told Tom Cullen in 1962 what he remembered of his father’s views on the Ripper case: “More than 30 years having passed, it is difficult to recall his views in detail on the Ripper Case. However, I do remember that he considered it likely that the man had a rough knowledge of surgery and probably clothed himself as a woman to approach his victims without arousing suspicion on their part.” (From: Conan Doyle, Detective, By Peter Costello)

The setting for the novel is the Kenwood / Hyde Park districts on the Southside of Chicago, home to the Obama family. Dust of your Director of Economic Development hat for a second, tell us about the area and its advantages as a literary setting.

I love Chicago. It’s where I grew up, and I try to use it as a “character” in the DD McGil Literati Mystery Series. I recently wrote an article entitled “Chicago Rules,” in which I explain my fascination.

Chicago – my city of birth
Chicago – my city of choice.
My curse and my muse
That’s why I refuse
To write about anywhere else.

There is a distinct feel about the place and its people. We Chicagoans tend to be down to earth and hard working and perhaps a little sentimental. We love our heroes and hate our villains. We support our city, our teams, our schools and our friends; and above all we display an enduring hope for the future. These characteristics come from our connective, collective experiences living in the city.

5a803b12e432724fb21a06dc08a9f3f31First of all, we must contend with our name which, taken from the Ojibwa Indians, means ‘skunk.’ Then too, we used to be known as the Second City before LA went on steroids. We knew we were number two, not number one, and we were never allowed to forget it. That mind set fostered a certain perverse twist to our egos and our ids. Then there’s our weather. Let’s face it, when it’s nice, it’s really nice, but when it’s not, it’s horrible. And it’s horrible usually 6 months out of the year. That’s why we don’t act like carefree Californians. No – we need our coats, our scarves and our gloves. We don’t go naked into that good sunlight in January, and it marks us for life.

On top of that, as fans of the Chicago Cubs, we are doomed to never win a pennant. In setting my books, I’ve used many well known Chicago landmarks such as Soldier Field, Wrigley Field, and Graue Mill, the oldest working mill in the area and where I served as a Board Member. I’ve also used all four of Chicago’s seasons to give readers a feel of the hardiness it takes to be a Chicagoan. And, as with every writer, my characters are connected to my own life and experiences in the city.

My main character, DD McGil, lives in Wrigleyville, as I did, and she’s a Cubs fan, as am I. Her university connections come from my own associations with the University of Chicago which I attended as an undergraduate. Like Chicago, DD is stubborn, sassy, determined, and loyal to her friends. Another character in the series, Tom Joyce, is a real Chicagoan who owns and operates the famous Joyce and Company Rare Books on Racine Street. He’s been great fun to include and has also been invaluable as a resource on texts and book prices and rare manuscripts and ephemera.

When did you and DD McGil  first “meet”?

When I sat down to write a mystery story, I knew I wanted it to be a “Literati” mystery, and I knew I wanted to write first person. So I decided to use a female investigator. Many people have asked if I am DD McGil, but as Hemingway pointed out, a writer’s characters are a combination of many people and many observations. There is a core of DD that’s very like me, but I’ve tried to make her fit the mold of an academic turned insurance investigator who’s had some difficult times in life. And she, like the other characters in my Literati Mystery Series, always surprises me with dialogue and actions that I haven’t planned out. That’s the fun of writing.

What are the qualities that make McGill an engaging personality?

DD is a fun character to write. She’s always surprising me. She lives in Chicago and is very quick on her feet. She’s loyal and has a soft spot for her friends and her neighbors, but she has a lot of quirks, too. She’s lippy and sassy and superstitious, but not nearly as much as her Scottish Auntie Elizabeth. She loves puzzles, like any good detective, and as an insurance investigator, she’s always throwing around statistics.

She’s fond of her cat, Cavalier, and she definitely likes men – a lot. She also has a sense of humor and is able to laugh at herself when she gets into a scrape, which she regularly does. Here’s what Kirkus Reviews said: “Crime follows DD McGil almost as closely as eligible bachelors do. DD’s dry wit and internal monologue go far… Another fast read with quirky characters and due reverence for the Second City.”

Do you ever look back and wish you’d given her a sidekick?

In my first DD McGil Literati Mystery, A Cadger’s Curse, my agent loved the bookseller character, Tom Joyce, and she urged me to write more about him in the stories. He turned out to become DD’s sidekick. Tom is a real person, a Chicago icon who runs Joyce and Co. Rare Books and Appraisals. Whenever we’re at a book signing, he signs as many books as I do. As a writer, especially since I write in the first person, using the device of a sidekick allows me to add a great deal to the story through the eyes and actions of someone other than DD herself.

If you were on a gameshow and your grand prize could either be a secret trove of Conan Doyle papers or a lost manuscript of Robert Burns (the premise of A Cadger’s Curse) which would you pick (assuming you didn’t go for the holiday of a lifetime)?

Could any true Sherlockian turn down the grandest gameshow prize of all time – a secret trove of Conan Doyle papers? Some have (literally) died for this – I reference the strange death of Lancelyn Green, who was obsessed with Doyle and Sherlock Holmes. By the way, Lancelyn Green was the model for the character of Philip Green in The Conan Doyle Notes. Philip Green is a character in The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax. He is one of a number of character names from the Canon I’ve used in

Together you and McGil have investigated Hemingway (Hunting for Hemingway), Burns (A Cadger’s Curse), and Conan Doyle. Who’s next?

I am working on the next three in the DD McGil Literati Mystery series: The 4th book in the DD McGil series is The Cardboard Palace, featuring a true incident in the life of Bram Stoker. DD investigates the oldest women’s club in Chicago and finds that – The candle burns, And lights the way. For trouble past, Someone must pay.

The 5th is Dark As Shadows, featuring a true incident in the life of Robert Louis Stevenson. DD’s Auntie Elizabeth – known as the Scottish Dragon – asks DD to drop everything and “hie to Scotland for it’s dark as shadows here.”

The 6th is Restless Bones which features an incident in The Gold Bug by Edgar Allen Poe. DD’s idyllic vacation is interrupted when her lover Scotty is determined to go hunting after Captain Kidd’s buried treasure.

Right now I’m editing my first non-fiction book for MX Publishing entitled, Cracking The Code of the Canon: How Sherlock Holmes Made His Decisions. It takes a look at how Holmes views crimes, criminals and victims and what he considers justice in the Canon. It will be out shortly.

I’ve also written a play entitled, Sherlock Holmes and the Queen of Hearts. My agent has submitted it to several theaters in hopes of getting it produced soon.

What should be playing on the stereo when we’re reading The Conan Doyle Notes: The Secret of Jack the Ripper?

Read the book under a soft light so there are shadows and dark corners about you while you listen to the soundtrack from Link Wray’s 1959 instrumental Jack the Ripper which as I understand begins with an evil laugh and a woman’s scream.


“The collection is the best project we’ve ever delivered and we hope to keep it going as long as possible.” – Publisher Steve Emecz discusses The MX Book of New Sherlock Holmes Stories Vol. IV

“We have a wonderful group of people including the editor, authors and fans creating awareness.”

He’s one of the most iconic literary characters of all time. When, in the 1890s, his creator tried to kill him off the public outcry was such that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was forced to resurrect him. Plausible in his own time and realistic in ours, Sherlock Holmes has been portrayed by some of the greatest actors of the stage and screen. The resonant canon of Conan Doyle’s original stories, featuring the world’s only consulting detective, remains a call to arms for other writers seeking to test their ingenious mettle in one of the best loved literary genres.

Steve Emecz’s passion is publishing. As Managing Director of MX, one of the UK’s leading independent publishers, Steve oversees hundreds of authors and titles. MX is now the world’s largest Sherlock Holmes publisher, including the international bestseller Benedict Cumberbatch In Transition which is also being launched in Japanese, Chinese and several other languages.

Steve’s latest project, being funded through Kickstarter, is Volume IV of the largest collection of new Sherlock Holmes stories ever attempted. Bringing together over sixty of the world’s leading Sherlock Holmes authors, this anthology includes only traditional stories set in the original Sherlock Holmes period.

Royalties are going towards the restoration of Conan Doyle’s home Undershaw, saved from destruction by the Undershaw Preservation Trust and now owned by Stepping Stones (a school for children with learning difficulties). Royalties will support specific projects such as the restoration of Sir Arthur’s study which will be open for visitors outside term time.

The MX Book of New Sherlock Holmes Stories Volume IV (published by MX Publishing, 22nd May 2016 – Conan Doyle’s Birthday). To find out more click here.

Why Sherlock Holmes?

Conan Doyle was the father of all modern crime fiction and Sherlock Holmes holds the Guinness World’s Record for the most portrayed character ever on screen.

Conan Doyle is the definitive Sherlock Holmes writer, but is he still the best?

Conan Doyle was the first, but I am a big fan of several modern crime fiction writers as well.

Why is the collection only featuring stories from the traditional Holmes period?

Holmes fans prefer traditional stories. There are thousands of pastiches out there and we wanted to bring together a very traditional collection.

sherlock-holmes-statueWhat’s the biggest licence (with Conan Doyle’s original formula) taken by any of the new writers?

In our collection, very little. Across the world there are vampires, time travel. In fact, one of our writers, Tracy Revels has a brilliant series (Shadowfall etc) where Holmes is a warlock.

What’s the standard, the feature, or other aspect that all the writers involved with the project have had to achieve in order to gain inclusion?

They had to get past the editor, David Marcum’s keen eye on traditional Holmes and Watson. David is our most experienced writer with dozens of stories and novels under his belt.

John or James?

Watson. In the Victorian period nobody used first names so it was Watson and Holmes.

dp00119612Undershaw was briefly a hotel after Conan Doyle stopped living there, but has been vacant for most of the time since. Similarly (prior to its being listed by Historic Scotland) Liberton Bank House in Edinburgh – where the young Conan Doyle lived in the 1860s – faced demolition to make way for a fast food restaurant. Why have we been so neglectful of the bricks and mortar footprints of this most celebrated writer?

Sadly it happens a lot in the UK. The US seems to be more respectful of the heritage of writers. It often comes down to, as it did in this case, loyal groups of fans [in this case the Undershaw Preservation Trust] to do what the authorities don’t.

How do Kickstarter, advance sales, and subscriptions feature in today’s publishing landscape?

Kickstarter is vital for us. For some projects it is the difference between being able to do the project or not. For others, it is a brilliant awareness tool.

The Kickstarter campaign set out to raise £500, the total is already at over £1400 (and rising). What’s the secret of a successful crowdfunding project?

This one is all about teamwork. We have a wonderful group of people including the editor, authors and fans creating awareness. It’s important to set good rewards and be very active on social media – but ultimately it comes down to the quality of what’s on offer. The collection is the best project we’ve ever delivered and we hope to keep it going as long as possible.

What should be playing on the stereo when we’re reading The MX Book of New Sherlock Holmes Stories Volume IV?

For me, nothing. I like to read out in the fresh air. If you like music while you read then I’d recommend something classical, pre 1900. Music for the era.


“What does he believe? He believes in Donald Trump and, beyond that, not much at all.” – Author Michael D’Antonio discusses Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success


“Over time he has learned to exploit his environment and shape it more than it shapes him. Unfettered by modesty or empathy, he crashes about in the pursuit of ego gratification. This is what many of us who were born in the two decades after World War II seem to have done on a smaller scale.”

Simpsons did it! Simpsons did it! SIMPSONS DID IT!” It’s taken over a decade but reality itself is now confronted with a problem once only a headache for the writers of other cartoon shows. When a Native American Casino Manager predicts Lisa Simpson will one day become President of the United States, the man she replaces is none other than Donald Trump. Trump’s self-funded real life run for the White House is proving no less entertaining, and there is a growing possibility that he might become the first registered New Yorker to win the Presidency since 1968.*

In his campaign book, Crippled America, Trump sums up the state of things by quoting Mark Twain, “Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.” Nowhere (that I know of) does Trump repeat what the comic sage had to say on the subject of golf.

One day the campaign trail of 2016 will be done and dusted. When only historians are left to weigh its import against Adams v. Jefferson or Lincoln v. Vampires there will still be many in Scotland ready, and willing, to point to scars (physical as well as emotional) and say, “I telt ye so. That man didnae ken one end of a spurtle frae t’other.”

Pulitzer Prize winning writer Michael D’Antonio has published more than a dozen books on subjects ranging from the space race (A Ball, a Dog, and a Monkey) to the Vatican’s role in sheltering predator priests (Mortal Sins). His matter of fact style brings clarity to some of the messiest, most emotive issues of recent history. Born and raised in New Hampshire, Michael now lives on Long Island with his wife, the  psychotherapist, professor, and author, Toni Raiten-D’Antonio.

Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success (published by St. Martin’s Press, October 2015) To find out more click here. To find out more click here.

Why Donald Trump?

In retrospect the answer seems obvious. Back then, in 2013, I had just finished Mortal Sins and the subject came up at lunch with my publisher Thomas Dunne. I hadn’t ever taken-up a book on an editor’s suggestion and at first I thought there wasn’t much to say about Trump. But during subsequent conversations we settled on the idea of a biography that was more contextual than most. I generally disagree with the “great man” theory of history and see things working out more as a matter of forces beyond an individual’s control.

Is Mr. Trump more a product or more a shaper of the times in which we live?

Trump is both a shaper and a product of the culture of narcissism identified by Christopher Lasch. However over time he has learned to exploit his environment and shape it more than it shapes him. Unfettered by modesty or empathy, he crashes about in the pursuit of ego gratification. This is what many of us who were born in the two decades after World War II seem to have done on a smaller scale.

In this time self promotion (and indulgence) have become the norm and perhaps the worst fate of all is to be always in the audience and never on stage. The support Trump receives now in the political realm is an expression of this desire. people are living through him, enjoying the vicarious thrill of being center stage.

You chronicle the ways in which groups and individuals were “suckered” by promises made but not fully delivered by the Trump machine. Was former First Minister Jack McConnell one of them?

Plainly, yes. McConnell acted in the spirit of Sinclair Lewis’ character George Babbitt, who practiced boosterism as a religion. Both Babbitt and McConnell acted sincerely, believing that by chasing new business and, in McConnell’s case development, they were working for the common good.

Of course “good” is a complex and difficult thing to determine and like many politicians. McConnell made the mistake of believing he understood what he was getting as he courted Trump’s investment. Trump is a wily creature who never makes a commitment without an “out” in it.

800px-trump_with_supporters_in_iowa2c_january_2016_28229Has Mr. Trump ever watched Local Hero? Did it make, or would it have made, any difference to his relationship with the holdout residents of Balmedie such as Michael Forbes?

I don’t think Trump ever watched the film. If he did, he’s not the sort to be influenced, on a moral level, by anything that challenges his belief system.

What does he believe? He believes in Donald Trump and, beyond that, not much at all. As far as I can tell he wasn’t aware of the life his ancestors lived, nor is he aware of the fact that as he tried to push Michael Forbes off of his land he was victimizing him in the way that his mother’s people were victimized historically.

In Local Hero the omnipotent Felix Happer (Burt Lancaster) is tormented by his overzealous therapist, Moritz (Norman Chancer). Moritz’s self-appointed role is to heap scorn and abuse on his overmighty client. Is that your role in the story of Donald Trump?

I wouldn’t say ‘heaping scorn.” I think my role is always to find and reveal the fullness of a story – in this case a man’s life story – in a way that is more complete and, I hope, compelling.

Trump is the least reliable narrator imaginable, so it falls to someone like me to make the attempt at telling the tale of his life. Yes he is overmighty, but in such cases scorn isn’t as illumination. With a little more light, for example, Scotland might have avoided some of its Trump troubles.

Each year The New York Landmarks Conservancy recognizes New Yorkers who have made outstanding contributions to the City and honors them as Living Landmarks. You wrote that not getting that award genuinely hurts Mr. Trump’s feelings. Will the revocation of his GlobalScot status and honorary degree have a similar impact?

I must say that I think he would be unmoved. His attachment to Scotland is commercial, and not so heartfelt, I think. New York is his true home and he would find much more validation in honors bestowed there. I also think that, like it or not, the degree and the Global Scot honor were conferred by those who wanted Trump’s favor in some way. As such, it’s less distinct an honor than the Living landmark designation.

800px-sarah_palin_speaks_at_a_rally_after_endorsing_republican_presidential_candidate_donald_trumpIf any one decision lost John McCain the presidency it was arguably his choice of running mate. Have you any predictions about who Mr. Trump will ask to join his ticket and why? How does someone who projects a sense that he is irreplaceable and cannot be improved or balanced, begin to tackle that question?

After seizing the hard Right ground, Trump is already moderating his campaign approach, drifting toward the middle. I expect him to become more and more like a regular candidate as time passes. If I had to guess about his VP choice I would say that he’ll look for someone who could reassure those who find him repugnant. Some of the men competing with him today seem to be angling for a spot on the ticket. Of them I think Chris Chistie might be the smartest choice. Trump knows him well and has insulted him the least.

Candidate Trump declared that all illegal immigrants would be required to leave the US, but that they could return legally. His rival Ted Cruz went one further and said he would never allow former undocumented migrants back. Mr. Trump is campaigning for the Republican nomination which in living memory has been sought by homophobes, misogynists, segregationists and holocaust deniers. How is it that he is singled out for travel restrictions, stripped of honorary degrees, etc? What does that say about how Mr. Trump is (and chooses to be) covered by the media?

The American media is completely flummoxed by Trump. In part this is because it has, itself, become part of the entertainment economy. Journalistic values have been smothered by commercial interest and most reporters are not accustomed to playing the role of watchdog or guardian. As the greater entertainer in every encounter, Trump dominates his relations with the press.

It’s important to keep in mind, however, that we’ve been measuring his success with a small fraction of the electorate. His support has never ranged higher than about 15 percent of the voting public. These backers are very firm in their choice, but opposition to Trump is just as firm, and the numbers on that side are much greater.

Will Donald Trump be an effective President?

By history’s measure, no. By his own lights? of course.

What should be playing on the stereo when we’re reading Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success?

The list would have to include, perhaps in this order, Coming to America, by Neil Diamond, to honor his immigrant roots. No Son of Mine by Genesis, to highlight Trump’s exile to military school. Sinatra’s New York New York. (Unavoidably.) More, More, More by Andrea True and his favorite tune, Peggy Lee’s, Is That All There Is?

*Richard Nixon moved to New York following his defeat in the 1962 California gubernatorial election. During his first term as president, Nixon re-established his residency in California which was his home state in the 1972 (as it had been in the 1960) election.


“Few episodes of cultural collision in Victoria’s reign were more extreme.” – Author Paul Thomas Murphy discusses Shooting Victoria

In June 1840, when Victoria was pregnant but had no living children, the succession would have passed to Ernest, her widely-loathed eldest uncle. I can’t help but wonder, then, whether, hearing of the news of the failed attempt, Ernest thanked God – or cursed.

At about 4 p.m. on 10 June 1840, a young man took up a position on a footpath at Constitution Hill, near Buckingham Palace. He had with him a pair of poor quality pistols. Two hours later a young couple drew alongside seated in an open carriage. It was the moment Edward Oxford had been waiting for. He discharged his firearms but missed both the young (and pregnant) Queen Victoria as well as her Consort Prince Albert.

What could have proved a national calamity instead became a public relations coup, helping Victoria and Albert reshape the monarchy and its role.

Oxford became the first of a surprisingly long line of assailants who took pot shots at Britain’s second-longest reigning monarch. Each was an eclectic mix of poverty, grandiosity, and mental disorder. For the first time, author Paul Thomas Murphy has drawn together the threads of each case – criminal, medical, and political – into a single narrative. The result is an ever-shifting landscape portrait of Victoria and the age to which she gave her name.

Paul Thomas Murphy is the author of Shooting Victoria, a 2012 New York Times notable book. He holds advanced degrees in Victorian Studies from Oxford and McGill Universities and the University of Colorado, where he taught both English and writing on interdisciplinary topics. He currently resides in Boulder, Colorado.

Shooting Victoria (published by Head of Zeus (January 2013) To find out more click here.

Why Victoria and her assailants?

I strongly believe that one of the most effective ways to gain insight into a culture is to focus upon its episodes of extreme cultural collision. And few episodes of cultural collision in Victoria’s reign were more extreme, in terms of social, political, legal, and gender conflict, than these eight attempts by the Queen’s seven assailants. More than this, these attempts occurred throughout Victoria’s reign—the first occurring when she was twenty-one, newly married and newly pregnant, and the last when she was sixty-one and a great-grandmother.

By focusing on all of the attempts, therefore, I am able present a portrait of the era from an entirely new perspective – a sweeping depiction portrayal both of the endlessly fascinating Victoria, Queen and Empress, and of some of the darker aspects of her age in the stories of the seven malcontents who bedeviled her.

Seven boys and men attempted attacks on Queen Victoria between 1840 and 1882. What, if anything, did they have in common?

Every single one of them was an outsider, removed from society for a variety of reasons: two identified themselves as Irish, one suffered a painful and discernible physical disability, and several clearly suffered from mental impairment. More than this, with one possible exception each of them had an aching desire to be somebody: a desire to force themselves upon the collective consciousness of Britain and of the world through one dramatic act that at least temporarily placed them on a level with Victoria, the ultimate insider of the time.

The one possible exception—the one who apparently had no desire to be somebody — was the fourth assailant, the Irishman William Hamilton, who in 1849 made his attempt in order to trade his free but impoverished life for the social security of a long stint in prison. He got exactly what he wanted.

The first assailant was Edward Oxford, who had a uniform, military rules of conduct and a manifesto for a revolutionary organisation called Young England – of which he was the only member. Did you ever find yourself wondering if there was more to Oxford’s assault, the autocratic hand of Victoria’s reactionary uncle Ernest Augustus I of Hanover for instance?

That is certainly what Edward Oxford wanted the world to think, and he succeeded—for a few days, at least. And even when it became abundantly clear to the police and to the government that Young England was entirely a figment of Oxford’s fertile imagination, some people—Irish nationalist and politician Daniel O’Connell, for instance—continued to believe that dark and reactionary forces were at work behind Oxford’s attempt. Clearly, Oxford was not a pawn in a right-wing conspiracy, vast or otherwise. But it is equally clear that in inventing his backstory he was influenced by extreme political currents of the time. And although Victoria’s uncle Ernest was certainly innocent of any direct involvement in Oxford’s crime, he certainly would have profited by it: had Oxford succeeded: in June 1840, when Victoria was pregnant but had no living children, the succession would have passed to Ernest, her widely-loathed eldest uncle. I can’t help but wonder, then, whether, hearing of the news of the failed attempt, Ernest thanked God – or cursed Oxford.

The key statesmen of Victoria’s reign appear through the course of the narrative, from Wellington via Peel to Gladstone and Disraeli. What light do the attempts throw on them and their policies?

All of these men were, in the fullest sense of the term, ministers to Queen Victoria, and after every attempt, each one was caught up not simply in protecting the Queen, but in protecting, in redefining, and in promoting the institution of monarchy. In the wake of Oxford’s attempt Lord Melbourne, Victoria’s first Prime Minister, successfully fought for an act to make Prince Albert regent in the case of Victoria’s death. After the two attempts of Victoria’s second assailant John Francis, her second Prime Minister Robert Peel devoted himself to strengthening her security and the security of the monarchy, and when a month later John William Bean made his attempt, Peel is said to have wept openly in Victoria’s presence.

Of all of Victoria’s Prime Ministers, however, the one who did the most not simply to protect Victoria, but to rehabilitate and promote the institution of the monarchy, was —surprisingly enough— William Gladstone. It’s worth remembering that Victoria’s fifth assailant, Arthur O’Connor, had originally planned to attack the Queen during a Thanksgiving service at Westminster Abbey to celebrate the recovery of the Prince of Wales from Typhoid Fever. Gladstone had planned that Thanksgiving service meticulously as a way to force the Queen back into public life after her ten years’ seclusion and abandonment of her responsibilities after the death of Prince Albert. And though Victoria fought him, Gladstone succeeded magnificently. Of Victoria’s Prime Ministers, Benjamin Disraeli is usually the one seen as the unabashed proponent of the modern monarchy. But I would argue that Gladstone more than Disraeli deserves credit for shaping a monarchy that has endured to this day.

You write about the assassination of US President James Garfield, but not that of Lincoln. How come?

Timing, for one thing. Lincoln’s assassination, as it happens, occurred fifteen years after the fifth assault upon Victoria, and six years before the sixth. Garfield’s, on the other hand, occurred just a year before the seventh assault. So did the assassination of Tsar Alexander II. Those two assassinations demonstrate the specific threats facing Victoria in 1882: an assault by a madman, or an attack by political terrorists. Garfield’s attempt is therefore more directly a part of the story.

Saying that, Victoria’s response to Lincoln’s death does provide true insight into Victoria’s state of mind in 1865. Last April 15th — the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination — I republished in my blog Victoria’s heartfelt letter to Mary Todd Lincoln. “I cannot remain silent when so terrible a calamity has fallen upon you & your Country,” she wrote Lincoln’s widow. But Victoria showed her greatest sympathy not for the great loss to the United States, but in Mary Todd Lincoln’s sudden and devastating loss of her husband, so similar to Victoria’s own loss of Albert four years before: “No one can better appreciate than I can, who am myself utterly broken-hearted by the loss of my own beloved Husband, who was the Light of my Life, — my Stay — my all, — what your sufferings must be.”

What’s the most interesting place you’ve been in your search for Victoria’s assailants? Is there anything left to see outside the Public Records Office?

There is much to see outside the PRO. There’s the neighbourhood in Southwark where Edward Oxford lived before his attempt, and nearby Bethlehem Hospital (now the Imperial War Museum) where he was sent afterwards; there’s the Round Tower at Windsor, where Victoria’s letters and journals are archived. There’s the Museum of London, which contains, deep in its archives, a chain mail parasol created for Victoria’s protection. And then there’s Constitution Hill itself, the site of three of the attempts. But of all the places I’ve been to in researching Shooting Victoria, the oddest and the most evocative has got to be the apartment of assailant #5, Robert Pate. Pate, Victoria’s only wealthy assailant, lived in luxury on Piccadilly, four floors above what was then, and is now, Fortnum and Mason’s world-renowned shop.

Since Pate’s day, Fortnum and Mason has expanded upwards, and today—oddly appropriately—what was in 1850 Pate’s apartment is now the men’s furnishings department of that store. I visited the store as I was completing my research. By ignoring the ties, the belts, the hairbrushes and shaving kits, and by focusing on the views out the window onto the neighborhood of St James — views that Pate surely would have recognized — I never felt more as if I was seeing the world through one of Victoria’s assailants’ eyes.

Did you interview or encounter any of the descendants of any of the assailants?

I have had the pleasure of speaking with a descendant of Edward Oxford’s family—specifically a descendant of his grandparents and one of his many uncles. Interestingly, that particular uncle emigrated to India after Oxford’s attempt, and generations of Oxfords have lived in India since then. I also engaged in a fascinating correspondence with the descendant of a participant in the 1842 attempt of assailant #2, John Francis — a descendant of PC William Trounce, the officer who seized Francis after he shot at Victoria on Constitution Hill. Trounce’s act—admittedly embellished by the family with time — has become a central episode in the Trounce family mythology.

Who was the most fortunate of Victoria’s assailants and who was the least?

The most fortunate has to have been Robert Pate, poster child for the great benefits of Victorian penal sentence of transportation. Pate, in spite of his father’s great wealth and his own privileged lifestyle, was a miserable man when he smacked Victoria with his cane in 1850: solitary and desolate, suffering from debilitating mental illness. He was tried and sentenced to seven years’ hard labour in Van Diemen’s Land, and that sentence, remarkably enough, seems to have prompted something like a miracle cure: before his sentence expired he married, and for years he lived the life of a proper Hobart gentleman. When his father died Pate inherited his estate and returned to England, living by all accounts a full, stable, and happy life.

The least fortunate? That’s more difficult to say. Is it #3, John William Bean? After his short but humiliating imprisonment Bean lived a long life of alienation, depression and disability, before finally killing himself with an overdose of opium in 1882. Or is it #6, Arthur O’Connor, or #7, Roderick Maclean? Both struggled with mental illness for most of their lives, and after their attempts both suffered decades of depressing confinement, O’Connor in a series of asylums in New South Wales, Australia, and Maclean in dreary Broadmoor. Both died in confinement in the 1920s.

Shooting Victoria was your first book. What’s next?

I’ve just completed another narrative of extreme cultural collision, but this time dealing with a more limited social sphere, and focusing upon a lesser-known heroine than Queen Victoria. Pretty Jane and the Viper of Kidbrooke Lane—the title taken from a penny dreadful written soon afterwards—concerns the murder in 1871 London of Jane Clouson, a seventeen-year-old maid-of-all-work. The narrative follows the police investigation of the crime and, with the arrest for murder of Jane’s young master, the remarkable legal odyssey that ensued. While Victoria’s fame will never die, and while Jane Clouson has (until now) been forgotten, I believe that the story of this young servant can reveal as much about the Victorian age as did that of the woman who gave it its name. Pretty Jane and the Viper of Kidbrooke Lane is slated for release next April.

What should be playing on the stereo when we’re reading Shooting Victoria?

I suppose the obvious answer to this would be—something by Elgar: anything by Elgar. But I would recommend something else. At the beginning of Shooting Victoria, I provided two epigraphs. The first was written by Victoria after the final attempt in 1882: “It is worth being shot at to see how much one is loved.” The second is more recent, from 1976: “Don’t know what I want, but I know how to get it.” Nothing I’ve read more succinctly and accurately captures the mindset of the seven who bedeviled the Queen: their angst, their undefined and undefinable longing to lash out for something—for anything—different than the world they discontentedly inhabited. What did they have in common? That’s what they had in common. The author of that quote is John Lydon; it’s a line, of course, from the Sex Pistols’ Anarchy in the UK. And to get into the spirit of Shooting Victoria, you could do far worse than accompany your reading with a good cranking out of Never Mind the Bollocks – perhaps balanced with the occasional Elgar track?