Detectives Beyond Borders interviews yours truly

Detectives Beyond Borders is a web site dedicated to non-US mystery books. It's run by Peter Rozovsky, who's the book reviewer for the Philadelphia Inquirer and a copy editor of exceptionally high standards.

Detectives Beyond Borders interviewed me, Rebecca Cantrell and I.J. Parker on the mystery of writing historical mysteries. Peter was particularly interested in the "historical" part of historical mysteries, and a fun time I had answering the questions.

Boris Johnson's Ten Greatest Ancient Greeks

Boris Johnson -- his full name is Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson -- is the Lord Mayor of London.  In addition to being something of a character, he also happens to be a classicist, and he's fluent in Latin and Greek.  It's such a rare thing to have a successful politician who knows anything about history, let alone someone who's an expert, that I thought this might be interesting.  He's written this article for the Daily Mail, in which he lists his Ten Greatest Ancient Greeks, complete with quotes in the original language.   Kudos too to the Daily Mail, for printing an article on ancient literature; something that would probably be anathema to most newspapers these days.

Hey, there's a dead guy in the living room

One of the more interesting blogs around that's dedicated to mysteries is a place called Hey, There's a Dead Guy in the Living Room. It's one of those shared blogs; in this case the contributors have ranged from specialist mystery bookstore owners to publicists to publishers to authors to literary agents. My own dear agent was a regular there a couple of years ago. So too is the very charming and terrifically nice Robin Agnew, who runs Aunt Agatha's.

Right now over at Dead Guy, Robin is holding a competition. Match the opening line to the correct book, for 15 different books, for a chance to win an advance copy of Death on Tour, by Janice Hamrick.

If you're a reader of this blog then you're starting with a natural advantage, because one of the 15 books used in the competition is mine.

A dictionary of Assyrian

Assyrian is a dead language. It was last spoken about 2,000 years ago, and you can't get much deader than that. But over the last ninety years (!) a dedicated group of scholars have been studying inscriptions and compiling the world's first ever dictionary of Assyrian. And now, at last, the dictionary has been finished.

You might not know a lot about the Assyrian family of languages, but you've probably seen a lot of it, because Assyrian is one of the major languages you're reading when you see cuneiform on a clay tablet. (Cuneiform was a remarkably successful writing system and quite a few languages were written in it.)

The title of the dictionary!

I've had recourse to the dictionary only once, when I was checking on the origin of apples. If Assyrian had a word for apple, then I knew I was safe placing them in Ionia in classical times.

Am I my brother's sister's wife's keeper...or something like that

I noticed an article in the sports pages of the Sydney Morning Herald, that mentioned among other things a current scandal in British football. That I noticed anything at all is a complete fluke since I never read the sports pages, but in a moment you'll see what it was that caught my eye.

It seems that a footballer by the name of Ryan Giggs has been discovered having an affair with his brother's wife. I'll leave the sordid details to others, because I have no idea. However this led to a question raised in the local paper, whether it was worse for a man to have an affair with his brother's wife, or with his wife's sister. You can always rely on Australian journalists to zero in on the Big Questions.

And here is the response from one reader, a gentleman by the name of Bruce Hyland. I'm copying this directly from the article, and I must say his response makes me proud to be a fellow Australian.
"The Greeks," he writes, "held that an offence against a blood relative was far more serious than an offence against a relative who was not blood-kin. Hence, Clytemnestra's murder of her husband, Agamemnon, was less heinous than Orestes' revenge killing of Clytemnestra, because Clytemnestra and Agamemnon were not blood relatives, whereas Orestes was Clytemnestra's [and Agamemnon's] son and, thus, the closest blood-kin. It follows that sleeping with one's brother's wife is beyond the pale, whereas sleeping with one's wife's sister may be regarded as a trivial peccadillo."
Geez, and people think Australian sports fans are ignorant buffoons. Mr Hyland, I salute you, sir.


If you're a writer yourself, you probably know how some characters just seem to have certain names that feel right for them. I'm dealing with one of these at the moment, as I write my fourth book. She keeps telling me her name is Ophelia.

(The fact that I'm talking about figments of my imagination as if they had independent existence probably tells you something about my mental state, but that's another issue.)

There's only one problem: was the name Ophelia used in ancient Greece?

This is a good example of how much tougher things can be for we poor historical authors. Any contemporary novelist would just use the name and be done with it, but I have to make sure I only use names that can be verified in use for my period.

So this is the perfect opportunity to show you another example of what book research can be like. (Ages ago I did another book research post, and used as my example whether Alexander the First of Macedon competed at the Olympics of 460BC.)

As it happens, Ophelia is Greek. It comes from ophelos which means help. Ophelia is a female assistant. Case closed? Absolutely not. Plenty of Greek words were never used as names. You probably don't know all that many people whose first name is Helper or Assistant.

A quick search revealed that Ophelia does not appear as a name in any of the classics. Yes, that's a quick search. Thank you, Perseus Digital Classics.

So I did what any sensible person would do. I asked twitter.

Both Elisabeth Black and Seth Lynch came back with the news that the name Ophelia was invented in 1504 by Jacopo Sannazaro for a character in his poem 'Arcadia'. Thanks to them both for finding that!

It's not looking good for my poor non-Ophelia. But as I pointed out a few weeks ago, you can't trust information on web sites. I'm fairly sure Elisabeth and Seth have found the first English usage, and clearly the web site doesn't know of any ancient use, but that doesn't mean it isn't there.

As Sarah Eve Kelly pointed out on twitter, I needed to try fuzzy spellings of Ophelia. Sarah Eve is not only an excellent writer, she's also a PhD student in mediaeval history. She knows all about the joy of variant spellings.

So next move is to trawl the inscription and name lists. Name lists are mostly harvested from the same classics I'd already searched. But there are also books with lists of inscriptions and names taken from funeral stele, so all was not necessarily lost. Oxford University's done a particularly good job at collecting such things.

And there I found that these names have been lifted from inscriptions:

Ophelandros (appears twice)
Ophelion (appears twice)
Ophellas (appears twice)

But no Ophelia. Nevertheless, these are all cognate, even the Ophelandros, because it's two words stuck together; the andros ending means man. The really good news is the appearance of Ophelion, because that is precisely the male equivalent of Ophelia.

So now we've entered a grey area. There's no known Ophelia, but there's the male version. Am I okay? I think I am, but not as okay as I'd like to be. We certainly don't know every name that was used in ancient times -- all we have to work with are surviving books and bits of stone with writing on them -- on the odds, Ophelia was an ancient name.

I guess I blew away about five hours nailing down that point. And of course, I could still be wrong.

Hint fiction

In the last week I helped judge a hint fiction contest on the short-short story site Rammenas. The definition of hint fiction is a story in 25 words or less that hints at a larger story.

I wrote the judges' report. If you want to see what happens when Gary has to judge someone else's writing, you can read it here. That report was dangerously close to the blind leading the blind, but it was interesting to be on the other end of the critique analysis, just for a change.

It was also terrific fun working with fellow judges Martin Hingley (follow the link if saxophones are your thing) and Marcel Warmerdam. All three of us are 40+ males who've worked in IT. When we talked over skype it sounded like an IT analyst conference.

In the end we couldn't decide between two excellent entries, so they both won. I hope I'll be forgiven if I repeat them here:
Found, by Lisa Vooght
Found your USB drive in the desk. Beautiful photos, touching music selections. Curious as to the 2 obituaries. Mine and yours? What gives?
(There's a link to Lisa's blog on her name, but I don't think it's showing.)
Strangers, by Mike Jackson
We both entered the shop together, total strangers. I wanted milk, he wanted money. I had a credit card, he had a gun.
(Update: I've popped in a link to Mike Jackson's blog.)

Rammenas is an English/Dutch site run by Anneke Klein, who I am overjoyed to say has her own book of short stories on the way. Here's the cover draft!

Why literary criticism works

Aven McMaster is @AvenSarah on twitter, and the Aven who comments on this blog from time to time. I think she's probably most famous on these pages for her fascinating and perceptive comments in a previous blog post I wrote about Why America is more like Athens than Rome.

Aven is a for-real professor of Classics. It was our very fun conversation on twitter that inspired me to write the previous post about literary criticism. I sat in the comfort of my office tweeting away, while she walked back and forth in a dark room in the middle of the night with a crying baby in her arms and tapping the keys of her iPhone in defence of literary criticism, with whatever spare digits weren't required to look after the baby. I begged her to write this guest post under slightly less restrictive conditions. Here's Aven:

A few disclaimers, off the top. First, as a professor of Classics specialising in Latin poetry, I am a literary critic by training and profession; so I of course have a vested interest in thinking it’s of value! I’m also not an author myself, although I do write an awful lot in my job. Second, the field covered by the term “literary criticism/analysis” is vast, and while I find some approaches very useful, interesting, and important, I find others ludicrous, boring, and even harmful. So this won’t be an exhaustive and systematic defence of every literary critic out there! And finally, I am not specifically defending literary analysis as taught in schools – first because that varies so widely with time, place, teacher, etc., and also because I, too, have misgivings about many ways that people are put off literature as kids.

It seems to me that there are at least three separate, though related, aspects of “literary analysis” that are worth discussing here. I’ll deal with the easiest to defend first. I suspect that a group of writers will be sympathetic to the project of dissecting good literature as a means to figure out the mechanics of good writing, and to learn how to write well oneself. Of course such close analysis of text is not the only way to learn the craft of writing – the best and most important method as far as I’m concerned is to read, read, read, read, read – but it can definitely help. It may not be very exciting – especially for young readers – and so may not be the best way of getting people to appreciate literature; but I do think it’s a valuable type of analysis.

A related purpose of close analysis is important, I think, not only for aspiring writers but for anyone who wishes to have as good an understanding of the world as possible. Every writer (and speaker, for that matter) uses a variety of tools to provoke emotion, convey details, persuade, argue, etc. A close analysis of these techniques may be interesting for its own sake, but it is even more important in helping us understand how we are being manipulated and affected by every written and spoken communication made to us, both now and by historical sources. Such things as seeing how the genre of a work affects the content, for instance, are crucial to understanding the value of historical sources as evidence – can we read the description of a battle in Herodotus the same way we would read a war correspondent today? What about a speech by Pericles, reported by Thucydides? Or a poem by Horace, describing a temple in Augustan Rome? We all know that those texts will all have a different relationship to “the truth”, but how can we get close to figuring it out? The more we understand about the context of the text, its relationship to other texts, its generic conventions, the use of metaphor, the author’s purpose (insofar as it can be known), the audience’s expectations, the rhetorical techniques, etc., the better we can “use” the text for whatever our purpose may be. (And, for the record, all of those things are important for understanding the relationship between any modern text – from the newspaper to a politician’s speech to a tv documentary – and “the truth”!). In this way, then, critical thinking and critical reading, and a thorough understanding of literary critical method, is crucial to good history and (if it’s not too grandiose to say!) to informed participation in the world around us.

Ok, but what about the Rorschach Test aspect of this? What about the question of the author’s intentions, and the critics who say that they don’t matter? Well, I’m not a New Critic, and in fact most of my own work is strongly historicising – I try to figure out the historical context and the significance of certain concepts, ideas, terms, images, etc. in the poetry I study. However– as I tweeted to Gary in our conversation, even if I could ask Horace or Catullus anything I wanted about their poetry, and could get an answer, I wouldn’t necessarily feel that I knew everything there is to know about their works. I do firmly believe that the author, although (my joking tweet aside) AN expert in his or her own work, is not THE expert. Let me try to make my case with a few examples. Say that I was reading The Pericles Commission and found some passages or ideas that I thought were similar to something in, oh, I don’t know – Agatha Christie’s The Third Girl (to pick a somewhat more obscure novel of hers). (I haven’t, btw!). And let’s say I asked Gary about this similarity. He could give one of three answers: a) oh yes, I did that on purpose, for X reason; b) oh, I hadn’t noticed that! I read that book a long time ago, but I certainly wasn’t thinking about it when I was writing; c) that’s strange, because I’ve never read that book!

Now, whatever his answer, it’s still an interesting discovery. If he says a), then we’ve learned something about the process of writing, for Gary at least, as well as something about how one text or author influences another. If he says b), then we’ve learned something different about Gary’s writing process and the influence of previous authors. If he says c), then we’ve learned something about the kind of tropes, conventions, and patterns of detective novels, and perhaps even about how the human mind works, or at least about how storytelling works. His intentions, then, are relevant – but don’t determine whether or not seeing that parallel was a “valid” discovery.

Or another example: say after Gary’s next few books have come out, I find that all of them explore, in one way or another, good and bad parental relationships. And say I ask him about this. Again, he might say “Oh, yes, I find that a fascinating part of human life” or “Yes, I guess I’m thinking about my own family relationships”, and we could then find that interesting, and feel that it added to the weight of his books for us. Or he might say “Really? I never noticed that. I certainly didn’t try to do so”. Does that answer mean that I am wrong? Even if every plot contains a father and a son, say, and every novel has a parent/child argument and a parent/child reconciliation? (Again, this is all hypothetical! Sorry Gary!). Or does it still enrich my reading of the novels, and potentially enrich the readings of other people, if I tell them about my discovery?

On that last point I’ll have to let you decide. Ultimately we each have to take our own approaches to texts; and I certainly do not think that there is only one “right” interpretation, or only one correct approach. But for me, at least, looking for layers of meaning, symbolism, relationships within a text and between different texts, enriches the experience of reading good books. And while I do find it interesting to know what an author was thinking, and for some aspects of understanding the text, crucial (at least to know as best we can), I also can find my appreciation of a text deepened and improved even by noting things that the author didn’t intentionally include.

I’ll end with some of what I tweeted at Gary originally:

“If texts only contained the deliberate & conscious thoughts of their creator, they'd be much less interesting, and, frankly, unique among human communications! Nothing we say or do is that simple.”

Thanks Aven!

Literary analysis: is it a Rorschach Test?

Here is a somewhat edited version of a conversation on twitter between me, AmaliaTD and AvenSarah, both of whom grace these pages from time to time. It began with me retweeting something that might be an urban myth:

Gary: Alfred Hitchcock once helped his granddaughter write a college paper on his film SHADOW OF A DOUBT. His analysis earned her a C.

AmaliaTD: That really doesn't surprise me at all, but it's still hilarious.

Gary: It shows how totally overdone is critical analysis. Somewhere in the afterlife, Shakespeare is laughing his head off.

AvenSarah: Or that authors are not experts in their own work. ;)

Gary: That's the English Department rationale for why literary criticism should be taken seriously! I confess I'm not convinced. There's the Rorschach Test Effect of people seeing things in a story that the author certainly didn't anticipate, but that's identical to seeing interesting shapes in clouds. The clouds didn't intend to look like a bunny rabbit.

Your turn! How do you feel about all those meaningful essays you wrote at school? Feel free to tell me how totally wrong I am.

Akropolis, by von Klenze

Leo von Klenze painted in 1846 this idealized view of the Acropolis in the time of Pericles. I'm glad the title includes the word "idealized", because there are a few things wrong with the accuracy. Even so I suspect it does a terrific job of capturing the feel of what it was like back then, especially the Parthenon and the walk up to the Propylaea. That's the building you see smack in the middle, with the steps leading up to it. The mega-statue rising from behind the Proplyaea can't possibly be real.

I can't believe the Areopagus -- that's the rock platform in the foreground where the crowd is milling about -- was ever as flat as von Klenze has it. If you visit today you'll see that the Areopagus is very up and down in its top surface, and I doubt it's all due to wear. Also, there's no way there was ever an ornate marble building on top as shown at the left. I do think there was a large wooden structure for meetings of the Council of the Areopagus. But this is all carping. The point is, he captured the spirit of the place.

This picture is interesting to me because in the center of it is where I killed my first victim, on line 1 of my first book:

Interesting ways to execute people in classical Athens

The death of Socrates might give you the impression that classical executions consisted of downing a cup of hemlock, and then drifting off painlessly during an erudite discussion on the finer points of philosophy. Nothing could be further from the truth. Hemlock was the execution method for the upper class. Common criminals could expect somewhat harsher treatment.

The laws of Draco specified death for virtually every crime from murder, to shortchanging a customer in the agora. By classical times the Draconian laws had been repealed, but from the number of times they get referenced in court cases it's a fair guess people still had regard to them.

If you were an average convicted crim, you could forget about hemlock. More likely you faced a complex stock which trapped your wrists and ankles. A metal collar was then placed around your neck, and this was progressively tightened until you strangled, or your vertebrae snapped. This is very similar to an execution method popular in Spain up to Napoleonic times. The Spanish too used a metal collar that used a screw to tighten it to either strangle or break the neck, depending on how quickly the executioner worked.

I've read a mild suggestion that there was an execution ground outside the city, on the right hand side of the northern road to Piraeus. I think it certain that such executions must have been carried out outside city bounds, but I know of no archaeological evidence for a location.

It's possible there were stonings for some particularly heinous crimes. If so, then killing your father would have been one of them. There are known rituals in which stonings were acted out. Certainly other cities had stoned their citizens.

The Greeks were much more spear people than sword people. But spears make rotten weapons for executions. There are documented military executions done using swords. Since Greek swords were rather short, this would have been up close and personal. Probably the victim kneeled and was either struck in the back of the neck, as per a mediaeval execution, or else the sword was thrust from above into the heart. Think something like the early scene in Gladiator where Maximus is taken into the woods to be executed (and promptly kills his captors).

The Athenians had one very interesting attitude totally different from other civilizations: they were just as happy if a condemned prisoner simply went away. If someone wanted to run, thus exiling himself forever rather than face death, then that was just fine. In fact they seem to have almost gone out of their way to leave the prison doors ajar. Clearly the Athenians were not a particularly vindictive people, and equally clearly they considered that to no longer be a citizen of Athens was a fate every bit as bad as death, which tells us a lot about how much they valued their citizenship. The number of men who chose to remain and die rather than lose their city is quite amazing.

Recovering old fingerprints

And in other news...researchers at the University of Technology Sydney have found a way to lift previously unrecoverable fingerprints.  Lovely news for crime fighters, not so good for crime writers.  I suspect it's getting harder and harder to write a contemporary mystery in which the traditional puzzle predominates.  It does however underline one of the basic rules of real crime: if you want to murder someone, it's very important to deny the police a crime scene.

How to destroy your brand

I follow Formula 1 racing, mostly because the high technology fascinates me -- these things are basically upside down aeroplanes -- which has nothing to do with either history or writing, but I mention it today for an interesting reason.

F1 has a set of standard races they do throughout the year, each held in various exotic locales. And that's where the fun begins, because one of those locales is Bahrain. Bahrain is ruled by a monarchy that's been somewhat prominent in the news recently for slaughtering its citizens who are demanding a democracy. As crackdowns go, the rulers have been remarkably efficient. In fact just today the BBC reports that the hospital staff who treated the injured have been charged with taking part in illegal protests for criminal ends; also for, hard as this may be to believe, inciting hatred against the ruling system.

The Bahrain F1 race was officially postponed when the violence began. Everyone assumed this was a polite way of saying "cancelled". But no! A few days ago the officials in charge of the racing decided it was all right to go ahead now, because everything's calmer. (It is indeed calmer, because anyone who raises his head gets it beaten.)

Needless to say, every human rights group and pro-democracy movement on the planet has come out snarling about the F1 decision. Even the UK government got itself interested. A number of petitions instantly sprang up. The one that got a lot of traction was by an organization called (Traction for an anti-race petition...yes, that was a deliberate Gad I'm witty.)

This petition targets the Red Bull team, which is the most vulnerable to bad publicity because they're leading the competition and they're only in the game to sell their drink products. Those are the red bull drinks which, if this race goes ahead, are about to become as popular as cucumbers.

So far avaaz has just short of 440,000 signatures. Wow, that's an awful lot of people. Since this decision was taken only 3 days ago, I estimate the petition must have gained on average about one signature every 2 seconds, non-stop, for 3 days. And all because some guys thought it was okay to hold a race to collect the management fees.

The Bahraini government is treating it as a propaganda victory, but with almost half a million people annoyed enough to sign a petition, you'd have to assume the team sponsors are seriously displeased. They pay enormous sums to the race teams out of their marketing budgets, for the brand name exposure. So if this race goes ahead, then some of the world's biggest brands are going to have their names pasted all over cars that are racing around inside one of the world's most repressive regimes. The marketing directors must be overjoyed.

Naughty words

The always fascinating Stephanie Thornton sent me a link to this brilliant article on ancient swearing.

I'm not a fan of lots of naughty words in books.  My usual reaction when I see a lot of fucks and cunts in a story is that it's probably badly written.  Unless there's good evidence to the contrary, I assume the author either didn't take the trouble, or didn't have the ability, to find something better.  I can freak you out using only words that are perfectly acceptable in any kindergarten.  In fact, in some ways, that's more powerful.  Some characters must swear a lot, because that's their character, but I doubt that accounts for more than about 5% of the naughty words in books, and like I said, it just dulls the writing.

Across my first three novels, there is precisely one use of the word fuck.  Its appearance is all the stronger for that, and it's used as a verb in its correct Anglo-Saxon sense.  (Yes, I know books 2 & 3 aren't released yet.  I'm sort of cheating by mentioning them, but the thing is, they're already written and I know what's there.)

I find that to write ancient swearing is a surprisingly tough problem.  They really did swear by the Olympian Gods, but that can come across as sort of fake to a modern reader.  "It's a dead body, by Zeus!"  Also, it can look rather contrived if you replace Zeus with another valid deity.  "It's a dead body, by Hephaestus!"

Conversely, since I am translating into modern English what was spoken in Attic Greek, you'd think I could get away with inserting a modern equivalent, but that instantly destroys the ancient atmosphere.  "It's a dead body, by God!"

So what I do, mostly, is make up something that sounds ancient but isn't, but which sounds right to a modern ear.  "Dear Gods, it's a dead body!"

I'm rather fond of "Dear Gods".  The plural Gods instantly takes you back in time, it's not particularly offensive, and it gets across the idea without becoming a speed hump for the reader.  I do use the occasional "by Zeus", but it's almost always for subsidiary characters in contexts where it makes sense.  I don't tend to use other deities  for Greek characters swearing because it might pause the reader if they hit a name in a figure of speech with which they're not totally familiar.  The same rules do not apply to barbarians, such as Persians and Egyptians.  They can be as exotic as they like because they're unfamiliar to Nico too, and it's fine for him to take special notice of all the odd sounding gods.

I'd be interested to know, what do you think might make good swear phrases for a novel in the ancient world?

Attack of the cupcakes

Proving yet again that British Intelligence have the coolest spies in the world, the Daily Telegraph in London reports that MI6 and GCHQ have hacked into an al-Qaeda web site, and replaced instructions on how to build a bomb with a recipe for cupcakes.

If I put something like that in a book, people would tell me to take it out because it was too unbelievable. The truth is, reality is frequently stranger than fiction, but the sad fact is that fiction has to be believable, whereas reality operates under no such restriction.

Top marks for the cutest cyber attack in history.