New Canelo ebook editions now available at bargain prices!

I am delighted to see the new ebooks of Shadows of Athens and Scorpions in Corinth are being snapped up at their special offer prices. You can find both books from your preferred online store.


Amazon Kindle
Kobo
Google Play
Apple Books 

 


Amazon Kindle
Kobo
Google Play
Apple Books 

 

In related news, we have had a conversation with Orion Books, since Canelo are holding off on paperback editions on account of the pandemic, and agreed that the remaining paperback stock can be sold through booksellers, and that Orion can continue to sell the audiobooks, so readers will still have a choice of formats for the moment at least.

More news on Justice for Athena will be coming soon…

Never leave your dog alone with linen armour…

Doing the research for these books takes me to some interesting articles. The way historians and others embark on practical experiments these days is particularly useful – and sometimes hilarious. For example, here’s an article on linen armour, as widely worn in the Ancient Greek world. It was often reinforced with leather, but the cheapest option for the poorest citizen soldiers was linen on its own. How effective was it?

For our first linothorax, we glued together 15 layers of linen to form a one centimeter-thick slab, and then tried to cut out the required shape. Large shears were defeated; bolt cutters failed. The only way we were ultimately able to cut the laminated linen slab was with an electric saw equipped with a blade for cutting metal. At least this confirmed our suspicion that linen armor would have been extremely tough.

So that’s one important question answered. But wait, there’s more…

We also found out that linen stiffened with rabbit glue strikes dogs as an irresistibly tasty rabbit-flavored chew toy, and that our Labrador retriever should not be left alone with our research project.

Oh, the temptation to work that into a story somehow… or maybe Philocles could put it in a play? Well, we’ll have to wait and see. Meantime, do read the whole article.

A bit of context for readers disappointed at the initial ebook only publication for ‘Justice for Athena’.

This article from The Guardian sets out the upcoming autumn for the book trade.

“From Richard Osman’s first crime novel to Caitlin Moran’s new memoir, almost 600 hardbacks are due to be published on 3 September in a “massive bun fight” of new titles, as books delayed over the summer due to Covid-19 finally make it on to shelves.

Autumn is the busiest time of the year in books, with publishers bringing out their biggest titles in the hope of hitting the Christmas jackpot on what has been dubbed “Super Thursday” by the book trade. But this year, the closure of bookshops for more than two months due to the pandemic means that many of the titles held back over the summer are now due to hit shelves this autumn, with a series of what trade magazine the Bookseller called “mini-Super Thursdays” lining up across September and October.”

So all the shelf space and promotion in bookshops will go to big names between now and Xmas as desperate retailers chase what they hope will be guaranteed sales – and who can blame them in these circumstances?

Let’s be thankful for ebooks in the meantime, and hope for sales that see the paperbacks available at the earliest opportunity. If you’ve enjoyed the first two books, tell your friends, and maybe leave a review on Amazon or Goodreads? Every recommendation helps, and is very much appreciated, by me and every other author.

Finally, news about Philocles!

I’ve been saying for a while now that there’ll be news about a third book in this series soon. Well, here is that long-promised update, and thank you for your patience in the meantime.

So what’s been going on? Well, last year, and before Scorpions in Corinth was even published, Orion Books decided they had no further interest in this series. I’ll spare you the dispiriting details, and will simply say this had nothing to do with me or the actual books. As you’ll recall, readers and reviewers thoroughly enjoyed them!

Not so very long ago, that would have been that. However, new formats and new technology are offering new possibilities for readers and writers alike. Canelo is a publishing house that’s been making the most of these opportunities since 2015, offering an array of excellent fiction. So I am delighted to tell you they will be reissuing Shadows of Athens and Scorpions in Corinth on 24th September 2020. A new novel in this series, Justice for Athena, will follow on 15th October 2020.

These will be ebooks only for the moment. Canelo started with a digital-only list, and while they have been moving into print editions for selected titles, that programme, like so much else, has been affected by the commercial impact of the pandemic. Caution is the current watchword across the publishing industry until the situation becomes less volatile. Once that happens, we can all hope to see these novels as paperbacks on book shop shelves.

With regard to audiobooks, conversations are ongoing, and I’ll share any news on that format as and when I have it.

For the moment, let’s admire these dramatic new covers from Canelo. Tell your friends this is the ideal time to catch up with Philocles’ investigations before he finds himself hunting another killer…

What’s in a name? In this case, the name of a statue.

I came across this image of a statue that’s apparently known as ‘The ‘sullen’ kore’ (maiden). Even women made of stone can’t escape being told they should smile…

Since this piece is currently in the Acropolis Museum, I’ve dug out my ancient souvenir guide from a visit in 1986, to see if she was in there. She is indeed pictured, and she’s listed as the ‘The kore of Euthydikos’ from the dedication on the base of what was then presented as the feet of the same statue. Now, I have no idea if some later analysis has decided those feet don’t actually belong to the rest of this piece, prompting a name change. It’s not as if I’ll be travelling to Athens any time soon to be able to check.

Either way, the statue’s current name does come weighted with a lot of assumptions and implications. It’s definitely a reminder of just how much history is in the eye of the beholder.

Why am I looking at statues from the Acropolis? Come to that, why has it been so long since I last posted in this blog? Well, there’ll be more news coming to to explain all that very soon…

Bringing a laptop to a knife fight

As I’ve already mentioned, historical evidence about Corinth between the Persia and Peloponnesian Wars is fragmentary. One thing that does get mentioned is the city’s reputation for strife between rival political factions. Okay, that’s promising. Writing a murder mystery does require a certain amount of violence after all. Better yet, a crime novel set in the ancient world spares the author the complications of ballistics and calibres and other technical firearms stuff. As far as life in a classical Greek city goes, things become even simpler. No one’s going to cart a hoplite shield and spear around and expect to get away with a stealthy killing. This strife on the streets is going to be feet, fists and knives.

The novelist still needs to be able to write about this convincingly. How does an author do that research? Speaking for myself, I’ve studied a martial art, aikido, since 1983, and that’s proved extremely useful. No, you won’t read about Philocles or anyone else managing a faultless koshi nage or some other wholly inappropriate Japanese move. But for us to learn self-defensive techniques, and now that I am a third dan blackbelt for me to teach these things, we also learn about effective kicking and punching in our classes, to give students a realistic idea of what they might face. So that’s the first thing I have to draw on.

Secondly, occasionally, we get our movement or timing wrong. Accidents are thankfully rare, and injuries on the mat rarer still, but in the past thirty years, I have taken a couple of smacks in the face and other rather harder thumps than I was expecting. There is nothing quite like direct experience to enable a writer to realistically convey how that feels. Believe me, you don’t forget it, because you really don’t want it to happen again.

Aikido is a martial art that doesn’t meet aggression with aggression, but uses movement and an understanding of body mechanics to enable a student to avoid getting hit, and then to control an attacker with a variety of holds, pins or throws. These techniques for rendering an attacker incapable without injuring them are a major reason why over the years we have trained any number of police officers, fire fighters, nurses, paramedics, social workers and door staff. While we help them learn to stay safe, they share stories about situations they have encountered at work. Like the police inspector whose aikido skills saved his neck (not the word he used) when a violent drug dealer turned out to be immune to capsaicin, the active ingredient in the DI’s officially-issued pepper spray. So the third resource I have to draw on is that wealth of real-life experience of often inventive thuggery gleaned second-hand over post-training pints.

Lastly, those of us who study different martial arts always swap notes with each other, given half a chance. We invariably find common principles underlying our different approaches to what are the same essential challenges. I don’t only talk to blackbelts in other Japanese, Chinese and similar martial arts. Recent years have seen a great expansion of understanding and practise in HEMA – Historic European Martial Arts. I’ve had some fascinating compare-and-contrast conversations with experienced practitioners, as well as seeing some excellent displays at Living History days and in places like the Royal Amouries Museums in Leeds. All this enables me to make a fair assessment of the core skills that someone like Philocles would surely have had.

So what about a knife fight? We do also train against attacks with knives, swords and staffs in aikido. On the mat these weapons are wooden, but believe me, you still don’t want to make a mistake. We don’t only teach students how to avoid injury, but how to disarm an attacker safely as well. That’s far easier to demonstrate than it is to explain here writing, so if our paths should cross in real life, feel free to ask me about that. Meantime, you can rest assured that I know what I’m talking about when Philocles gets himself out of danger with a deft move – and I did check with an orthopaedic surgeon about the likely outcome for the person who tries to stab our hero. The stakes get increasingly high in Scorpions in Corinth.

Guides to Corinth, ancient and modern

Anyone writing a historical novel set in ancient Greece should pour grateful libations to the memory of Pausanias, a doctor from Ionia, who was an inveterate traveller in the 2nd century AD. That is to say, he lived roughly from 110 to 180 AD. The reigns of Hadrian, Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius were (mostly) an age of peace and prosperity for the Roman world, and Pausanias took full advantage, travelling far and wide. He wrote a detailed guide for those who might follow in his footsteps, and his Description of Greece is a fascinating read.

He wasn’t in any sense a professional historian, as we would understand it, but he diligently notes down what the locals say about the origins and founders of their cities, as well as summarising more recent events. As was always the case in the classical world, he makes no distinction between what we would call myth and history. The sons of Zeus are as real as the Roman generals who later sacked Corinth as far as Pausanias is concerned. There is similarly no question about the gods’ existence, as he details the Sanctuary of Poseidon at the Isthmus. And he really goes into all the details of the temples and the statuary, the monuments and the stadium, as well as the pine trees that adorn the site. Whenever he’s learned some interesting story about a hero or goddess, he notes that in an aside, along with observations about local customs and traditions. As he walks up the road to Corinth, he tells us about the city gates, along with the stories of the people they commemorate. Then he walks on through the marketplace, describing the many shrines and fountains. His work offers us an entertaining insight into the people of the classical world, as well as a guide to its places.

Though I would have come badly unstuck, if I had relied on Pausanias alone. He was writing hundreds of years after my story is set, and pretty much the closest he gets to dating evidence is references to before or after the days of Homer. There’s no way to tell from his text when the buildings and temples he describes were actually erected. More than once I came across a place I thought I could use, only to discover it hadn’t been there when Philocles would have needed it. For that vital information, I am indebted to ASCSA, the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. Founded in 1881, their affiliated scholars and students have been digging in Greece for decades, most especially in Corinth and the wider Corinthia. Their work means there’s been a wealth of papers and reports available for me online, as I researched the setting for this book. Even better, with absolutely superb timing, ASCSA recently published their fully updated site guide to Ancient Corinth. If you plan on visiting Corinth’s archaeological sites, you really should buy it. Full of detail, descriptions, maps and dates, it’s been been invaluable for my purposes. All told, ASCSA has more than earned my gratitude in this novel’s acknowledgements. (I wonder if this is the first time they’ve had a mention like this?)

Lastly, but by no means least, I’ve been able to make use of something Pausanias could never have dreamed of – Google Earth. I have been to Corinth myself and it was most definitely memorable, which is one reason I wanted to set a story here, but that was decades ago, and I had no reason to fix particular views in my mind’s eye, or in our photographs. Now, thanks to the wonders of modern technology, I could (virtually) stand on the stage of the classical Greek theatre. I can turn through a full circle and see for myself the details of the landscape that Philocles and his actors saw as the backdrop to their performance.

So the sense of place in this novel has been brought to you by resources spread over nearly two millennia!

The challenge of knowing what we don’t know, when Philocles goes to Corinth.

Writing a historical mystery set in Athens takes a lot of research. There’s a great deal of material available. We have a wealth of primary sources in pots, manuscripts, statues and inscriptions. Then there are the decades of scholarly thought interpreting all those things. Finding the precise detail that a writer needs, to be certain that a vital clue or a passing reference is correct can take a whole lot of work.

Taking Philocles and his play on tour gave me pretty much the exact opposite problem. Outside Athens, and beyond its interactions with other cities, much of the history of 5th Century Greece is fragmentary, literally and metaphorically. When it comes to Corinth in particular, the focus of so much of the available research is the first century AD, thanks to the apostle Paul stopping by, and writing a couple of letters. I kept coming across things I thought I might use, until I found out they were far too late historically to be relevant for my story.

Records from earlier centuries are sparse, and physical evidence is far less readily available, for all sorts of reasons. For instance, it’s said that the Corinthians posted their civic decrees engraved on gleaming plaques of a fabled alloy known as Corinthian Bronze. Very impressive – and very easily melted down in the two and a half millenia since the city’s classical heyday. All that information is lost and gone for ever. A carved stone recording some Athenian civic honour or festival victory can also be reused of course, but when that’s found as part of a later construction, the inscriptions can still be read.

This might seem like good news for the fiction writer. Doesn’t that mean you can just make things up? Yes – and no. Not unless you’re willing to risk a well-informed reader posting a link to an academic paper that you missed. If that supplies some information contradicting that vital clue, your whole plot could unravel. Take the simple fact that Athenian actors and playwrights sometimes took their plays to other cities. We know that happened from references in the primary, contemporary, written sources. So far, so good, for the premise of this second book. But who decided which plays went on tour? Who issued invitations? Who paid the bills and why?

I needed to know – or I needed to know for certain that scholars didn’t know. Believe me, it was a great day, when I finally found an authoritative paper firmly establishing there is no evidence to answer these particular questions. That meant I was finally free to weave that fact into my historically plausible scenario, along with other scraps of Corinth’s ancient reputation, mostly mentioned in passing as the Athenians recorded their dealings and battles with the city.

The ancients tell us Corinth was famous for its hero-worship cults. It was also known for outbreaks of civil strife. After the archaic kings were overthrown, Corinth was ruled by a Council of uncompromising oligarchs. It was a society where women lived very different lives to their Athenian sisters, even competing and winning prizes in musical competitions. The cosmopolitan population had links to the furthest Hellenic settlements to the east, and to the far distant west, thanks to Corinth’s twin ports on either side of the Isthmus. All this trade and bustle was overlooked by the brooding bulk of the Acrocorinth, the mountain fortress that ensured no army could ever leave or invade the Peloponnese without making allies of the Corinthians.

It’s all very different from home, as far as Philocles is concerned. It’s a risky place to make any misstep, even before he’s caught up in a murder…

Last Supper in Pompeii, now at the Ashmolean in Oxford

If you’re interested in the ancient world, and you can get to Oxford to visit this exhibition between now and 12th January 2020, your time will be very well spent. It’s packed with fascinating artefacts that show how the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD captured life in the cities that were overwhelmed in the midst of an ordinary day, telling us so much about how they lived, and specifically how they shopped and cooked and ate. Here’s a link to the museum’s web page for more.

It’s one of those exhibitions where the everyday objects give us a powerful sense of connection between then and now – and the centuries in between that link us all together. Take these three mundane pieces of kitchenware – and apologies for my less than skilled photography. Here’s a frying pan, a bun tin, and a fancy mould for puddings or forcemeats.

I’ve seen pretty much identical things hanging in Victorian kitchens in National Trust houses.

On the other hand, another glass case held a big earthenware pot for keeping live edible dormice in, for fattening them up until you ate them. That’s not something we would ever do today! Well, not unless we’re in Croatia or Slovenia where they are still a delicacy apparently, according to curator Dr Paul Roberts, in his introductory lecture a few weeks ago. Not every country is as sentimental about fluffy animals as we are in the UK.

The Romans certainly weren’t. This cute rabbit is eating the figs that he’s about to be cooked with… There are several pictures from frescos with a similar theme, showing this was a popular decorative idea for kitchens.


Food was also a common motif in dining room mosaics, and the detail in this panel is incredible – the individual tesserae/tiles here are 2-3mm/an eighth of an inch square, or less. Not only that, the depictions are so accurate that the fish can be identified by species. Seriously, there’s a key on the wall beside it.

There are all sorts of other fascinating things, from the expensive dinner services used by the rich as they reclined on their triclinium couches, to the much-mended, most likely secondhand bronze pots recovered from tavern and takeaway kitchens, along with carbonised bread and fruit, and even remnants of oil and honeycomb. All evidence of everyday life so suddenly cut short.

Of course, when we think of Pompeii, one of the things most people remember are the famous plaster casts of the eruption’s victims. There’s one of a pig who never made it to a dinner table. There’s also one of a woman where resin was used rather than plaster, so the few physical remains still present are visible. I didn’t photograph that, because frankly it gave me the creeps. But it’s important to have her there, I think, to remind us of the disaster’s human cost.

One of the most striking things for me is this picture of Bacchus/Dionysos, adorned with supersized grapes, with Mount Vesuvius as it was then, famed for its vineyards. There’s no reason to think it’s not a reasonably accurate representation. Compare this to Vesuvius today, and the scale of the eruption becomes apparent.

Boundaries and borders and the complexity of history

There’s a great deal of talk in the media at the moment about concepts like borders and nationality. History is frequently, and highly selectively, cited as evidence for whatever political point of view is being promoted. Meantime, tangible history, by way of archaeological artefacts, keeps reminding us that the world has always been interconnected, and that people have always moved around.

It’s taken two years, but experts have now identified a glass shard found at Chedworth Villa in the Cotswolds as part of a bottle from the Black Sea region, brought all the way to Roman Britain. You can read the full story here. Now, Chedworth’s inhabitants were clearly among the wealthy elite, so I don’t suppose they bought this perfume or whatever the bottle contained, from a stall in Corinium market, but the fact remains that this valuable thing passed from hand to hand over thousands of miles to end up in an ordinary, if well-resourced, household. This is of course merely the latest such discovery to indicate that the British Isles have always had ties to the European mainland, and far beyond. See also the Vindolanda letters, the Staffordshire Hoard etc. etc. etc.

Then there’s the recent find in Greece, that may be the oldest Homo Sapiens skull found outside Africa. If so, it takes the modern human dispersal into Europe back tens of thousands of years. That raises the possibility of Homo Sapiens and Neanderthal co-existing for countless generations. This catches my eye in particular because that particular narrative is one that’s changed and shifted over the past century, reflecting all sorts of often problematic things about the decade when a particular theory held sway. When I was a kid in the 70s, the story we were told was a simple one; superior Homo Sapiens drove out the inferior Neanderthals, who were always drawn as nasty, brutish and short. That theory’s since been modified, first with talk of the Neanderthals coming second in competition for resources, and more recently still, on account of their theorised inability to adapt to climate change. When it comes to whether or not Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens could interbreed, the arguments remain heated even with new genetic evidence.

How much of this is unintentional projection, based on current preoccupations? How much of this is attempting to secure history’s endorsement for what is in fact quite simply racism, when the obscuring layers of argument are peeled away? I am always very careful to pick apart the reasoning when politicians and the like start using their preferred version of history as a way of putting an end to arguments about contentious policies in the modern day.

That’s why I think it’s important for historical fiction to reflect the world as accurately it was, insofar as we can possibly tell. That’s one reason why there are characters of colour in both Shadows of Athens and Scorpions in Corinth. Not because they have to be there for some plot-related reason. Simply because they would have been there. Writers from Herodotus onward make it very clear that people have always moved around. As did a couple of nice artefacts that I spotted on that recent visit to the British Museum.

African boy, terracotta, Rhodes 460-450 BCE