The Crime Readers' Association

James Bond in a Toga and Sherlock Holmes with a Rapier, by Peter Tonkin

28th June 2018

Since bringing the 30-novel Mariner series of action adventures to a close and retiring from full-time teaching, I have been working on two parallel series of historical novels.  One is a sequence of murder-mysteries set in Elizabethan England and the other is a series of spy stories set after the death of Julius Caesar during the final years of the Roman Republic. A quirk of circumstance has meant that the latest in each cycle is being published within a week or so of the-other, bringing into sharp focus the differences in historical research and narrative technique required by each genre.  A Stage For Murder (140,000 words) was published 24 May. Cicero Dies! (115,000 words) was out 12 June.

I know that spy stories have been welcomed into the CWA orbit (the Ian Fleming Steel Dagger award was a bit of a giveaway) and of course murder mysteries have been the backbone of the organization since it was founded. So each of the series has relevance, leaving the historical settings aside. The Roman series began with Shakespeare – though he got the story from Sir Thomas North, the soldier and classist, whose translation of Amyot’s French version of Plutarch’s Lives famously inspired the playwright. In Julius Caesar there is an incident when a man called Artemidorus hands Caesar a list naming all of his would-be assassins just as Caesar is about to attend the fatal Senate meeting. The incident really happened. Artemidorus, probably an Athenian mathematician staying at Brutus’ villa in Rome, immediately became in my version of events a military spy working undercover for Antony and his spymaster the tribune Enobarbus (also from Shakespeare).

Preparing the series was exciting to me on several levels. I am passionate about the period. But also about the form.  So one summer vacation I took on holiday not only Plutarch, Appian and various more modern writers – including Rose Mary Sheldon whose brilliant book on Ancient Roman spy systems is just about the only one on the subject – but also the complete works of Ian Fleming except for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.  Iacomus Artemidorus is James Bond. His code name is Septem (Latin for 7 – because he is a centurion in the VIIth Legion which was encamped on Tiber Island at the time.  But also because the Romans famously had not discovered 0 let alone 00).The world he inhabits and the missions he attempts are as close to Bond’s (original) adventures as I can make them.  Many of the tropes of the ‘classic’ (pre le Carré and Deighton) spy stories are there. Special weaponry supplied by Q section (Legionary Quintus in this case). Codes, disguises, beautiful and variously gifted (variously lethal and treacherous) women. Monstrous villains who (really, historically) have designs on world domination. Romantic settings, graphic violence, hairsbreadth escapes. A decidedly sadistic edge (thank you Gaius Trebonius, Quintus Tullius Cicero and especially Minucius Basilus, all of whom had really grim reputations).

The first in the series was designed to reconstruct as accurately as possible the day of Caesar’s death and its immediate aftermath from the point of view of a small group of undercover agents tasked with stopping Caesar’s murder. Others in the series have followed subsequent historical events from the same perspectives. In each adventure Artemidorus and his team are given a specific mission (Save Caesar; Collect the heads of his murderers; Kill Cicero – the next one will be Get To Alexandria and ask Cleopatra to bring the Egyptian navy to Antony’s aid at Philippi). The stories then follow their success or otherwise as the actual events (usually as recorded by Appian) unfold inexorably around them. The series is planned to end when Artemidorus, disguised as a gardener, brings Cleopatra the poison that will allow her to escape the painful and humiliating revenge that Octavian has planned for her after the debacle of Actium and Antony’s death.  But that is a long way in the future yet.

Well before I read my first James Bond book (Thunderball since you ask, in the old Pan paperback with the bullet-holes in the cover, when I was 14, just after the film of Dr No came out) I was enamored of murder mysteries. I seem to have graduated straight from The Famous Five to Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Inspector Alleyn, Superintendent Hannasyde and (a particular favorite) Lord Peter Wimsey. Once again, it was the ‘classic’ whodunit rather than the police procedural that I sought to emulate in my Tom Musgrave novels. The reader is given all the clues the detective gets (but Tom is The Master of Logic – as the word ‘detective’ has yet to be coined).  The design of the narrative in each case is similar. Tom is presented with a puzzle, the solving of which leads him to a larger (more deadly) puzzle which puts at risk not only his life but those of the people around him (Will Shakespeare, Robert Cecil, Robert Poley his spymaster, Francis Walsingham’s nephew and heir to his spy-system Sir Thomas Walsingham, his wife Audrey, Audrey’s (fictional) sister Kate – Tom’s mistress, etc). Tom has limited time to resolve matters before something even more serious occurs (an attack on the Queen, a Spanish invasion, an attempted coup – all based on historically accurate incidents). However, like Holmes rather than Poirot or Alleyn, Tom gives his explanation of events while rushing to forestall the crisis – rather than sitting everyone down in a room while he exercises his little grey cells. Through most of the series, Tom’s Moriarty figure is the Earl of Essex – but after 1601, when Tom is instrumental in thwarting his attempted dethronement of Elizabeth and Essex loses his head in consequence, that accolade passes to Sir Walter Raleigh.

Clearly there is overlap between the two series. The reliance I place on detailed historical research in the Roman books is increasingly echoed in the Elizabethan ones. Like Artemidorus, Tom has to deal with spies as well as murderers as the series takes place after the deaths of Francis Walsingham and Kit Marlowe when the English spy system was broken up, falling variously under the purviews of fiercely competing powers – Cecil, Thomas Walsingham, Essex – while Philip of Spain and James of Scotland lurked in the wings and everyone waited for Elizabeth to die. But the construction of the individual books in each series remains true to type. James Bond in a toga and Sherlock Holmes with a rapier.


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