Sunday, November 28, 2010


Bouchercon 2010. Wow! 

Over 1400 people, a third of them authors. Staggering. How does one get to meet and chat with anyone in a crowd like that? Well, you do, I discovered. 

For authors that one knows, either from past conventions or from online chat-groups, the fallback is making contact before or after panels they are on (or they with you), if you haven’t bumped into them before then in the bar or the very excellent hospitality room with its endless supplies. 

That’s how it was with Rhys Bowen, Carola Dunn, Nancy Means Wright, Jeri Westerson, Colin Campbell, Laurie King, Adrian Magson, Ken Isaacson, Ali Karim, Kelli Stanley and my heroes Steven Saylor, Lindsay Davis and John Maddox Roberts, the first and greatest Romans of them all and all three of them on the same panel. 

All achieved, except for Sunny Frazier, who I had wanted to thank personally, like some of the others, for helpful pre-convention advice. Thanks, Sunny. 

As she suggested, I dutifully topped up every day my small piles of bookmarks and flyers on tables in common areas, which must have contributed to the very respectable book sales and to the packed and enthusiastic audience, including 20 standing round the walls, for the enjoyable and entertaining panel I was on titled “Bitter Wine” where I swapped opinions and anecdotes with Rebecca Cabntrell, Candace Robb, Caroline and Charles Todd and moderator Oline Cogdill. But that’s nothing to the massive Grand Ballroom packed solid for the Lee Child interview.

I'd like to have seen historical crime getting more attention - only three panels dedicated and those not all easy to identify, though they were all excellent - but crime is a big field to cover.

Otherwise, yes, contacts were pretty random, though wouldn’t it be helpful if authors and fans name-tags were colour-coded in some way to differentiate them, maybe agents and publishers too? 

However, opportunities were many, starting with the Newbies Breakfast on the first morning, where flyers and bookmarks immediately came into play, to the parties and publishers’ receptions whose animated conversations flowed over into nearby restaurants and bars. 

Most unexpected occasion was the meeting of the Scowrers and Molly Maguires, the local Sherlock Holmes association, held in a German restaurant which served a surprisingly respectable pint of Guinness (I am from Ireland) with very elderly members who recalled their memories of the group’s founder, the ubiquitous Anthony Boucher. I felt justified in attending as Shots magazine had compared my own heroes Lysanias and Sindron to Holmes and Watson, though I’m not sure which would be which.

I also met my personal nemesis Gary Corby, the young Australian author whose series just launched is set in exactly my own time period in Ancient Athens, with Perikles (though spelt Pericles) as a significant character. 

We agreed not to read one another’s work to avoid cross influence, as, apparently, do Davis, Saylor and Roberts, the last two of whom also landed in the same Roman period and have written books around the same historical incidents. 

Gary is a nice guy and, with a respected and active publisher, it looks as though his book "The Pericles Commission" is doing well. Does it mean interest in Ancient Athens as a fiction location is growing? Let’s hope. Now to complete my own No.2. It is going well but illness and the problems of real life have been interfering.

An amazing convention and incredibly well-organised and run by the many enthusiastic volunteers. A bonus for me was the opportunity after it ended to visit North Beach, old stamping ground of Kerouac and Ginsberg, to browse the Beat Museum and Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Bookstore, and read my poems at an Open Mic in the Caffe Greco. 

The whole six days a succession of highs, not least coming out of my modest hotel every morning and setting off into a San Francisco immediately familiar from Hollywood crime movies walking from Chinatown down the hill complete with cable car towards the concrete and glass towers of the Financial District and the convention hotel. Memorable!

Apologies for lateness of report but it's been a tough time since. Bouchercon was 14-17 October.

Friday, October 8, 2010


Book launches over and successfully with many thanks to friends who helped. The poetry book looking good, everyone very appreciative. Now it’s off to Bouchercon next Wednesday. The big event of the crime fiction year, this absolutely massive convention is this year in San Francisco with over 2,000 attendees, a quarter of them authors. 

Imagine all those authors vying for attention! But other authors tell me they thoroughly enjoy it and it is productive for them, with the aim not so much to sell books at it but to catch the attention of potential readers in the expectation that they will buy when they get home.

It’s a packed schedule with five streams of panels going at the same time over four days plus authors in continuous conversation, one-author statements and interviews and activities in the craft room. Add to that social events in the evenings. It threatens to be utterly exhausting on top of the jetlag and biological clock disorientation of longhaul flights but also very exciting.

The panel I am on is called Bitter Wine at 3pm on the Friday in Room Seacliff C. It is about the need for historical accuracy in historical mystery novels among other aspects. With me are Candace Robb, Rebecca Cantrell and Caroline and Charles Todd so we range from Ancient Greece through the English Middle Ages to 20th century Europe. Sounds like a great panel and great discussion. Moderator is Oline Cogdill.

What I wasn’t prepared for is to find another author siting their novel in precisely my time and place yet there he is. Australian author Gary Corby is launching “The Pericles Commission” at Bouchercon and appearing on a panel with Steven Saylor, Lindsay Davis and John Maddox Roberts all with famous series in Ancient Rome. 

Gary’s novel sets off from the assassination of Ephialtes in Ancient Athens in 461BC and features Pericles just like me. Good to know someone else is as keen on this bit of history as me. It will be interesting to see how he has handled it and what he has come up with to fill the many gaps in the historical record, one of the most difficult aspects of writing historical fiction.

I’m looking forward to meeting lots of new people and making new friends, all enthusiastic about the same things I am. Can’t wait. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Friday, September 10, 2010


Loads of time lately devoted to organising and publicising and sending out invites for the book-launch in Drogheda of my new poetry collection from Lapwing Publications of Belfast - probably the only poetry publisher around would take on my long poems (some here up to 5 and 7 pages). 


55 pages of quirky and idiosyncratic stuff offering snapshots and mini-dramas from my life experiences and observations and my first solo run at poetry. I now have copies - looks good. On the cover is the black-and-white photo taken by my dad long years ago of my mum, sister and me sitting on a fallen tree in a bluebell wood. 

It's what prompted the title poem "Greybell Wood", which started as a fairly short nostalgia piece but grew over successive revises into a study of the way memory works and the power of photographs to trigger emotions and other cogitations. Strange where the creative process takes you. 

The same could be said of other poems including "Reunion" which follows my year at college through their lives and careers over 50 years - now there's ambitious for you! 

The book-launch is on 21st September followed by one in Dublin on October 5th. Otherwise, nail-biting time waiting to hear if I'm on a panel at Bouchercon 2010, the big crime fiction convention in San Francisco I'm going to in October.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010


Lets look at what I’ve been reading lately and why. I tend to avoid reading books very close to my period. Well, yes, because of the risk I might find myself plagiarising unintentionally but also because, on the one occasion I broke this rule, I suddenly found I was confusing the reality from my own research with the other author’s fiction – which may have been based on sound research or invented. Best to stay clear.

But I found the politics of 5th century Athens becoming more and more important in my sequel, so I became keen to see how other authors deal with this. Then I registered that Robert Harris’ series about Cicero’s life – Imperium and Lustrum, were straight historicals rather than histmysts so little risk of pollution. So far I’ve read only Imperium and exciting it is. Raw power politics with menace and not much else but very compelling, a real page turner. 

The same author’s Pompeii I hadn’t liked at all. Uninteresting cardboard characters, unbelievable plot sequences, solid undigested lumps of Pliny the Younger (and Elder) plonked on the page, little real understanding of how such a town would work – no thanks. Now here was the real thing – Republican Rome red in tooth and claw. Fascinating. 

But could I learn anything from it? Maybe not. As a histmyst writer, any political background has to serve and be integrated with the crimes the hero has to solve, though some of these may have a political motive. But the pace and excitement? Can I achieve that? Lets see. But, for now, I’m dying to get into Lustrum.

Then, by chance, I came across a bargain price copy of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, a novel I had never read before. Apart from the glowing quality of the writing and gradually tiring of Wilde’s epigrams and aphorisms in the mouth of Sir Henry Wotton, what’s fascinating here is Dorian’s double life and the way it reflected Wilde’s own and the whole novel almost forecasts Wilde’s own future life and downfall. Lets stick to the double life for now. 

My hero, Lysanias, inherits the estate of his uncle, a wealthy aristocrat in ancient Athens, and all the social expectations that implies yet he has been brought up his father in a distant colony as an artisan, a carpenter, and developed sympathies with craftsmen and workers. 

Now that’s very convenient for me as author (indeed why I invented the device) for Athens is split politically between the aristocrats and the radical people’s party and to be able to investigate his uncle’s death, Lysanias needs to be able to talk to individuals on both sides and get answers. 

So I invented it for story reasons but did it occur to me because my own life carries elements of similarity? Times when I have worked for a PR agency promoting the cause of, say, property developers while, in my spare time active in community organisations campaigning against specific projects of such people or even involved in plays attacking their whole ethos. Whether that was a cause, obviously it must have helped me to write effectively what it feels like to have that ambivalence, having to balance two different ways of thinking and understanding. 

That was fine in No.1. How does it work now when there are people on both sides who know of his connections with their opponents? That’s what I’m working out at the moment.

Monday, August 23, 2010


I attended the excellent Summer School of the Classical Association of Ireland at Trinity College this weekend. Two really fascinating talks by Andrew Wallace-Hadrill about how the ruins of Herculaneum (the other Roman town buried by Vesuvius at the same time as Pompeii) were discovered and at least partially unearthed over succeeding centuries and about how the parts so far exposed are being restored and preserved. 

The problems here are that the volcanic material that overtook the town and flowed into all spaces solidified into rock which is difficult to drill out plus that a modern town was built on top, which doesn’t make the archaeologists’ work easy. 

Some beautiful and revealing photographs and interesting old newsreel material of archaeological teams at work in the first half of the 20th. century. Useful titbits garnered as well from other talks about ancient Greek houses and temples. Individuals among this gathering of very friendly people – teachers, academics and enthusiasts - showed interest in my novel and there was much congenial conversation.

Launch of my new collection of poems Bluebell Wood and Beyond comes next in late September and early October in Drogheda and Dublin and then, in mid-November, the big adventure of attending Bouchercon in San Francisco, perhaps the most heavily attended of all the crime fiction conventions. 

It sounds very exciting. 

With luck I get to meet my heroes – Steven Saylor and Lindsey Davis whose series of novels in their different styles about Ancient Roman detectives Gordianus and Falco defined the genre and laid down the high standard to be aimed for.

Friday, July 30, 2010


A strange year in the garden. First nothing started growing till very late because the ice and snow and then continuing cold temperatures in the early months – not your normal Irish weather by any means. Then it all spurted up and was delayed again by very erratic rainfall. 

The apple trees masses of fruit but not enough rain to make them swell. The runner beans starting off well but running out of energy and hardly making it halfway up their canes. The radishes going to seed before they had swelled enough to be eatable.

But there have been enough sunny days for us to sit out under the trees and have meals there, sometimes with guests, something that hardly happened at all last year, so no complaints. 

Just pleased to have our long thin garden, bounded by trellis and mature shrubs, up a flight of steps from the back door so exposed to the sun at all times of the day, as a relaxing and visually enchanting resource.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010


It seems that petty crime was no rare thing in Ancient Athens. There was even a section of the market area called ‘Thieves’ Market’. It may have been what we would call a flea market, where second-hand clothing and other goods are sold but one that also forms a channel for getting money for stolen goods. I bought a bicycle in one such in Dublin some years back, no questions asked. Of course, no bikes in ancient times, so what forms of theft were there?

You could be mugged, of course. If you weren’t carrying money or things you’d just bought in the market, they’d take your clothes and leave you to go home naked. They might even make you spit out any small change you had tucked away in your cheek (yes, that was normal in a time before the invention of pockets). On the longer routes to other towns and villages in Attica, these would be highway robbers.

If you went to the baths or the gym, as the wealthier men did frequently, you paid someone to keep an eye on your clothes, if you had sense, or a ‘cloakstripper’ would be rummaging them for any money or valuables you might have left with them. And, doubtless, if you carried your money in a purse or satchel on a strap over your shoulder, that could be grabbed and made off with by any number of street urchins.

No use reporting it to the police – there weren’t any. The Scythian guards patrolled the central areas to keep order and might nab any blatant wrongdoer they spotted but, in the narrow lanes between market stalls, they couldn’t be everywhere. Law rested really on victims grabbing (arresting) the thief before he got away and taking him to the authorities. 

Not much hope of that if the mugger was threatening you in a deserted alley with a club or a knife and there were two of him. Mind you, if you came upon a burglar on your own property, you could take action even to killing him and be seen as justified – that’s if it’s at night: by day, you could only kill him if he resisted. Always, villains had to be caught in the act or such crimes were difficult to prove.

But, if wealthy houses had no ground floor windows and the street door was guarded by a porter with a dog, how did burglars gain access? Simple. They dug a hole through the wall. Either from a lane beside or from inside an adjoining house. 

In the main, houses were built of sun-baked mud bricks, so not too difficult to chisel away at them when folks are all out, say, at a big religious festival or maybe all asleep. Over the relatively low rooftops and down into a courtyard may have been another way in but not such as easy way out.

However, it wasn’t only the professional criminal that indulged in illegalities. The number of laws and inspectors relating to weights and measure, false coinage, and quality of foodstuffs gives a pretty good idea that such offences were rife. But there are always ways round these things, like two sets of weights, one for when the inspectors are around, the other when they’re not. 

You only have to look at the non-round shapes of coins that have been unearthed by archaeologists to realise how much clipping of the metal at the edges must have gone on even though value of a coin was determined by its weight. If a customer had doubts, there was a public slave stationed in the market place specifically to test coins and weights.

What punishments did culprits face? Well, stallholders faced a fine but, as today, probably not high enough to be a real deterrent. It’s possible there was an equivalent of the medieval stocks and also a wooden device round the ankles that hobbled a culprit in the hope that the public ridicule that went with these would be enough to put people off. 

In the case of more serious theft, it was the death penalty. In Athens, that meant being shackled to a board somewhere outside the city gates and being left to starve to death. Pretty grim.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


Everybody's fuming in Drogheda and in County Louth generally. The smallest county in Ireland and 50 years since it won the Leinster region final of the gaelic football championship and this year it reached that final and was winning until the final minutes of injury time. Then, in a melee in front of the Louth goal, the ball trickled across the line. However, no-one had 'played' it to that end which, under the rules, makes it invalid. But the referee awarded a goal to Meath, the other side, and hence victory in the match. He later admitted he had made the wrong decision and it was an invalid goal but too late. Fans invaded the pitch and punched him to great outcry. The governing body said there was nothing they could do. The Meath management committee debated requesting a replay but decided against. The decision stands. Hence the inevitable feeling of "We wuz robbed!"

On a quite different tack. I recently read Robert Harris' "Imperium". I had previously disliked his "Pompeii" immensely with its boring cardboard characters, unexciting style and regurgitated chunks of Pliny the Younger sometimes as straight quotes not to mention major implausibilities. 

This account of the early career of Cicero was completely different. Naked power politics with menace, so exciting I could hardly put it down to go to bed. The battle for power between dynamic and ambitious individuals and factions with real historical characters who came to life as totally real. 

Whether all the incidents actually happened is another matter - if they did Cicero must have been an incredibly brave man to have said some of those things in the those places - but it reads as completely plausible. I can hardly wait to read the next instalment "Lustrum".

I have been very erratic in maintaining this blog so far, so lets hope I can make a fresh start now.

Friday, June 11, 2010


The bad news? Dublin lost its one dedicated crime fiction bookshop with the demise of Murder Ink on Dawson Street. Enthusiast Michael forced to close down last month due to ill-health and decline of business in the recession. 

A great loss to readers and writers (he was very supportive of Irish crime writers and had racks solely for Historical Crime books including American titles not available elsewhere in Dublin). Following the loss of Murder One in London last year, this leaves only Alibis in Belfast struggling on.

The other bad news is that the Irish gangster/film Noir movie “Trafficked” which my son Simon and I released in Ireland last month came out on the hottest and sunniest weekend in May that anyone remembers when only an eejit (as we call them here) would dream of going to the cinema – and it turned out there weren’t many eejits around. 

So a very short cinema life for the film. A great shame as it’s a very powerful little film, brilliantly acted by Ruth Negga, Karl Shiels and the rest of the cast, a strong story exploring an important issue. Lets hope it develops a big following on DVD.

This also slowed down my blog booktour but there is a recent addition which appeared 31st. May. It’s about Ancient Greek Cookery and titled Titillating Ancient Tastebuds (with just a flavour of poison). 

You can find it at

Thanks for having me Maggie. More are promised, some written, but no dates fixed yet. I’ll let you know.

Saturday, May 15, 2010


Growing withdrawal symptoms at missing Crimefest in Bristol this year and so will not meet again the author friends I have made there in previous years. Apologies guys!

The reason, of course, is the release in selected cinemas in Ireland of Irish film Noir gangster movie "Trafficked" on Friday with Gala Premiere on Wednesday. Hectic time. Lots of media attention at the Press Screening and interview days, so looks as though it could do OK despite the general reluctance of Irish audiences to go to Irish movies. Fingers crossed.

Garden looking good. Bluebells, Aquilegia and Apple Blossom out and managing to get some vegetables sown - late, but then nature herself is running late this year due to the ultra-cold and over-long winter. No sign yet of may blossom in the hedgerows that are normally a mass of white by now.

Once the movie release is out of the way hopefully posts on this blog will get more regular. Lysanias considering whether he wants to adopt the fancy new gents hairstyle or not.

Sunday, May 2, 2010


The Great Drogheda Poetry Slam which I hosted on Friday went great - by delaying start time in traditional Irish fashion number grew to 45 with 20 competitors in two categories. An enjoyable evening was had by all with an amazing variety of poems. 

Part of the Drogheda Fringe which, together with the official Arts Festival, has brought quite a buzz to the town this bank holiday weekend. I also had a few of my photomontages exhibited in Urb Exchange an interaction experiment in an empty shop space which has been arousing interest.

Next up is release of Irish gangster movie Trafficked with Ruth Negga and Karl Shiels directed by Ciaran O'Connor. It hits screens in Dublin, Cork and Galway on May 21st - not long to go - look out for it. It's a stunning little movie. 

More at 

It's distributed by Simon and my company Stoney Road Films.

Otherwise haven't managed to get the garden sorted, though it is finally looking really green with leaves out and blossom emerging on the apple trees. And these things seem to have blotted out significant writing which is not a good thing.

Friday, April 23, 2010


He must have been a sitter for any conman (or conwoman) – our lovesick hero – let’s call him Eubolides. He has fallen in love with a slave boy who works in the scent shop where he buys his perfumes (Athenian gents liked to smell nice).

“Can I pay you to give him his freedom,” he asks Athenogenes the owner. “Sorry, not on, replies Athenogenes, “he won’t go without his brother and his father Midas, who runs this highly profitable business for me.”

Depiction of Agora in Athens
Eubolides is distraught and desperate to get the lad into his bed. Enter Antigona, beautiful ex-courtesan, now ageing but respected pimp-about-town. Knowing them both, she offers to mediate.

“I think, if you offer to buy or free all three slaves, you’d have a deal,” she says and names a sum, not cheap but do-able. Eubolides hustles round, raises the money by borrowing from friends and a meeting is arranged. 

Now what Eubolides doesn’t know is that Athenogenes has given Midas full responsibility for operating the shop and the slave has run up massive debts by borrowing for which his owner is responsible. So, surprise, surprise, looking worried, Athenogenes agrees to the deal but then says, as though trying to be helpful, “Look, have you thought, if you buy the freedom of the three slaves, it’ll just be money down the Great Drain. Why don’t you just buy the business?

“That way, you own the slaves and can do what you want with the boy and they could continue to work and earn a profit for you. If they go, I’ve either got to close it down or buy new slaves to run it.

Of course, you’d have to take over the liabilities as well as assets. There are debts to Pankalos and Prokles but they’re not much - the stock in the shop more than covers that - and maybe a few more. I’ll let you have it for the same amount.” 

Now, the fact that the price was the same should have been enough to warn Eubolides but, as I say, he’s lovesick and doesn’t spot any trickery. Antigona chips in encouragingly, “Sounds a good deal to me. It’ll give you a regular income.”

So he falls for it and signs, or rather applies his seal on the spot for – another surprise – Athenogenes just happens to have the contract, already drawn up, tucked in his cloak.

Athenogenes hasn’t actually lied, just implied the debts were a lot lower than they really are. More important for him, debts are formally mentioned in the contract and that Eubolides takes responsibility for them.

Now proud possessor of his love object and a perfumery business, Eubolides suddenly finds creditors banging on his door, chasing him for their money, and himself saddled with a massive debt on top of his own borrowings.

He approaches Athenogenes, now freed of a heavy burden and looking flush. “You didn’t tell me about all these other debts,” he whines. “Sorry, old chap, business is business. You should have read the contract more carefully.”

Eubolides takes Athenogenes to court for damages and it is from his speech to the jury (written for him by expensive speechwriter Hypereides) that we know this. However, as Athenogenes and Antigona doubtless calculated, he hasn’t a leg to stand on. The law clearly states that contracts freely entered into between two citizens are binding.

“But that’s only ‘fair’ contracts,” he argues. “This contract isn’t fair.” And he cites instances in other areas of law where fair and unfair are differentiated.

Did the jury listen to him? We don’t know. But doubtless Athenogenes’ speechwriter will have found convincing counter arguments. Looks as though Eubolides is bankrupt.

And even now he doesn’t spot, even though he knows that the bigger debts are fairly recent, that Midas has probably been encouraged to take these loans specifically for the con, with Athenogenes pocketing (sorry, no pockets in a cloak – or were there?) after giving Antigona her cut – could it have been her idea? Eubolidesa is even more miffed that he slipped her 300 drachmas for her help. Talk about one born every minute!

Deduced from a speech written by Hypereides on a papyrus rescued from the sands of Egypt – collections of legal speeches certainly had a wide circulation.

Thursday, April 1, 2010



Five down on my blog book tour – breath sigh of relief. Tougher than you might think. Offering to guest-blog, negotiating the blog-sites and dates, writing the pieces sometimes needing extra research, sending it off, checking it’s all OK, visiting and replying to any comments, letting people know… Quite exciting though. Scroll down a bit for my blog with actual dates and links – you may have to go to Archive for relevant month for some. 

Next date is April 8th on Nan Hawthorne’s Booking History with Stories Behind the Statues – a peak into the Athenian fashion at 

Then probably a bit of a break from it till May 31st with one on ancient cookery.

Busy week. I’ve been finalising the running order of poems in my new collection from Lapwing for one. 

Then there’s setting up a poetry slam on April 30th as a major event in the Drogheda Fringe attached to the Drogheda Arts Festival. And liaising with my son over release of Irish gangster movie Trafficking which is lining up for May 21st. 

Plus writing, email correspondence, keeping up with discussion groups, a bit of accounts and some PR. And getting distracted by fascinating inbox arrivals.

The bank holiday weekend was looking like a good opportunity to do a little gardening but, just when you thought it was safe to go back in the garden and having dared a short haircut, another cold spell arrives. 

Should I, shouldn’t I? 

But there are daffodils and daisies out, catkins on the big tree, leaves appearing on the rhubarb, and the grass is growing – well, there has to be a downside as the mowing chore rears it’s ugly head once again as a belated spring arrives. Great to hear the birds singing so joyfully again, though.

Sunday, March 14, 2010


About time I brought everyone up to date on my blog book-tour. 

For anyone who hasn’t come across them, they’re something authors do in this electronic age as a form of indirect self-promotion. Instead of trekking round to make personal appearances at bookstores, libraries and other places to promote a new book, they arrange to supply guest blogs on topics related to writing, or to the world of their novels, or aspects of life generally to a succession of blog-sites of other authors in the genre or groups. 

Then the hope is that readers and browsers will tag along from site to site, become a follower and maybe buy your book. It's proving quite hard work but very exciting. Not only the arranging, liaising and writing, there's the extra research sometimes needed and replying to comments (yes, I am getting some).

Here’s the plan so far, if anyone wants to come along for the ride:

12th March: Julie Lomoe's Musings Mysterioso at where my blog on the importance of historical plausibility is now up. There's a competition in front of it, so please scroll down.

18th. March: Kadi Easley's kdwrites at with The Magic of Historical Research.

22nd. March: Julia Buckley's Mysterious Musings - Interview at

24th March: Susan Higginbotham’s Medieval Woman with What Makes a Good Historical Mystery at

31st. March: Sarah Johnson’s Reading the Past with Human Realities Behind the Relics at

8th. April: Nan Hawthorne’s Booking History with Stories behind the Statues at

31 May Dames of Dialogue with Titillating Ancient Tastebuds (ancient Greek cookery with just a flavour of poison) at

An interview on Novel Journey will following later in the year, which will be more about writing and more to be announced all supplemented by stuff on this blog-site where you’ll have seen that my series on ancient crime and criminals has now started.

Of course, I’d like to express my thanks to all these lovely people for being so eager to host me. Have fun.

Saturday, March 13, 2010


As a way of causing death with the hope of not being found out, poisoning seems to have been quite popular in Ancient Athens as it has in many subsequent eras. It was also likely to be suspected in any situation where the cause of death was not clear. This is so in a case where we don’t have the principal names.

Here a young man, who has waited till he is of age to speak in the courts, accuses his stepmother of having contrived the death of his father several years earlier. It appears his father had a lodger, Philomenos, who had a concubine, a slave, who was worried that he had gone off her and would sell her into a brothel. 

The stepmother sympathised and said she too was losing the affections of her husband. A love potion was suggested as the answer to both problems and the concubine was persuaded to give it to the two men in a drink at a dinner well away from the house. 

Francesco Hayez Ulysses at the court of Alcinoo , 1814-16, oil on canvas 380 x 580 cm. Naples, National Gallery of Capodimonte

However, rather than splitting the potion equally, she gave more to Philomenos. He died on the spot, she was immediately suspected, tortured to the point of confession and executed. The father fell ill and died twenty days later. Believing he had been poisoned, he asked his young son to pursue his killer, which he was now doing some years later, using the speech by Antiphon which is our only record.

If the stepmother is guilty, then it was quite a neat piece of work. Her accomplice is dead, having confessed to the poisoning of Philomenos only, possibly because the father, not yet being dead, the officials had not put that question to her during the torturing. 

The accuser brings no evidence of the confession anyway, nor of his stepmother having access to poison nor from the doctor who treated the father that the symptoms were those of poison rather than, say, food poisoning. 

His only hope of a stronger case (and the stepmother’s only danger) is that one or more of the household slaves might have known of the plot and revealed it under torture – for a slave’s testimony was admissible in court only if given after torture. 

Women of Athens
But his stepbrother, who it would seem has control of the estate, has refused this request. Understandable really, for who wants their property (slaves) damaged by torture whatever confession might result – and who doesn’t confess if tortured enough? 

Result: not enough evidence to support his case and she gets away with it, unless the large jury of citizen males is swayed by the fear that Athenian men seem to have had that their wives will betray them. Perhaps that is why he refers to his stepmother as ‘a Clytemnestra’, the queen who murdered her husband Agamemnon. We have no record of the actual verdict.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010


Well, what does make a character ‘historical’? As opposed to a character with all the concerns of any individual of today in human relationships and survival, that is, who happens to wear a different costume from us, a modern man or woman in fancy dress. Lets look at that.

Demons From The Livre de la vigne nostre Seigneur 1450 - 70
In reality, an ordinary person from the Middle Ages or from many ages in the past could be almost paralysed from any out of the ordinary action by fear of retribution from God, the gods (of which there were many, all looking out for their own interests) and one’s social superiors or of seduction by the Devil and his demons, which made many scared to go to sleep for fear of dreams, which, of course, were the Devil attempting to do just that. 

Life was constantly interrupted by religious observances at different times of the day, by religious festivals and feast days which were compulsory, by the Sabbath when, at certain times, anything resembling work and even travel was not allowed. Questioning the behaviour of one’s social superiors was definitely not a good idea.

Peasants dance at a celebration in a medieval village.
© The Granger Collection, New York
Now that is not very conducive to effective detective work on a timescale that would be acceptable to the normal novel reader. So we historical crime writers have to find ways round it. We either fudge and make our characters say a guilty prayer when they infringe some rule or other or we make sure they have a mandate or dispensation from a monarch or bishop or other high authority. Or we choose one of the more liberal eras or more rule-breaking figures as our detective.

But beyond those extremes, they should ideally think within the mental frame of the age, accepting most of the received wisdom and attitudes to slaves, serfs, servants, women, children, foreigners, people of other religions, lords and ladies, and religious dignitaries. 

Now, if we went all the way with that, especially in our lead characters, they would not be very acceptable to many readers in our politically conscious age. So again, we are likely to fudge and nod in these directions while finding reasons why their attitudes are just that bit more liberal than their fellows.

And often we do this subconsciously because we ourselves have the need to create characters we can empathise with. After all, we have to live with them in our heads for even longer than the reader while each novel is evolving.

PS: I’ll aim to develop these ideas further maybe in some other place and time.

Reminder: My first guestblog goes up at Julie Lomoe’s Musings Mysterios tomorrow March 5th

Friday, February 19, 2010


I promised I’d let you know about some real ancient crimes, didn’t I? Well, in Ancient Athens, there was one form of homicide a man could get away with. If a married man discovered his wife having sex with her lover and killed him, that was OK under the law. Not that he might not be challenged to demonstrate afterwards that he hadn’t set the whole thing up. Such a justification has come down to us in a speech written for the cuckolded husband by legal speechwriter Lysias.

But, you ask, in a city where wives were segregated from men and rarely allowed out of the house, how did they ever get to meet potential lovers? One of the few exceptions was funerals and that is apparently where serial seducer (or so the husband claims) Eratosthenes first set eye on and fancied the wife of Euphiletos. The technique then was to follow the wife’s serving girl when she went on errands to the market, get talking to her and bribe her to deliver a message of love to her mistress. Flattered by the attentions of a younger man (who she may herself have noticed at the funeral) – for, in Athens, the norm was for men in their 30s to marry girls in their mid-teens to be sure of their virginity - the correspondence gradually leads to an assignation and access to her bedroom whenever the husband is away, with household slaves conniving doubtless with a few gratuities oiling the wheels.

In this case, the husband made it easier by agreeing to his wife sleeping in a ground floor room to be better able to nurse their new baby and, one imagines, to avoid having the baby disturb his own sleep in the upstairs bedroom. Surprised to hear doors banging in the middle of the night, he nonetheless believed his wife’s explanations and it was only when, some time later, he received a tip-off from another woman via her slave that he became really suspicious, interrogated the serving girl and made sure he had friends present as witnesses when, on the lover’s next visit, he charged into the room, sword in hand and killed him, despite the man’s hurried offer to pay monetary compensation. Mind you, he did tie the man’s hands behind his back first, so that he knew what was coming to him.

An arguable case as the lover’s family thought when they took the husband to court, which is why we have the speech. Unfortunately that’s all we have, so we don’t know if he really did get away with it or was punished in some way. But Lysias was a very good speechwriter and presents a picture of Euphiletos as a na├»ve and wronged individual who would be incapable of the machinations necessary to have lured Eratosthenes into a trap. His defence was that he had no other hidden motive for wanting the seducer dead – there was no dispute or argument between them, indeed he had never set eyes on him before that night. He had only done what the law required him to do, performed a ‘lawful execution’ (though the law did allow several other less violent forms of redress which his speech chose not to stress). We’ll never know.

Thursday, February 11, 2010



Today I’m going to exploit the opportunity to be a bit more personal if only because of the recent good happenings on that front. First the news that Lapwing Publications of Belfast are to publish soon a collection of my poems called Greybell Wood and Beyond. Sorry if poetry’s not your cup of tea but it’s my first solo run, so I’m excited about it, quite apart from the rush of having to tidy the poems up and polish them. I also found it great fun hosting various literary events and readings at Boyne Books in Drogheda in the second half of last year, a really atmospheric new resource for the artistic community in the town.

Even more exciting is the arrival of grandson Oisin Alexander nearly three months ago to Simon and Teresa in Dublin to join two-year-old sister Alana. He was just in time for family gathering we had at Christmas when younger son Brian and granddaughter Tara (9 years) came over from the UK - a rare occurrence. Plus a niece and her brood joined us. All highly enjoyable. The pantomime was fun too.

I’m finally getting myself organised to take to the road (metaphorically, of course). There’s the blogging here for one. Then, I’ll be talking about ‘Classics into Fiction’ and how various historical research findings turned into story ideas that became my novel Death Comes by Amphora on Thursday 25 February, 6.30pm, at University College Dublin for the UCD Classics Society – all welcome. Then on March 5th I’m guest-blogging on Julie Lomoe's Musings Mysterioso with a piece called ‘In Pursuit of Plausibility’ which asks how important plausibility is for reader involvement in historical crime fiction and whether, conversely, being too accurate could turn readers off. You’ll have to read it to find out what I mean. I’m hoping to be guest-blogging more over the next few months – I’ll keep you informed. Oh, and I’ve been contributing reviews to Alan Bishop’s Criminal History ezine.

Next time, something more closely related to the thrills and spills of historical crime writing.

Monday, January 25, 2010


Time to launch my own blog at last and what better than the basic question -
How did I get into writing? Now there’s a long story. I was quite good at essay writing at school but, strangely, when the English teacher set subjects that allowed fictional imagination, he tended to pour scorn on the results. That wasn’t very encouraging.

An aged aunt gave me an even more aged one-finger typewriter with the characters revolving on a little drum and I used it to tap out a science fiction story. It was highly derivative and was inevitably rejected by the one British science fiction magazine then in existence. I think I tore it up.

At college, I wrote a few autobiographical short stories (this was the Angry Young man era) but, again, a few rejections and they were tucked in a drawer to disappear in one of countless changes of accommodation in subsequent years.

Of course, there was writing for student publications at college, for a monthly institutional newspaper in my first job, for press releases and newsletters in publicity jobs, for theatre and film magazines, for careers booklets and videos. But this was all non-fiction much of it interview based. All the while I had a feeling I was no good at writing dialogue and so did not attempt it.

Until I hit a period of slack freelance employment and tried my hand at a humorous science fiction novel a la Douglas Adams. It didn’t work out but got far enough to persuade me I was within striking distance.

Two house moves and another country later, with house-sale proceeds in the bank, I tried my hand at a film script, a Western believe it or not. It was awful. The characters cardboard, their speeches long and turgid. But the next one, for some unknown reason, suddenly the characters were communicating in short, snappy, colourful, humorous dialogue.

I still don’t know what worked the change and it didn’t breed immediate success but it meant that when I tackled the next novel the characterisation and dialogue worked fine, I could handle the description and narrative from years of observation and writing for non-fiction, and the research in many and diverse fields of commerce, industry and commumications gave me masses of material that transposed quite easily across the centuries to Ancient Athens. So experience does have its benefits for a writer.