Mary Anne: A huge congratulations on your fabulous series, The Trojan Murders. Could you tell us a little about your books and how you came to write them?
Peter Tonkin: I have loved the classical eras ever since studying Latin at prep school as a youngster. Sadly, I didn’t study Greek but the Romans were so fascinated with Greek history, myth and legend that I soon became familiar with it and that led pretty quickly to The Iliad and The Odyssey. Although my father and his father were both officers in the RAF, they were also both closely attached to the sea (the Tonkins hail from the Isles of Scilly) and I was also fascinated with everything from rivers to oceans from a very early age. This was particularly so because as our family followed my father from posting to posting we nevertheless spent summers on the Isle of Cumbrae in the Firth of Clyde; and later with my mother’s family on the north and west coasts of Ireland. So, over the years I came to know the North Sea, the Atlantic, the Mediterranean (West Basin and East) and what used to be called the Persian Gulf. Therefore it was not much of a leap for me to identify with Odysseus above all the other heroes. It seemed natural to me to place Odysseus at the centre of a series of stories so I could give them the nautical setting by which I was most excited myself.
Mary Anne: I read the Iliad, which is traditionally attributed to Homer, back when I was a teenager, and I have been fascinated by the Trojan wars ever since. What was it about this time and this era that inspired you to write this series?
Peter Tonkin: It was all set in what Keats famously refers to as ‘the realms of gold’. The Golden Age, the Heroic Age. I am fascinated by the simple heroism of the men and women described in Homer’s works and those other contemporary ones associated with his stories and characters. I know I am by no means alone in this but it seemed to me that I could bring a fresh voice to the narrative by presenting them as men and women driven by emotions and desires we can understand rather than by the whims of Gods and Goddesses. This is particularly true in Vengeance at Aulis, for the story of Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia to appease the angry Goddess Artemis is one where the Gods seem particularly deeply entangled in the plot, though to be fair it is Euripides rather than Homer who tells the story most clearly.
Mary Anne: The Trojan Murders has been described most elegantly as a series where “Homer meets Holmes.” Why did you choose to give this series an Arthur Conan Doyle twist to it?
Peter Tonkin: It was Odysseus who fascinated me, as I have said. He stands not simply as a character but also as a symbol at the centre of much narrative theory. Eric Auerbach famously begins his analytical study of narrative Mimesis by comparing the section of the Odyssey telling of Odysseus’ scar with the section of the Bible where Abraham is directed by God to sacrifice Isaac – a narrative with striking parallels to the story of Iphigenia and Vengeance at Aulis. Furthermore, Keld Zeruneith in The Wooden Horse, an analytical history of early Western thought, uses Odysseus to symbolise the first great leap forward – from observation to analysis. It is Odysseus, after all who defeats the Trojans not by outfighting them but by out-thinking them. That observation was more than enough to establish Odysseus in my mind as the Sherlock Holmes of his age, with the ability to solve problems (particularly murderous ones) in ways that seem almost magical to Achilles, Agamemnon and the other heroes with whom he is surrounded.
Mary Anne: What were the challenges you faced in researching this period of history and were there any unexpected surprises?
Peter Tonkin: Mycenaean Greece shares some aspects with the Age of Dinosaurs. We know it existed, we know some elements about it which we are fairly certain are factual (though these seem to change on a fairly regular basis as our knowledge expands). We know it ended abruptly – almost overnight in historical terms – and was followed by a ‘Dark Age’ comparable to that which followed the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. At its height, before 1300 BCE, it covered the Mediterranean basin, linking with the Hittites and other similar societies to the East stretching beyond Babylon and with the Egyptians to the south, but apart from those in Egypt, contemporary records are scanty. The contemporary Greek writing, Linear B was not translated until the 1950’s and seems to have been largely used for recording the contents of warehouses. It seems that Agamemnon and his contemporaries had yet to use writing for social communication despite what Euripides says - and they had not yet invented money. The metal which defined the age was bronze – though where the rare tin came from that made their plentiful copper hard, is still a matter of some debate: anywhere from Cornwall to Afghanistan apparently. The Trojan War took place right towards the end of the Mycenaean Bronze Age and may even have been instrumental in its destruction (with the help of the mysterious ‘Sea Peoples’ who invaded from the north and west) because of the fatal damage done to the Greek kingdoms that were involved in such a long and costly campaign. The collapse occurred around 1200 BCE, a good 400 years before Homer began to tell the stories of Troy. The Romans took these tales to be historically accurate but intervening ages were much less credulous. It is only since Heinrich Schleimann’s work the 1870’s that we have begun to understand the historical truths behind Homer’s accounts and to suspect (or, perhaps, to hope) that Agamemnon, Achilles and Odysseus were real.
Mary Anne: What do you think is the most challenging aspect of writing Historical Fiction?
Peter Tonkin: The most challenging aspect of any fiction is to engender suspension of disbelief in your readership. Once that is achieved, you may introduce your audience to interesting characters doing gripping things in fascinating places and times. Within those admittedly spacious limits, your world is your oyster. On the one hand readers will accept from past masters and mistresses idioms that they look askance at from more modern practitioners. Wonderful Walter Scott’s ‘Thees, thous and thys’; the great Georgette Heyer’s occasional ‘Egad!’ But on the other hand I well remember a story told by Lindsey Davis who had a reader complain that when Falco was sleuthing in North Africa, he could not have seen a ‘jebel’ as described because the word was Arabic and had yet to be coined. She was at some pains to point out in reply that because of the time and place of the story’s setting, everyone would in fact have been speaking Latin and almost none of the words on the page would have been coined. That being said, I try to use a latinate vocabulary in my Roman novels but in Vengeance at Aulis, only the occasional technical term is in Greek.
Mary Anne: What advice do you have for aspiring Historical Fiction authors?
Peter Tonkin: Write. It was, I think, Kingsley Amis who, when asked what made a writer, answered ‘Writers write’ – everything else including critical and financial success it seems to me is largely down to luck. It can’t be quality as acclaimed by critics or Booker prize winners would forever top bestseller lists in precisely the way that they do not. A writer with very limited technique can catch the public imagination and make a fortune before anyone much notices. No examples forthcoming! Long forgotten storytellers can enjoy a sudden renaissance. But think, how many (brilliant) Reacher books had Lee Child written before they became required Summer reading for so many? How many times was J K Rowling turned down? Why was Steig Larsson’s publisher reduced to passing out free copies of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo on the London Underground? Beyond that, be certain of your period and the way that characters function (credibly) within it. Research but don’t over-research; do your best not to let the research dominate the page. You are an entertainer, not a history teacher. A credible character acting in a well-drawn and believable historical setting is what you’re looking for. Once you’ve established that, you just need to think a bit about sub-genre, then chose the one that will make your story really motor along. Lew Wallace uses epic, so does Conn Iggulden; MC Scott uses spy stories, so does Richard Foreman; Harry Sidebottom usually includes a thriller/mystery element. We all know what Lindsey Davis does; John Maddox Roberts does the same. For the Trojan series I chose murder-mysteries and used an active Holmes rather than a cerebral Poirot or Marple. Odysseus was always going to be Holmes – he behaves like Holmes in stories structured like Conan Doyles’: he gets an introductory problem to solve – that solution leads to a larger problem which he has to do more in order to solve and as often as not that leads to the fundamental problem whose solution not only challenges his wits but endangers his life (think Hound of the Baskervilles). In Vengeance At Aulis, for instance, he solves the famous conundrum of how Achilles can run faster than a chariot drawn by four horses, which leads on to a request that he look into the death of a priestess which in turn leads on to more deaths and increasing threats to himself and his helpers, apparently coming directly from the Goddess Artemis hereself – until it becomes clear that only by solving the murders can he protect not only himself but also Agamemnon’s plans for the attack on Troy.
Mary Anne: What fabulous advice. Peter, thank you so much for dropping by for a chat.
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Vengeance at Aulis
(The Trojan Murders Book 2)
The Port City of Aulis, Greece 1190 BCE.
The Greek fleet of a thousand ships, assembled for the attack on Troy, lies becalmed. The huge army, camped on the shore, swelters under a heatwave.
In the forest groves consecrated to the Goddess Artemis which clothe the hills above the port, a sacred stag and a young priestess lie dead. Superstitious soldiers believe that the outraged Goddess will not release the winds until the man who killed them is unmasked and sacrifices a child of his own in revenge.
The army begins to run out of patience and turns on its leaders. The soldiers demand that either the killer is found - or the assault on Troy be aborted.
Odysseus is asked to look into the case and reveal who is guilty of the sacrilege and crime.
But the closer he gets to the truth, the more gruesome murders occur until he and his young assistant become the subjects of brutal attacks themselves.
Time is running out. The hunters become the hunted.
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Peter Tonkin graduated from The Queen’s University, Belfast in 1975 having studied under Prof Rev W L Warren (History), Seamus Heaney and Alexander McCall Smith (English). He published his first novel, Killer, to international acclaim in 1978. He then divided his time between writing, teaching (English, History, Media, Philosophy, Classics and Law) and examining (A Level Law for the Oxford & Cambridge board). He has published 30 novels in the Mariner series of action-adventure thrillers. He then moved on to the Master of Defence series of 6 murder mysteries set during the reign of Elizabeth I. Since retiring from full-time teaching, he has also written the Caesar’s Spies series of 5 thrillers set in Ancient Rome, covering the period between the death of Caesar and the death of Brutus. He is currently working on the Trojan Murders series, which began with Beware of Greeks followed by the recently released Vengeance at Aulis, the third volume of which The Anger of Achilles will be his 50th published book.
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Series: The Trojan Murders, Book 2
Author: Peter Tonkin
Publication Date: 9th September 2020
Publisher: Sharpe Books
Page Length: 198 Pages
Genre: Historical Fiction
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See you on your next coffee break!
Mary Anne xxx