What if my highly dubious story of a two-thousand-year-old family of assassins turned out to be true?
Can you blame a chap for wanting to turn his otherwise humdrum family into a bunch of assassins?
It turns out you can.
I found this out soon after my novel The Tailor of Riga was published, and I received a bunch of beastly emails and threats from incensed family members horrified that I’d portrayed them as the descendants of bloodthirsty hitmen.
Then, out of the blue, a package arrived from a long-lost cousin in Argentina that changed everything.
It was the diary of an unknown ancestor, Elias Smulian-Hassan, summoned from Baghdad to Bombay by the enormously wealthy David Sassoon to take on an assignment for the Maharajah of Kutch.
His mission was to find and kill a British officer responsible for some of the most brutal acts of retribution against Indian survivors of the Great Sepoy Uprising and retrieve a fortune in stolen gemstones. Elias pursues his quarry from Bombay to the Kingdom of Travancore, where the contemptible swine is planning to rob the vaults of the richest temple in the world.
Priceless treasures, mysterious maharajahs, unspeakably evil villains, and the beautiful Mozelle Jacob, a woman Elias will pursue to the ends of the earth, all blend together like a spicy chicken vindaloo in the next saga of the sica.
I’m not exactly sure what I was hoping to get from my ancestry.com search. To be fair I only sprung for the cheapest package, which told me a bunch of stuff I already knew. There were no surprises, no links to royalty or anyone holding status above that of assistant manager in a men’s clothing store.
When I relayed my disappointment to my cousin Tim, he suggested I contact a relative in Houston who was working on an extensive family tree that went back to the middle of the eighteenth century. “The man’s in his nineties,” said my cousin, “but his mind’s as sharp as an Italian stiletto. If anyone can supply fodder for your delusional fantasies of ancestral greatness, it’s him.”
And so that’s precisely what I did.
Was I disappointed? To say the very least, yes.
It turned out my aged relative was the most interesting person on the entire family tree.
He’s lived and worked in more countries than most people have had hot breakfasts and is a formidable writer. He tells a fine story too, but even his sizeable collection of familial anecdotes—including the one about my mother’s uncle, a failed horse thief—couldn’t prevent the rest of the dullards from lying on the page like herrings in a fish market.
Things were looking pretty dim until I had a brainwave.
What if, I asked myself (and then repeated it to strengthen my resolve), what if behind the names lay a secret history? One so dark and incomprehensible that to reveal it would cause us to question history? What if this secret (the old grey matter was in overdrive here) could be traced back to the year 70 CE in Judea, when two families of the Tribe of Asher were booted out of the tribe for breaking more of the Ten Commandments than any other members and sent out into the world with a nasty curse hanging over their heads? And what if this curse had to do with performing assassinations with curved daggers called sicae, no doubt stolen from the Sicarii, a splinter group of Jewish zealots regarded by historians as the first organized group of assassins for their role in killing the Roman invaders?
Suddenly the old arbor familiae looked a little more intriguing.
Well, to me at least.
“Why couldn’t you have made us scientists or educators or great philanthropists?” asked my sister when I told her my idea. “Why did you have to choose murderers?”
“Good grief,” I replied. “Don’t you know every lie has to be partially credible? No one who knows us would ever believe we were scientists or philanthropists. Nope, assassins it must be.”
And that’s when everything fell neatly into place. My great-grandfather, who was a tailor in Riga, moved his family to London and actually bought a pub called the Bricklayer’s Arms on Settles Street, where Elizabeth Stride, one of the victims of Jack the Ripper, was last seen. I turned this presumably innocent pub owner into the assassin hired by the Metropolitan Police to track down and kill the infamous Ripper. This he did rather efficiently, making it look like the Ripper was just another anonymous victim of a mugging. So, now you know why Jack the Ripper has never been identified.
Ever wondered who killed the two Nazi spies plotting to get tribes on the North West Frontier of India to rise up against the British in World War II? In my imagination, it was my father, sent there by Peter Fleming, head of Military Deception in India and older brother of Ian Fleming. My father was in India at the time and was dispatched to the Khyber Pass. But knowing him, he was probably in the local pub swilling Scotch and soda. My mother’s great-aunt made a valiant though futile attempt on the life of Vladimir Lenin in 1918. Yes, there were a few failures along the way. Even I picked up the sica at some point and ended up as the chief bodyguard for Jean-Bedel Bokassa, president and later emperor of the Central African Republic.
These stories make up The Tailor of Riga, the first in a series I’ve called Tales of the Sica.
The second in the series, The Carpet Salesman of Baghdad, will be released on July 27. It’s the account of a distant relative, Elias Smulian-Hasson, who is invited to Bombay by David Sassoon, one of the wealthiest merchants in India, to take on an assignment for the Maharaja of Kutch shortly after the Sepoy Rebellion in 1858. His mission is to kill a particularly nasty English officer responsible for brutal acts of revenge against the sepoy survivors and retrieve a priceless ruby. Murder, mayhem, maharajas, and the mysterious Mozelle Jacob, the woman Elias will pursue to the end of the earth, simmer away in book two like a spicy vindaloo. Oh, yes, food features rather prominently in the book.
Should you buy them, I do hope you’ll enjoy the tales of the sica. Everything I make from my books goes to various animal charities.
When he’d walked 423 paces, he came to some stairs. They were narrow and slippery from moisture that had leached in from somewhere above, and he almost slipped once or twice. There was a platform at the top of the stairs and an open door made of heavy wood with iron struts. Beyond the door was another short passage. Elias stopped and listened again. He could hear the distinct sound of scraping, as if someone were pushing a heavy chest across the floor, then a clatter of something falling and more scraping.
As yet he could see no light, and he worried that the lack of vision in his right eye was affecting his ability, but as he edged forward, he saw a faint glow up ahead. He leaned his torch against the wall hoping the moisture wouldn’t kill the flame and crept on until he came to a corner where the passage turned right. The light intensified, and as his eye adjusted he realized that he was looking into a massive room. A figure with a torch was lighting more torches attached to sconces on the walls. As the burning torches swept away the darkness, bathing the room in an eerie yellow glow, the treasure of the temple vault was revealed.
Elias blinked in disbelief. It was as if he stumbled into the cave of a genie, so massive was the treasure trove. As his eyes moved around the chamber, he saw thick chains and crowns and thrones all made of gold. There were chests overflowing with coins and others filled with gleaming jewels. And standing in the center of the room, laughing manically, the blazing torch now held over his head, was Captain the Honorable Edward Hope Covington.
Covington was so busy examining the objects and filling the bag he carried with gems and coins that he failed to see his observer until Elias stumbled over a large vase and fell. Covington stopped what he was doing and swung around.
“Who the hell are you?” he yelled, reaching into his pocket for his Colt pistol. “No, you bastard. Don’t even think of getting up.
“My name,” answered Elias, wondering just how he was going to survive, “is Elias Smulian-Hasson, though you may remember me as Abdallah Abu Alhalib, the man your friend shot and very nearly killed at the caves in Bombay. As it is you cost me my eye.”
“That all?” asked Covington, taking aim with his revolver. “Well, it’s me with the gun this time, not that idiot Harrington-Jones, and I assure you I won’t miss.”
“The late Harrington-Jones,” said Elias, trying to buy time while he struggled to figure out what to do.
“Indeed, he reluctantly told me where to find you before I killed him.”
“Late you say? Old Stinker? Well, no skin off my nose. Though I wasted seventy-five guineas on him. Now while I’d love to chat, as they say, time and tide wait for no man, and I need to take the first tide with as much of this stuff that I can carry.”
“Well,” replied Elias, desperately thinking of a move, “you have some jewels that belong to me and you should—” He was about to mention the counterfeit coins but Covington interrupted.
“Yes, indeed I do, right here in the pouch under my arm. Together with what I take out of here, I reckon I’ll get a whopping price for them in Amsterdam or Brussels. Certainly, more than you were going to pay me, you thieving Semite.” He raised the pistol and squeezed the trigger. It may have been the flickering light from the torches that distracted Covington, but the shot missed Elias and ploughed into the wall behind him. Covington cursed and took a step forward. He aimed carefully at the center of Elias’s head and started to squeeze the trigger. What happened next gave Elias nightmares for the rest of his life.
The Tailor of Riga
(Tales of the Sica)
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In his 5th novel, Jonathan Harries takes us through the dark, comedic (and highly questionable) history of a family of assassins. Unfortunately, as he discovers, they're his family.
I had absolutely no intention of getting into the family business. As I told my father the night he enlightened me on what my ancestors had been up to for over a thousand years, “Sticking a curved dagger into someone’s liver ain’t quite my cup of tea.”
As it turned out, I had no choice. When your family’s been assassinating reprobates and other loathsome individuals for seventy generations, you have a certain obligation.
So, while it was a little disconcerting to hear how dear old granny would have become a prostitute if Grandpa Joe hadn’t whacked one of Germany’s top agents just before the start of World War I, it certainly piqued my interest. Of course, as I discovered, prostitution and murder were pretty de rigueur for my family.
After all, it was my great-grandfather who was hired by the British secret service to kill Jack the Ripper and my mother’s cousins who took part in the attempted assassination of Lenin.
My only regret when I finally took up the family sica was not eliminating Jean-Bedel Bokassa just before he crowned himself Emperor of the Central African Empire and ate my two friends.
But we all make mistakes.
Jonathan Harries began his career as a trainee copywriter at Foote, Cone & Belding in South Africa and ended it as Chairman of FCB Worldwide with a few stops in between.
After winning his first Cannes Lion award, he was offered a job at Grey Advertising in South Africa, where he worked as a copywriter and ended up as CEO at age 29, just before emigrating to the US. Like most immigrants in those days, he started once again from scratch. After a five year stint as Executive Creative Director of Hal Riney in Chicago, he was offered a senior position at FCB. Within ten years, he became the Global Chief Creative Officer and spent the next ten traveling to over 90 countries, racking up 8 million miles on American Airlines alone.
He began writing his first novel, Killing Harry Bones, in the last year of his career and transitioned into becoming a full-time author three years ago, just after retiring from FCB. He’s been writing ever since while doing occasional consulting work for old clients.
Jonathan has a great love of animals, and he and his wife try to go on safari every year. They’ve been lucky enough to visit game reserves in South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Rwanda, Tanzania, India, and Sri Lanka.
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See you on your next coffee break!
Mary Anne xxx