Sunday, October 28, 2007

Why Should I Read?...

Point Blank

Richard Stark, 1962

“Richard Stark” is a pseudonym of the prolific Donald E. Westlake, and whichever name he writes under, he’s worth reading. For me, though, the twenty or so Stark novels, of which Point Blank is the first, are the best of the bunch.

The protagonist of the stories is Parker (he doesn’t have a first name, which would be an unnecessary frivolity). He’s a career criminal who defines “amoral”: he murders, robs, extorts as the need takes him. His job is crime, and he’s a thorough professional. The people he works with are not always so proficient, and his heists usually come unstuck at some point, often when members of the gang try to double-cross each other.

Creating sympathy for such an anti-hero is a difficult business, but Stark’s technical mastery pulls it off. The cool narrative tone doesn’t give us anything in the way of interior monologue: when we see Parker thinking, it’s about the practicalities of his heist, so the reader too is sucked in at that level. We are not invited to judge Parker, just to watch him—and we come to respect someone who’s very good at what he does. And he is amoral rather than immoral: he doesn’t kill for kicks, only when it’s “necessary” (i.e. to help him get what he wants). When we see the police, which is rarely, they are invariably buffoons, corrupt, or both. There is no-one to root for but Parker.

The Parker books are very much in a line of descent from the hard-boiled mid-century writers like Chandler and Hammett to the bleak nightmares of Ellroy, but there are other philosophical considerations at work. When reading Stark, I’m also reminded of books like Camus’ L’Etranger¸ another story in which killer is adrift in a world without morality. It might be excessive to describe Stark as an existentialist, but there seems to me little doubt that existentialist fiction has been an influence on his work.

One last observation: the Parker novels are short (normally around 200 pages). There are no frills at all. The grim practicality of Parker’s existence is reflected in the utilitarianism of Stark’s prose. It’s a perfect match.

How has it influenced me?

Stark is quite a recent discovery for me, so he’s not a writer who influenced my formative years. His example in showing how to pull off the anti-hero trick was an inspiration for The Dog of the North, however. One of the ways I try to make Beauceron sympathetic despite his career as brigand and kidnapper is to ensure that he’s very good at what he does, and to show that the people around him are no better, and in some cases rather worse. Both are lessons I learned from Stark.

Lessons for the aspiring writer

Nice guys don’t always make the best protagonists

You can write satisfying stories in which crime pays

Choosing a narrative voice which supports the protagonist’s character is essential

You can get away with telling the reader almost nothing about your protagonist’s inner life

::Acquired Taste returns

After a week away from emails and the Net, I am now back with a new entry on the Macmillan New Writers' blog. It promises to be fascinating series of articles on how we all go about our craft.

Next up on ::Acquired Taste, why you really should read Richard Stark's Point Blank...

Friday, October 19, 2007


I am taking a holiday, and so, therefore, is ::Acquired Taste. Look out for some new entries by the end of the month, including assessments of Richard Stark's Point Blank, the novel which took hard-boiled and baked it in a furnace; Iain M. Banks' Inversions, a book which was a big influence on The Dog of the North; and perhaps more news from MNW on finalising the text. While I'm away, make sure you keep up with the other Macmillan New Writers at our group blog. You can find out all about my fellow writers Aliya Whiteley, Brian McGilloway, and Faye L. Booth (whose Cover the Mirrors is the next MNW offering).

Why Should I Read?...

The Big Sleep

Raymond Chandler, 1939

Sometimes “Why Should I Read?...” is just too easy. This is one of those days. Raymond Chandler’s first novel starts with this paragraph:

It was about eleven o'clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved, and sober, and I didn't care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.

What more do you need? I can go home now. Surely this speaks for itself.

The first thing to note is that Chandler gets his “voice” down in the first paragraph: world-weary, assured, unfussily competent. We will be spending a long time in the company of the protagonist, Marlowe, and Chandler strikes the tone from the start.

Mechanically, Chandler’s opening is a masterpiece of economy. The power is all in the detail, yet the detail is astonishingly simple. Why does he need to tell us the sun isn’t shining? Isn’t all rain wet? Both clauses seem like “mistakes”: that is, they don’t follow the rules; but together they create a vivid image of a certain kind of morning (and a morning fully appropriate to what’s coming up). Then Chandler gives us a list of what Marlowe is wearing: just one word of more than two syllables, the only colours blue and black. This is easy, right? We could all do it. Don’t you believe it. Next we learn that Marlowe is “neat, clean, shaved, and sober” and everything starts to fall into place: this isn’t someone who habitually displays those qualities. Chandler has explicitly told us what Marlowe is wearing, but immediately undercuts it with his implication that it’s out of character. It’s the first paragraph, and with no dialogue or authorial commentary Chandler has set up internal tension. If it was that easy we’d all be doing it. The simplicity of the scene and the language conceals the effectiveness of the writing. And that’s before we get to the kicker: “I was calling on four million dollars”. We know by the end of the first paragraph that we will enjoy our journey with this wry narrator.

Last time out we looked at James Ellroy. Ellroy is a direct descendant of Chandler’s prose, but there are real differences too. We can see from the opening paragraph that Chandler doesn’t deal in the verbal pyrotechnics of Ellroy: there’s nothing at all of the street about his writing. What Chandler does have is the ability to make plain language bear a great weight, and a narrative voice of deceptive simplicity which looks easy to copy until you try it.

Add in Chandler’s ability to create vivid minor characters in a paragraph, and the shady moral universe in which he positions Marlowe, and we have a writer of real power and durability. The idea of the battered idealist, a loner drinking his way through the mean streets of an uncaring city, is something of a cliché, and Chandler can’t even claim the credit for inventing it (Dashiell Hammett is probably closer to the source). It’s become a staple of detective fiction (today, Ian Rankin and Mark Billingham are two of the more successful British exponents). What lifts Chandler above the ruck is the exquisiteness of his prose—economical yet flexible. Just go back and re-read that first paragraph if you don’t believe me.

How has it influenced me?

Chandler was one of the first writers I encountered with an authorial voice so strong and compelling that it justified reading the book in itself. He wrote the kind of book I could, however delusionally, imagine myself writing. Indeed, when I first came to try out the novel form with The Zael Inheritance¸ I envisaged it as the tone and milieu of Jack Vance imbued with the grittier sensibility of Raymond Chandler. However imperfect the execution, that still seems to me a laudable ambition.

There are few writers I admired as a teenager whom I still admire today. Chandler is one of them.

Lessons for the aspiring writer

Simple words and sentences can convey information every bit as efficiently as more elevated language.

You can do new things with an old plot (in fact, if you find a genuinely new plot, let me know).

Wit is not misplaced in an action novel.

It’s possible to convey character without action, dialogue or overt commentary.

The first-person narrative does not need an unreliable narrator to be successful.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Macmillan New Writers' blog

Matt Curran, author of The Secret War, has set up a collective blog for Macmillan New Writers past, present and future. This is a talented group of writers, all of whom believed in themselves and kept plugging away. There should be some interesting views here, and the MNW list is so eclectic you're sure to find some good reads over there as well.

Why not pop over and have a browse?

Monday, October 15, 2007

Why Should I Read...?

L.A. Confidential
James Ellroy, 1990

Last week we looked at a masterpiece of stylistic understatement, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential is about as different as it’s possible for a book to be, but for connoisseurs of style it’s equally rewarding. It’s the third of Ellroy’s “L.A. Quartet” which tracks the fortunes of a number Los Angeles policemen in the 1950s. So far, so genre.

Two things set Ellroy apart from other writers of the “American cop” novel. The first is his extraordinary verbal pyrotechnics. He makes absolutely no concession to the reader, using a fragmented sentence structure which gives an urgency and immediacy, sometimes at the expense of intelligibility. And then there’s the slang, the 1950s LA street-speak which at times represents the entirety of the dialogue. As a Brit, I didn’t have a clue what was going on for the first 50 pages (and this is a hell of a risk for an author to take: contemporary American readers may have an easier ride, but not much easier, I suspect…). But the language is so pulsating, so vibrant, that you want to hang on. Eventually a kind of sense emerges. You realise that “statch-rapo” is someone who commits “statutory rape”, sex with a minor (the kind of thing that happens a lot in Ellroy’s LA). By page 75, you’re understanding almost everything: by page 100, the style and the language don’t even seem noteworthy. The reader has internalised it, and recognises that this is the only way Ellroy’s story can be told.

The other defining characteristic of Ellroy’s work is its unremitting bleakness. We can compare Ellroy with Raymond Chandler, one of the progenitors of the noir tradition in which Ellroy is working. In Chandler, we have a flawed good guy trying to get by in a world which has corrupted his ideals: in Ellroy, there are no good guys. The only difference between the LAPD and the city’s underworld, with which it is utterly complicit, is that the cops wear uniforms. It’s a given that the cops are on the take. The characters who hold out against this are invariably flawed in other ways. This, again, is an immense risk. Who do you root for in a story like that? (The answer is, that as the story unfolds, some of the characters do come to have a kind of warped nobility, which sets them above those who are merely warped).

Ellroy, then, is the most risk-taking of writers. He doesn’t seduce with the beauty of his prose, and he doesn’t give you anyone to identify with. It goes without saying that he doesn’t give saccharine happy endings. Even if his books were crap, you’d have to admire him for that. But his books aren’t crap: you may feel you need to take a shower after 400 pages of his sordid world, but his work is technically magnificent. His realises his grim vision with economy and, ultimately, considerable clarity.

How has it influenced me?

Ellroy is a comparatively recent discovery for me: of the noir school, Chandler has been much more influential. I admire the bleakness of Ellroy’s vision, without feeling remotely tempted to try to copy it. He is instructive as a world-builder: he is taking the reader somewhere as profoundly “other” as Middle Earth or Imperial Rome. For all his stylistic bravura, he does it the good old-fashioned way—he doesn’t explain what’s going on, he lands you in the middle of his world and lets you find your own path. 1950s LA is not a place where anyone gives you anything for free, and neither does Ellroy.

Lessons for the aspiring writer

I’m tempted to say there is only one: “Don’t try this at home....”

There are perhaps a few other observations:

If your story really does demand an unconventional telling, don’t be afraid of it

There is nothing inherently wrong with risk-taking—but make sure you understand exactly what the risks are, and why you think they’re justified

Establishing your fictional world is as important for contemporary fiction as historical or fantasy—because in all fiction the world you are creating is illusory and imaginary

Friday, October 12, 2007


::Acquired Taste has a new look from today. If only to demonstrate I am not wholly technologically inept, I've selected a template from outside's standard range. But fear not, all your favourite features (that's what Reg Connolly would call a "forced assumption") remain.

Normal service will resume soon.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Why Should I Read...?

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

Muriel Spark, 1961

If all you know of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is 1968 film with Maggie Smith, you have a treat in store. With few writers I know is style more divorced from plot, and the reason I’ve read this book a dozen times is almost entirely stylistic. Throughout her long career Spark was a stylistic experimenter and innovator: such an approach carries risk, and in all honesty I find most of her work from The Mandelbaum Gate onwards unreadable. But her earlier novels, The Comforters, The Girls of Slender Means, The Ballad of Peckham Rye and most of all The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, have a minimalist sinewy elegance enough to excuse any subsequent folies des grandeurs.

Superficially Jean Brodie is a very simple novel: a coming of age story (with strong autobiographical elements) told in only 100 pages or so. There are no tricks or hidden revelations. Miss Brodie is a progressive school teacher in a distinctly unprogressive girls’ school: she mingles feminism with support for Fascism—in 1930s Edinburgh, an uncomfortable mixture. Spark realises Brodie on the page with élan and superbly captures her magnificent eccentricity. Her teaching career comes to an end when she is ‘betrayed’ to the school authorities by Sandy, one of her protégées and the novel’s protagonist. A lesser writer would have created an artful narrative tension from concealing the identity of the betrayer from the reader: Spark casually throws the information away as an aside. She is constantly playing chronological games, telling us what becomes of the characters almost from the outset. One girl, the lacklustre Mary Macgregor, is destined to die in a fire, “running hither and thither”, as Spark repeatedly tells us, without any kind of authorial commentary. Her dialogue eschews all tags except “said”, the first writer I ever noticed doing this. For such a spare writer anything more would be overdone.

Structurally Spark pushes the omniscient narrator to extremes. Although Sandy is the nominal protagonist, the authorial voice is the main character, telling us things none of the cast could know, and retailing everything with a deadpan dryness with could score the skin of the unwary. Adverbs are rarely deployed, and when they are, it’s to surprising and telling effect. For instance, one of the girls “was accosted by a man joyfully exposing himself beside the Water of Leith”: a phrase of characteristic composure opened up by the unexpectedness of the adverb. That, ladies and gentlemen, is why you should never over-use adverbs.

Spark can do all the basics so well the reader hardly notices them. The characters of Jean Brodie and her young disciples are drawn with precise economy, the historical sketch of 1930s Edinburgh vivid, and the themes of the novel—betrayal, loyalty, the social position of women, coming of age—are handled so expertly that the novel would be remarkable without its stylistic brilliance. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie has the chilly perfection of an ice-crystal: not to everyone’s taste, but of its type an unequalled glory.

How has it influenced me?

Muriel Spark was the first writer to give me a sense that style could be an end in itself. With writers like Austen and Vance I had always had the sense of the style supporting the plot, but Jean Brodie gives us a style which is self-sustaining and has a vitality independent of the story. It’s not something I’ve ever wanted to copy, but as an illustration of what narrative tone can do, it’s hugely instructive. Compare and contrast LA Confidential¸ featuring later on our list. Even the later works, which I enjoyed much less, are instructive in showing how delicate an experiment stylistic innovation is: get it even slightly wrong and freshness is replaced by inaccessibility.

The minimalism of Spark’s style has always impressed me as well. She’s not the only writer to show how much can be done with how little, but few do it better.

Lessons for the aspiring writer

How you tell your story is more important than the story itself
What the omniscient authorial voice loses in immediacy it can gain in perspective
Do you really need that adverb?
If your story only needs to be a hundred pages long, don’t pad it out to two hundred
Even if you are a brilliant prose stylist (and you probably aren’t, whatever you may think…) don’t neglect the basics: character, theme, pacing
Flash-forwards are very, very risky.
Be cautious about using them.

Monday, October 08, 2007

“Why Should I Read…?” even more…

“Why Should I Read…?” has reached the end of its original run. Like a tempting box of chocolates, I have not made it last as long as I should. Instead, I will have to risk sickening myself and my readers with an expanded list.

So, without further ado, here is my second set of ten books which have made an impact on me, and which I hope will do the same for you.

Lucky Jim – Kingsley Amis

Inversions – Iain M. Banks

The Big Sleep – Raymond Chandler

Bleak House – Charles Dickens

LA Confidential – James Ellroy

Beyond a Boundary – CLR James

Buddenbrooks – Thomas Mann

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – Muriel Spark

Point Blank – Richard Stark

This is a list I hope has a nice variety, although I notice three hard-boiled American crime novels (and why not?).
We have another sports book (and, like The Miracle of Castel di Sangro, about much more than sport). Only one of our choices is from the 19th century (although Buddenbrooks surely deserves honorary membership). There’s only one fantasy and two very British novels to counterbalance the American thrillers.

I think we’re going to have fun exploring them!

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Macmillan New Writing focus

The Herring Seller's Apprentice
L.C. Tyler

I don't intend to make a habit of writing about MNW titles, a practice both suspect and incestuous. That disclaimer aside, I picked up the latest offering at the weekend, and it's worth drawing to your attention. For the record, I've never met or corresponded with L.C. Tyler, even though he lives less than twenty miles from me. My opinion is as objective as these things can be.

David Isaak and I have both touched on the inadvisability of writing fiction about writers on our blogs: Tyler shows triumphantly that it can be done. The protagonist of this crime novel is... a crime novelist. Tyler deconstructs all the tropes of the English crime novel in a story which is witty, self-referential, meticulously plotted and unexpectedly poignant. If that makes it sound rather high-falutin', it isn't. It's great fun, a judgement which does not contain even a hint of denigration. The breezy narrative voice could easily conceal the fact that
The Herring Seller's Apprentice is a very accomplished piece of work. In addition, Tyler has a cutting way with one liners, and I suspect his work will bear re-reading. I'll certainly be looking out for whatever he turns his attention to next.

The Herring Seller's Apprentice is highly recommended.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Why Should I Read...?
Jack Vance, 1982-90

I could have picked just about any of Vance’s books for my list, but the Lyonesse trilogy is Vance at his very best. It answers all of the often lazy criticisms levelled at the author: that his plotting is perfunctory, his narrative structures pedestrian, his female characters weak and his interest prone to wane over the course of a series. Lyonesse is intricately plotted with multiple viewpoints, and at least two compelling female characters. And all that’s on top of Vance’s everyday virtues: a prose style with the coolness and precision of diamond, dialogue at once graven and fluid, and a sense of humour so oblique as to be all but invisible.

Lyonesse shares many of the trappings of Big Commercial Fantasy, without ever approaching the derivative. The trilogy’s protagonist, Aillas, after much struggle becomes king of Troicinet, and the trilogy follows his rivalry with Casmir, King of Lyonesse. Magicians enter the scene on a whim, pursuing their own goals which occasionally intersect with the more conventional feudal intrigues of Aillas and Casmir. The juxtaposition of the everyday and the fantastic—in one scene, Aillas can be reviewing rural militia, and in another dickering with the King of the Faeries—never jars: Vance is a master of tone and, in particular, of place. The Elder Isles he paints, with the sinister and magical Forest of Tantrevalles at their centre, effortlessly accommodate realpolitik and otherworldly.

How does Vance differ from the conventional fantasy with which he shares so many characteristics? The quality I find most readily in Lyonesse is freshness: I never get the sense that I am consuming a reheated Tolkien and that I’m going to turn the page and find another bloody elf or some doughty sodding dwarf…* Instead, I might find the following:

Shimrod sauntered forward. "Why must you beat poor Grofinet?"
"Why does one do anything?" growled the troll. "From a sense of purpose! For the sake of a job well done!"
Grofinet, an absurd furred creature of good nature and amusing vanities, is rescued by Shimrod and enjoys an interlude as comic relief: and then Vance arranges an outcome to make you regret laughing at him. It takes great skill to pull off the two moods: it is one of Vance’s great strengths that he can manage the transition. (Indeed, his tonal range is rarely noted: at one end of the spectrum he can write Wodehousian comedy like Space Opera, at the other a haunting and sombre coming of age story like Emphyrio).

Vance’s greatness is not amenable to capture in the brief twinkling of a blog entry. If you already know his work, you already believe me: if you don’t, log on to Amazon immediately. You will not regret your investment.

How has it influenced me?
I used to say Jack Vance had had more influence on me than any other person I’d never met. Since then, I have met him, so the observation is no longer apposite. But Vance, more than any other author, is the person who made me want to write – and most of all, to “write like that”.
There is a certain cast of fiction: cool, clear-sighted, understated, coupling action and adventure with a distanced style, at once astringent and compelling. It’s not an approach that everyone enjoys, but it’s my own metier. And I found it in Vance first, and I’ve never seen it done better.

Lessons for the aspiring writer
Over-heated events need not be retailed in over-heated prose
Good genre fiction is good fiction, full stop
Humour and drama do mix—usually to the benefit of both
Dialogue does not have to be naturalistic to work
You don’t need to write down to your audience if you’re writing in genre
Action doesn’t have to take place on stage to be powerful
You can write spare, minimalist prose without sacrificing descriptive power

* for David Isaak: a diction-drop

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Why Should I Read...?


John Julius Norwich, 1988-95

Having dwelled at length on historical novels in recent entries, today we look at real history. I’ve cheated a bit here, because Norwich’s survey of the lengthy history of the Byzantine Empire covers three volumes (although a single-volume abridgement is available).

Norwich makes no claim to original scholarship as he takes us from Constantine’s conversion to Christianity to the heartbreaking fall of the city named after him 1,100 years later. He is instead what is sometimes disparagingly referred to as a ‘popular historian’ (surely a better fate than an unpopular one). His skill is synthesising the vast range of primary and secondary sources to make a coherent narrative with a story arc of centuries. The great secondary source is of course Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, with which Norwich has an interesting relationship: he does not subscribe to Gibbon’s thesis that the Byzantine Empire was a steady slide into feebleness and corruption, but he can’t resist quoting Gibbon liberally. Norwich is a beautiful prose stylist, with an eye for the waspish anecdote—and in this he clearly finds Gibbon a kindred spirit.

Norwich has a wonderful knack of bringing a character to life in a couple of paragraphs. Few emperors are on stage for more than a chapter, and even so colourful a character as Basil Bulgaroctonus (the “Bulgar-Slayer”) cannot be allowed to detain us for too long. Event piles upon event, with coups, plots and religious controversies punctuating every reign. Indeed Norwich gives full weight to the religious aspect of Byzantine society: in today’s largely secular Britain it’s fascinating to see the contrast, and Norwich is to be congratulated on bringing such alien material to life. The cantankerous, grasping and opportunist theologians who wrangle their way through so much of the first millennium, pausing to denounce their rivals as “pestiferous pimps” and the like, provide magnificent entertainment.

Norwich excels in marrying the telling detail with wide-screen narrative. The depiction of the fall of Constantinople in 1453 is studded vivid close-ups (the last Emperor disappearing into a press of Ottomans in his purple boots) , but as readers we recognise the loss of all that has gone before: Norwich at once gives us immediacy and context, to powerful effect.

How has it influenced me?

Norwich has been able, in 1,000 or so pages, to give us an entire society, from its birth, through long melancholy decline to its final heroic destruction. He has created an entire world which could leave no fantasy writer unstirred. In his tales of valour, political intrigue and religious extravagance he touches on motifs that I have looked to incorporate in my own fiction. Most of all, Norwich shows that the stories of individual men and women are more powerful when we understand the world which has produced them. As a writer, you don’t need to set out the history of your imagined world, but you need to have at least a sense of it.

I also owe to Norwich (along with Jack Vance) the sense of how much fictional zest can be squeezed out of religion—a marvellous device for showing how different your imagined society is from today’s world, and for enriching your vision. Norwich (unlike Vance) is by no means anti-clerical: his respect and admiration for Byzantine religious art is manifest. But he recognises that the combination of piety and hypocrisy which religion so often juxtaposes makes for a compelling narrative.

Lessons for the aspiring writer

Don’t be afraid to plunder history for fictional material
Your story will have greater resonance if you conceive a story arc wider than the segment you choose to put down on the page
In any fantasy world, it’s implausible that your characters will have either no religious beliefs, or all share the same ones
One of the best ways to give a fantasy world a convincingly different ambience is to invest time in creating a plausible religion
Characters’ beliefs and assumptions are shaped by the society in which they live: if you create a society fundamentally different from our own, it’s almost certainly a mistake to give them only 21st-century attitudes
If you have a satirical bent, religion really is a sitting duck…
We’ve been here before, but a happy ending is not always the best way

Monday, October 01, 2007

Why Should I Read...?

Allan Massie, 1986

Historical novels have featured heavily in our list to date. Augustus¸ however, is the first which employs the deliberately anachronistic ‘modern’ dialogue style. In general I prefer the illusion (for illusion it is) of period dialogue, but here Allan Massie shows how successful the other approach can be when used skilfully.

Massie’s first-person protagonist is Rome’s first Emperor, Augustus, looking back over his life and achievements in the crisp language of 20th century political memoirs (Massie is himself an eminent political commentator). The emphasis is not on the battles which allowed Augustus to gain and maintain power, but on the human relationships, and particularly the political intrigues employed.

Massie is embarking on dangerous territory. Anyone who writes about this period lives in the shadow of Robert Graves, and one reason Massie may have chosen modern language is to distance himself from I, Claudius, which attempts more closely to capture a ‘period’ feel. But the real reason for Massie’s choice is that he’s only incidentally writing about imperial Rome: his theme is the timelessness of political processes, and Augustus is revealed as shrewd modern political operator. He’s chilly, ruthless and manipulative. Augustus reveals a protagonist who is utterly self-serving and unreliable in his memoirs (Tiberius, the next novel in the series, is an even better example of this approach).

Later in the series, Massie portrays Julius Caesar as an antique Margaret Thatcher, even down to giving him Thatcher’s famous line “There is no such thing as society”. Unlike, say, O’Brian, Massie is using historical fiction as a window on current events. It’s easy to botch this (Harry Thompson’s excellent This Thing of Darkness falters only when a 19th century Argentinian dictator deploys Tony Blair’s justification for invading Iraq) but Massie manages it.

If your thesis is that politics is politics across the ages, you should be able to pull off the trick of making your narrative at once relevant to the present while maintaining the feel of the original time. By using the detail of daily life in ancient Rome, Massie gives us the sense of living in imperial Rome. In his modern dialogue, he delivers not just timelessness, but immediacy. Edward Charles, a fellow Macmillan New Writer, and one of the ‘modern’ school, says: to me, the people of Tudor England and Renaissance Venice were, deep down, very like us. I don’t want them to appear stilted and old-fashioned. Massie’s characters are neither, but we can still plausibly imagine them in the Senate and the bath-houses of ancient Rome.

Massie has walked a tightrope. He has a written a novel which simultaneously illuminates the past and the present, risked the wrath of classical scholars with a flagrantly anachronistic style, and made a first-person protagonist interesting. The novel could have failed on any of these technical grounds, so we should congratulate him on taking a gamble which has paid off.

How has it influenced me?

The Roman period is so far divorced from the twenty-first century as to be another world. In some ways fiction set in this period has more in common with fantasy than it does with Napoleonic historical works. I’ve found Massie instructive in the way in which he balances world-building with characterisation. The first person narrative structure requires an oblique method of conveying information about the world, because Augustus is writing for his contemporaries, not Massie’s—so we learn about the Roman world through incidental detail, clothing and customs, rather than direct authorial address. It’s something I’ve tried to do myself, particularly in The Dog of the North.

The reader of Massie will also be aware that, while characters from the past may have fundamentally different beliefs and assumptions about their lives, certain qualities will be constant across time. Much, if not all, of my fiction, treats the will to power and its corrupting effects—and in this I have to doff the cap to Massie.

Lessons for the aspiring writer

First-person narratives are much more interesting if the narrator is unreliable.
Historical novels are not just about the past.
Style and tone of dialogue are among the most fundamental choices the writer has to make (and not just for historical fiction).
When giving information about a world which is not the reader’s own, less is more.
Characters in historical novels don’t realise they are in historical novels…