New Voices: Jody Hadlock, Colin Holmes, Peter Mann, and J. P. O’Connell
WRITTEN BY MYFANWY COOK
Drama, detailed historical fact, and a desire to entertain their readers can all be discovered in the debut historical fiction works of Jody Hadlock, Colin Holmes, Peter Mann, and J. P. O’Connell.
P. O’Connell has worked as an editor and writer for newspapers and magazines including Time Out, the Guardian, the Times, and the Daily Telegraph. His novel Hotel Portofino (Simon & Schuster UK/Blackstone, 2022) is set against the backdrop of Venice’s Lido in the 1920s.
As he relates: “In the early 20th century, there was no more fashionable place for well-heeled Brits to holiday than Italy. For some the attraction was austerely cultural: improving oneself by exposure to paintings, churches, and views, as Eleanor Lavish does in E. M. Forster’s A Room with a View. Others just wanted to have fun. Arriving at the Excelsior Palace hotel on the Venice Lido in August 1926, society photographer Cecil Beaton was thrilled to find a raucous, debauched world straight out of F. Scott Fitzgerald. He particularly loved the way all the women lounged around ‘in the most expensive pyjamas (with designs of dragons and birds of prey hand-painted in brilliant, sickening colours) and no shoes.’”
O’Connell couldn’t help but be captivated by the time and place. “Along the strip of coastline known as the Italian Riviera, fun-seekers and culture vultures collided. Small fishing towns like Portofino and Santa Margherita expanded into resorts where grand hotels like the Imperiale Palace competed with smaller guest houses—what we now call ‘boutique hotels’—to attract the wealthiest, most glamorous visitors, from elderly ladies seeking a ‘change of air’ to athletic young flappers taking advantage of the abundance of local tennis courts; and from artists entranced by the dramatic scenery to gamblers who had won (and lost) fortunes in the nearby casinos at Sanremo and Monte Carlo.
“Some of these hotels would have been run by English expats who knew exactly what their clientele wanted: comfort and familiarity, enlivened by the merest dash of local colour. The fictional Ainsworth family in my novel Hotel Portofino have settled in Italy to escape their demons and realise wife Bella’s long-held ambition to open just such an establishment, never mind her husband’s reservations and the increasingly difficult political situation…”
However, as O’Connell points out, “As everyone knows, closed worlds of wealth and privilege are magnets for drama. And in a hotel, as in a country house, you can go high and low, upstairs and downstairs, out into the grounds and then back inside into the most intimate of spaces – the bathroom and the bedroom.”
In Hotel Portofino O’Connell has, he says, “tried to make the most of this tantalising access and, hopefully, shine a revealing light on the Golden Age of 20th-century travel before the Second World War brought it to a close.”
Jody Hadlock found it more challenging to find a place, people, and a time that she wanted to write about. “I’d always wanted to be a novelist, but I didn’t know what I wanted to write about, what I wanted to say. When my husband and I were dating, we went to his hometown in East Texas to meet his parents, and while we were there, we drove over to Jefferson. We both love history and visited the town’s historical museum, where there was a full-page article on display about Diamond Bessie, published by a Dallas newspaper in the 1930s.”
The result was that the seeds of her novel, The Lives of Diamond Bessie (SparkPress, 2022), were planted because she “was immediately intrigued, partly because of the time period.” She explains, “I’ve always been fascinated by the 19th century—and I thought, ‘Why was this paper interested in a story that happened sixty years earlier in a tiny town three hours away?’ I had another question too, but I don’t want to give away the plot!”
Hadlock embarked on her quest to uncover more. This took her, she relates, “down a years-long path of research and writing. I initially thought I would focus on telling Bessie’s story within the limited world of her occupation of prostitution and her relationship with the antagonist, but important things were going on in the background. One of them was the women’s rights movement.”
When Hadlock learnt how Susan B. Anthony had given “a lecture on ‘Social Purity’ in Chicago in March 1875, during the same time that Bessie was living there,” she continues, “I knew I needed to expand my novel to address society’s view of prostitution. It was incredibly taboo, especially for a woman, to talk about such a topic in public. Prostitution was referred to as the ‘Great Social Evil,’ and women were solely blamed for entering the world’s oldest profession, when it was actually the lack of rights and opportunities that forced the vast majority of women into brothels.”
So Hadlock “fictionalized Bessie’s attendance at Ms. Anthony’s lecture,” she says. “There’s no proof she heard it—but I like to think that Bessie was there, listening to the famous reformer stand up for members of the unfortunate class.”
Colin Holmes, in Thunder Road (CamCat, 2022), chose an environment and period that he felt suited his main protagonist. As he points out, “Every good detective is insightful, curious, and hopefully a little brave. But one thing that shapes their journey in the story is the location. The time period and location add dimension to the book and influence the characters. Even if you’ve never seen the film, it’s hard not to feel the 1920s San Francisco fog as Sam Spade negotiates his way around the Maltese Falcon. The waterfront and the mysterious MacGuffin arriving by sea are strong pulls on a character. Exotic imported goods coming from a far-off port flavor the story and position Spade in the reader’s mind as a man dealing with unusual circumstances in a dangerous location.”
Thunder Road is set in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1947. For Holmes, “the black and white post-war era is a vintage setting for many noir stories, but that year is specific for this story because of the many unique coincidences that occurred that summer. Bugsy Siegel’s murder, the creation of the CIA, and the crash in Roswell create the basis for the plotline, but a good story is how a character reacts to those plot elements.”
The central character of Thunder Road, he says, “is Fort Worth native Jefferson Sharp. And just as Fort Worth has many personas, so does he. The city prides itself as the ‘Place Where the West Begins,’ home to ranchers, horsemen, and a world-class rodeo. But just across town, Cowtown pushes the frontier of aerospace technology and builds leading-edge aircraft.”
Holmes describes Sharp as “a former FWPD beat cop who’d just made detective when WWII remade him as an infantryman. But returning to Texas, he’s reduced to eking out a living as a livestock detective, camped out on the range, protecting a herd of cattle from rustlers. Sharp is a man whose life is guided by the contrasts of his hometown, from the backroom poker tables of Thunder Road to the ranch work, to his search for an Army officer who has vanished from the local airbase. A cowboy private eye trying to uncover post-war Air Force secrets could only happen in Fort Worth, and the contrasts of the city color the story and round out Jeff Sharp.”
Peter Mann’s The Torqued Man (Harper, 2022) started when he was “idly reading through international brigade histories of the Spanish Civil War and came upon the name Frank Ryan. Ryan was an Irish republican and socialist who went to fight fascists in Spain, where he was captured and sentenced to life in Franco’s prison.”
Astonishingly Ryan avoided this fate, because in 1940, Mann continues, “German military intelligence recruited him to help coordinate Irish operations for Hitler’s planned invasion of England. But Operation Sea Lion, as the invasion was called, never panned out and Ryan, after an abortive U-boat trip back to Ireland, was left cooling his heels in the Reich until he died of poor health in 1944.
“The question of how an anti-fascist and restless soul like Frank Ryan not only passed the time but wrestled with his conscience in Hitler’s Berlin was one that struck me as more amenable to the task of the novelist than the historian. This led me to the UK’s National Archives, where I read British military files and interrogation reports on Dr. Kurt Haller, an Abwehr agent who was Ryan’s spy handler in Berlin. Immediately, I became interested in the story—both the very limited one narrated in the documents as well as everything left unsaid and open to the imagination—of the relationship between the German spy handler and his Irish charge.”
He took that idea and incorporated his longstanding interest in Thomas Mann, who “inspired me in the throes of graduate school to ruin hundreds of innocent pages of blank paper,” he says. “Add my grim fascination with Nazi doctors, whom I first read about in Robert Jay Lifton’s aptly titled horror show The Nazi Doctors, which led me to read further about the T4 medical killing program, then more recently about Hitler’s personal physician Morell in Norman Ohler’s Blitzed. Sprinkle in my vicarious trips through the Weimar underworld, my stints in Arthur Koestler’s many prison cells, and the testaments of quiet outrage in the Nazi-era writings of Victor Klemperer, Hans Fallada, and Friedrich Reck. Finally, top it all off with a love of the comic Irish novel à la O’Brien, Beckett, and Joyce, the boisterous prose of Brendan Behan, and the charming, twisted world of the Irish epic The Táin, and voilà!”
Mann concludes, “The rest, as they say, is history, or rather fiction.” A sentiment which Hadlock, Holmes, and O’Connell might also apply to their forays into dramatizing historical fact and transforming it into fiction.
About the contributor: Myfanwy Cook is an Associate University Fellow and ‘a creative enabler’. She is a prize-winning short story writer who facilitates creative writing workshops. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org if you have been captivated by the writing of a debut novelist you’d like to see featured.
Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 100 (May 2022)