Nick Rennison on his Sherlock Holmes influenced debut, Carver’s Quest, and the pleasures of reviewing historical fiction for the Sunday Times
RL: Carver and Quint transported me to clubland London and the world of authors like Conan Doyle, EW Hornung, Jules Verne, John Buchan and Rider Haggard. Have you read much by these authors? Which have been the greatest influences on your story-telling?
NR: The writers you mention were all ones I read when I was a boy. I haven’t read Hornung since then but Haggard and Buchan and (particularly) Conan Doyle have remained favourites through the years. I published a spoof biography of Sherlock Holmes a few years ago, treating him as if he were a real individual, caught up in real events in Victorian and Edwardian history. In a way, that book was the trigger for writing Carver’s Quest. When I was writing the Sherlock biography I was trying to mix together information culled from Conan Doyle’s stories and real history. Where there were gaps, I felt free just to make things up and I found I enjoyed doing that. So the logical next step was to write a book set in the Victorian era in which I made everything up. I began to cast around for a central character and came up with Adam Carver. Then I needed a story line and I devised the idea of a quest for an ancient Greek manuscript which might hold the key to the whereabouts of a treasure.
RL: Is Carver’s Quest more mystery or more adventure?
NR: I intended it to be more a light-hearted, tongue-in-cheek adventure story than a murder mystery. There are murders in it and there is a revelation in the final chapters about the identity of the murderer. But I don’t expect readers necessarily to reel back in utter astonishment when they find out who killed whom. I wanted there to be more going on in the story than just the working out of a puzzle, the solution to which is the identity of the villain.
RL: The publicity blurb suggests Flashman, but I don’t see Carver as a cad. How do you see him? And Quint – where does he spring from?
NR: It was somebody else who made the comparison to Flashman, not me. I love George Macdonald Fraser’s Flashman books and have done so since I read the first of them as a teenager. One of my treasured possessions is a letter that Fraser wrote to me after he had bought a copy of a guide to London’s Blue Plaques which I published years ago. But Fraser’s Flashman is a uniquely brilliant creation. I would be happy if Carver and Quint were one tenth as memorable as characters. And, as you say, Adam Carver is not a cad like Flashy. He’s a young man who’s thrown into adventure by chance and his own curiosity and then persists in trying to find answers to the questions asked of him. As for Quint, I suppose he’s my take on the grumpy, stroppy servant who has been a regular character in fiction of all kinds for centuries. He was originally intended as a relatively minor character but, in the course of the writing, he came more and more to prominence. He became an ideal foil to Carver and a guide to the areas of London that are as mysterious and remote to his master as a foreign country. In the end the book has been billed as the first adventure of Carver and Quint. The chalk-and-cheese partnership of two very different characters is common enough in crime fiction but I’d like to think Carver and Quint work well within that tradition.
RL: There is an archaeological plot – and rather a humorous take on classical scholarship. How seriously do you want readers to take these tales?
NR: Not very seriously. I wanted the historical detail to be as accurate as I could make it and I wanted to create a convincing sense of period. I wanted the dialogue to sound as if it could conceivably be period dialogue. But mainly I wanted the story to be fun and (occasionally) funny. I’ve always been interested in archaeology and the ancient world so it seemed a good idea to make use of that interest in the novel. But I’m not an archaeologist. And I’m not a classicist – unless a 1970s A-level in Latin counts as a qualification for that title.
RL: And lots of exotic travel. Did you get to visit the locations? Were the locations spurs to the plotting?
NR: The second half of the book takes place in Athens and (later) northern Greece. I’ve travelled quite a bit in Greece over the years. One of the places I’ve been is Meteora, the complex of Greek Orthodox monasteries in Thessaly. These are truly extraordinary buildings – perched on the tops of pinnacles of rock rising from the plain and very difficult of access, even today. When I returned from seeing them, I began to read about them. I came across quite a few accounts by nineteenth-century British gentlemen travellers of visiting the monasteries and of the hair-raising methods used to reach them. Visitors either had to scale ladders placed against vertiginous rock faces or they were hauled up in nets and baskets by the monks. One of the people who visited was Edward Lear, the landscape painter and later writer of nonsense verse, although he didn’t trust himself to be taken to the top. He stayed sensibly on terra firma while he sketched them. After reading these accounts, I thought what a good idea it would be to have my characters visit Meteora and I wrote a chapter in which they arrived at one of the monasteries and Carver is pulled up the cliff face in a net. Unfortunately I broke off in mid-chapter and went to write other bits of the book so poor old Carver was left hanging halfway up a precipitous rock, being shot at by bandits, for about six months until I went back to it and got him the rest of the way up the cliff.
RL: Where is Carver going next?
NR: I’m more than halfway through the second novel now. It begins like the first in London but parts of it are set in the north of England where, for complicated plot reasons, he and Quint join a ramshackle theatre company in York. And the story eventually takes him to Bismarck’s Berlin, in 1871, the year after Wilhelm I has been declared emperor of a united Germany. There’s a young actress who goes missing, stolen state secrets, a sinister Count with a duelling scar, a shoot-out on an island in the River Havel – that kind of thing.
NR: I chose the books to reflect the history of the genre (from Sir Walter Scott to CJ Sansom) and to show just what a wide range of novels could be classified as ‘historical fiction’. I began thinking that 100 novels would be just about enough. In the end, I wished the series in which the book appeared had been called ‘1000 Must Reads’ because there were so many good writers and interesting novels I wasn’t able to include. The book was only published in 2009 so there aren’t that many new books that seem like glaring omissions now. It does seem a bit perverse that I chose A Place of Greater Safety as the book by Hilary Mantel to include and only mentioned Wolf Hall as a suitable read-on. I think, if there were to be a new edition, I’d reverse that. And there are novelists I’ve now read and admired whom I hadn’t read then – Imogen Robertson, William Ryan, Louis Bayard – that I would want to find space for.
RL: You review historical fiction for The Sunday Times and the BBC History Magazine. What kinds of novels make for good copy in each, and how do they differ editorially in what they ask of you?
NR: The great pleasure in reviewing historical fiction is that I get to read so many different kinds of novels. Both the Sunday Times and BBC History give me a relatively free hand to choose what books I want to include in my reviews. I try to get a good spread of historical periods and styles – no point in having a round-up that consists exclusively of medieval murder mysteries or novels about the romantic lives of the Tudors. (Although it would be entirely possible to find enough books to fill such round-ups.) Because the Sunday Times review is a round-up, I feel I can include books I didn’t much like as well books that I did. The job is to give some kind of selective survey of the novels published in a given period. With the BBC History page, I’m choosing one book per month so it would seem slightly odd to pick a novel I didn’t enjoy. Again, my main concern is to choose books that reflect the variety of different styles and periods covered by the broad term ‘historical fiction’.