Alec Marsh

The author of the Drabble & Harris Thrillers chats about his series and his writing.
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What prompted you to write about Drabble & Harris, and the Inter-War period?

The idea for my first novel, Rule Britannia, was inspired by two things – first I remember reading about Oliver Cromwell’s head, and how it had been in private hands for hundreds of years.

Then I was inspired by a counter-factual idea of what if the Abdication Crisis has turned out differently and Edward VIII had called the bluff of his prime minister, Baldwin, and let him resign? What if the fascist-sympathising Edward had stayed on as King-Emperor as we approached the Second World War? Could Britain have gone fascist?

Into this mix strolled Ernest Drabble, a Cambridge historian and Alpinist. He’s an everyman of sorts – albeit in the Richard Hannay or Indiana Jones mould – but as a historian, he is someone who would legitimately be employed in checking out this head of Oliver Cromwell and would have some insight into it.

Once Drabble was there, he needed a friend – a foil – someone to share his adventures, and create his own, so Harris barged his way into the proceedings from the first chapter of the first book and I knew he was never going to go away after that.

And why the inter-war period? Well, I’ve spent most of my life reading fiction written in that time – whether it’s Waugh, Powell, Greene, Buchan, Wodehouse or Hemmingway – and watching films either about it or shot during them, so it’s probably no surprise that a story idea emerged from that period.

When I grew up in the 1980s, the thirties were just around the corner. Then you’ve also got great cars and planes, rotary dial phones with mouthpieces, ubiquitous smoke and ink – it’s pinnacle analogue in a way, which is so refreshing from now. And then there’s incredible geopolitical tension with war coming down the tracks at you at a thousand miles per hour. There’s a lot to play with here.

Are you more Drabble than Harris?

Alas not. I’d love to be, but aside for a passion for history, Drabble and I have little in common. He’s brave, principled, decisive and he’s flirted with Communism. As a recovering Fleet Street gossip columnist myself, I fear I’m far closer to Harris who is very much a man of his times and works as a journalist at the fictitious London Evening Express. He also, on occasion, an absolute bounder.

 What is your approach to researching your novels? Has the process changed over the years?

My first love is history, so the ideas for the stories come from history. The cornerstone of my first Drabble and Harris book came from reading Hurrah for the Blackshirts!, a history of inter-war fascism, by Martin Pugh, who happened to have taught me at university. His thesis – that fascism got closer to power in in the late 1930s Britain than we think – was the spark for plot. Into that I wove a mystery around the head of Oliver Cromwell, which is something that’s also fascinated me. Once I had Cromwell’s head in my hands I had to run with it.

 Did you always plan to write a series?

Absolutely. After I’d written the first couple of chapters of Rule Britannia I realised I was on to something and by the time I’d finished it I knew I wanted to write a second adventure – one set in British India. I knew I wanted to spend more time with Drabble and Harris and hoped the readers would too.

The first, Rule Britannia, involves the head of Oliver Cromwell. Many theories have been put forward over the years, but do we get any closer to the mystery in RB?

Now that would be telling. As most people will know – and as Drabble explains in Rule Britannia – Oliver Cromwell and his head parted company in 1661 when he was posthumously hung, drawn and quartered after the Restoration, and it ended up in private hands, becoming a freak show exhibit and ultimately being owned by Canon Wilkinson who donated it to Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge. Rule Britannia provides an alternate reality, I suppose, for explaining how this happened.

 Historical fiction is a great introduction to history. Can you recommend any historians to our readers to learn more about your period?

Martin Pugh has also written an excellent introduction to social history of the era – We Danced All Night: A Social History of Britain Between the Wars (2008), which I’ve turned to. I still look at Roy Jenkin’s Churchill.

I tore through Iron & Blood: The Rise and Fall of the German Empire 1871-1918 by Katja Hoyer in the summer holiday – providing essential context for my next book. Not Far From Brideshead: Oxford Between the Wars by Daisy Dunn is next on my reading list. Off topic, Andrew Roberts’s Napoleon The Great is breath-taking: worth every sentence.

And, two more, I just finished Ronald Hutton’s incredible Oliver Cromwell biography – I can’t wait for the next volume – and I can’t praise Alexander Larman’s The Windsors At War enough.

What three pieces of advice would you give to a budding historical novelist, looking to write and publish their first book?

Keeping writing. Just keep at it. That’s what Martin Amis once said to me when I asked him for advice and he was right. Particularly for historical fiction, I would say accuracy is vital – unless you’re writing something counter-factual ­– but even then you need to be faithful to the truth as known or supposed. Third, beware time travellers – modern men and women populating your distant shore.

If you could choose to meet any historical figure from your period, who would it be and why?

T.E. Lawrence, although he died a year before the first Drabble and Harris book. I think it’s hard not to say Winston Churchill, because a very large part of our national story would fall into place. He’d also be an altogether more agreeable lunch guest that Adolf Hitler.

Similarly, if you could witness one event from history, what would it be and why?

Either the execution of Charles I at Whitehall on 30 January 1649 or the crowning of Charlemagne in Rome on Christmas day 800. Can’t get a cigarette paper between them.

Which other historical novelists do you admire?

Robert Harris, C J Sansom, Antonia Hodgson, W C Ryan, Andrew Taylor, Vaseem Khan, Abir Mukherjee. In hotel terms they’re all six stars. Then there’s Hilary Mantel…

When first sketching out an idea for a novel, which comes first – the protagonist, plot or history?

It depends. My second book, Enemy of the Raj, is set in British India in 1937 because, firstly, I knew that Harris would want to shoot a tiger – he would. And second, I went to an amazing exhibition at the V&A about maharajas and realised there and then that I wanted to create a story with one in. I then found him – Sir Ganga Singh, the Maharaja of Bikaner from 1898 to 1943, and his life, and knew I would like to work him into a book.

Do you have a daily routine as a writer? Also, how important is it to know other writers and have a support network?

No. I’ll write whenever I can – be it on the Tube or train or at home or when walking the dog, when I find myself stopping and typing out sentences on my phone. The dog is very patient.

Can you tell us about the project you are working on at the moment?

I have just finished my fourth Drabble and Harris adventure, which is set in Istanbul and Turkey in 1938. I’m now researching the fifth, which is going to be set against the backdrop of the Munich Crisis. I can’t wait.

Alec Marsh is a journalist and writer and the author of Rule Britannia, the first of the Drabble & Harris Thrillers.