AoH Interviews Peter Tonkin

Peter Tonkin

The prolific author has written a new series set in the Elizabethan period.
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Peter Tonkin, you clearly have a passion for the Elizabethan era, when did this interest start?

I have always been fascinated by history. One of my earlier memories (aged 6?) is sitting in my bedroom in Holland (as my father was posted to Germany at the time and we were waiting for a married quarter to become available in RAF Bruggen) wishing fervently that Carola Oman’s Robin Hood, Prince of Outlaws would never, ever end. At prep school at Portora Royal in Enniskillen (age 8 – 11), I was seduced by classical history and tales of ancient Romans and Greeks. The study of Latin certainly helped this. So, my English teachers at Palmer’s School, Grays, (11 – 19) had fertile ground on which to plant a burgeoning love of Shakespeare’s plays and although we started with Merchant of Venice and 12th Night, it was Julius Caesar that really grabbed me – and this is where my ‘Caesar’s Spies’ series started albeit several decades later. I soon discovered that study of Shakespeare in any depth required study of the Elizabethan era and it was love at first sight. This was further cemented by my ‘A’ Level History course which comprised 3 strands: The Age of Discovery, Europe since Napoleon and (best of all) Tudor and Stuart Britain. Then, although I was accepted into the Queen’s University, Belfast, (19 – 24) to study Geography, I was able to transfer into the English department and eventually into the Honours school, where the study of English began with Anglo-Saxon poetry and ran through medieval literature to the most modern works available, but inevitably lingered over Tudor and Stuart plays and poems. My minor thesis – later extended into my Master’s – dealt with the influence of traditional English drama on Shakespeare (as opposed to the Classical influences more critically popular at the time) – specifically the impact of the Everyman cycles on the construction of Macbeth. So I have loved History all my life and Elizabethan history and literature since I was 11, if not earlier.

Why did you choose Robert Poley as your main witness for the events leading up to the Essex Rebellion?

Like many people, I assume, I first came across Robert Poley in Charles Nicholl’s seminal reconstruction of Christopher Marlowe’s murder, The Reckoning. I had become aware of Marlow’s clandestine activities much earlier during my ‘A’ Level studies – in Garrett Mattingly’s wonderful The Defeat of the Spanish Armada. That’s almost certainly where I learned about how Marlowe was awarded his degree despite his suspiciously regular and lengthy absences from Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, at any rate. Soon after reading The Reckoning, I tracked down copies (online) of Marlowe’s post-mortem both in Latin and English and found myself ‘hooked’ by the perplexing presence of three men who would appear to have been rivals if not outright enemies, all working for different masters with markedly divergent agendas, who nevertheless gathered together in Mistress Bull’s house in Deptford on the fatal day. Although it was Ingram Frizer who delivered the deadly blow, the bland explanation that it was the result of a drunken brawl persuaded me a good deal less than it apparently persuaded Sir William Danby, Queen’s Crowner (Coroner to the Royal Household). Danby was despatched to oversee the post mortem process because Marlowe’s death had fallen within the verge (within 12 miles of the Queen’s person); an unusual occurrence, when one considers how many deaths occurred within 12 miles of her whether she was at Whitehall, Richmond or (as in this case) Greenwich; almost none of which caused Danby to be despatched. Perhaps suggesting that there were powerful people involved in Marlowe’s case who wanted the matter closed with assurance with no fuss. And of the three men directly involved, Poley was by far the most powerful and interesting. It had been Poley, indeed, whose undercover involvement with the Babington Plot brought down Mary, Queen of Scots. He featured in my Thomas Musgrave stories of murder mysteries (The Master of Defence 6-book series) but I always felt he was too ‘large’ a character to play second fiddle to Tom. Would he not, I speculated, be the perfect man to do just the same to the troublesome Earl of Essex as he did to Thomas Babington? And so the ‘Intelligencer’ series was born, though Poley will soon become Intelligencer to the new King rather than to the old Queen, of course.

From the streets of London to the gory executions, your writing is filled with colourful detail. How do you go about researching your novels?

My research is really almost constant. (As witnessed, indeed by the fact that I have just added to my ‘Poley’ File John Guy’s article about (re-)discovered correspondence between Mary and Elizabeth, as detailed in the Telegraph on 28/09/21 – while booking in to the Nero exhibition at the British Museum in the hope that it will rival the earlier Achilles exhibition). Under most circumstances I have a clear idea of the focus of the next book or series (as in this case). At the moment I am juggling three main areas as illustrated above – Homeric Greece, Rome in the late Republic/early Empire and Elizabethan and Stuart England. The latter of course is my principal interest currently, but I have been collecting information on all three areas for well over a decade – and on Elizabethan England for almost all of my adult life. I keep an open mind as to any new information I come across with regard to all these areas. My wife and I regularly travel to museums and exhibitions in London and a range of other destinations, as well as to Egypt, Southern France and Rome, which keeps the Roman books simmering; we have lately returned from Portugal – but have Greece on the visit-list as well (for the Trojan series). I am fortunate to have amassed over the years a wide collection of friends and associates to whom I can turn for specialist knowledge – on the mechanics of hanging, for instance, of drawing and quartering; of beheading (so useful in Shadow of the Axe). The so-called Essex Rebellion has been a principal focus for some time as I had planned a murder mystery to take place within it – so I had no trouble adapting my copious research to fit in with the current, slightly different, project. By the same token, Sir Walter Raleigh plays a part in Shadow of the Axe and my research into that leads me to taking a close look at his participation in the Main and Bye plots. Furthermore, I have, immediately over the rapier that hangs above my work-desk, a map which illustrates the route north through England taken by the Gunpowder Plot conspirators as they fled from one Catholic safe-house to another until the final, explosive, conclusion. These will be the subjects of the next two books if all goes as planned.

What are the difficulties or obstacles that you are faced with when writing novels that reimagine history?

The main difficulty I find is in ensuring ‘suspension of disbelief’ in my readers while maintaining historical accuracy. Like any novelist, I have to walk a fine line between what the readers will accept and what they will not. I write action stories as much as historical ones. I attempt to ‘show’ rather than to ‘tell’. I characterise my characters through what they look like, act like and speak like. Through the settings they move through and the relationships they form – keeping everything as lean and fast-moving as possible. Many of the characters in Shadow of the Axe are sufficiently important to have had portraits painted of them as well as detailed contemporary accounts written by or about them, an enormous help. My studies of Shakespeare help with the manufacture of authentic (but not too authentic) dialogue. My maps of Elizabethan London help with accurate settings. Sources – from contemporary documents to Wikipedia – enliven such aspects as manners, pastimes, fashions, food and drink. The narrative arcs of such books as Shadow of the Axe (not to mention The Ides and the other Roman novels) are dictated by the historical record; the Trojan series by Homer and those writers who have followed in his footsteps. But all of this goes to nothing if my readers simply do not believe in the worlds I have created – or find them too detailed or obscure to bother with.

Are there any historical periods you haven’t written about so far that you would like to?

The simple answer is ‘yes’ – but I fear I have missed the boat on all too many of them. One of my favourite ever TV programmes was Michael Wood’s In Search of Eric Bloodaxe.(Made 1980; available on You Tube) The thought of someone effectively getting drummed out of the Vikings because he was giving them a bad name is something I find almost irresistible – but does the world really need another Viking series? Similarly, I grew up as an avid reader of Walter Scott and The Talisman was my favourite – but the Crusades are already jam-packed with brilliant modern storytellers. Room for one more? Probably not. I loved to read my mother’s collection of Georgette Heyer Regency romances – the all-too easily underestimated Hugo Darracott in The Unknown Ajax is a character I have used over again in many settings – but put him back in his own original setting immediately post-Waterloo? After Bridgerton? I think not! And I have for years bored friends and family with the story of a man who wakes up without memory, clothing or any identifying features on the bank of the river beneath the Reichenbach Falls in the late 1893, who uses the art of deduction (or rather, induction or perhaps abduction) to work out that he is Professor James Moriarty the most evil man alive – or so he believes himself to be until he hears rumours of a mysterious Count who resides in the Carpathian mountains and kills people by drinking their blood. But, alas, Holmes, Moriarty and Dracula have fought tooth (and nail?) through all too many pages already.

You have published over 50 novels, can you share any wisdom or advice for aspiring writers?

The story goes that when someone asked Kingsley Amis how to tell whether they were a real writer, he simply observed that a real writer writes. I think, ultimately that’s all there is to it. Of course the problems begin to accumulate when people start to worry about what sort of writer they want to be – especially if they want to be successful – by which they often mean ‘famous’ or ‘rich’; or even ‘able to support a family’. Writers who get the fame they deserve during their lifetimes are relatively few – Shakespeare was noted more for his poetry than his plays while he lived and may not have gained the fame he did had a couple of friends not collected the bulk of his plays together and published them seven years after his death. JK Rowlings and Lee Childs are the exceptions rather than the rule. There really are not that many full-time professional novelists in Britain who earn a decent living from writing novels alone. I supported my family by being a teacher while I wrote the first 30 of my published works (the Mariner adventure/thrillers). Even now it is my pensions rather than my writing that pay the bills. ‘Riches’ from writing too can be illusory – most publishers’ payments come in the form of advances, sums which must be repaid out of the author’s 10% before any further royalties are disbursed. It is only the elusive film or TV series contract that really starts to fill the bank account. It has to be said, however, that the Internet has revolutionised the publishing process. While my own sons – prolific writers – prefer to attempt the traditional route of agent – publisher, many of my old students such as the brilliant Dean Crawford have built successful careers with at least an element of online self-publishing. So my advice is that any writer must write in the first place for the love of it; and, while I do not discount persistence, effort or talent, most of the rest is simple fortune – good or bad.

Can you tell is about your next project?

Shadow of the Axe is the first of a planned series – at the moment a series of three. The next (working title Shadow of the Tower) will tell how Poley, still working for Robert Cecil, is tasked with bringing down the next man on Cecil’s ‘hit list’ – Sir Walter Raleigh; and how he uses what will be referred to as the ‘Main’ and ‘Bye’ plots to do this. Finally (for the moment) the third as planned (Shadow of Treason) tells of Poley’s involvement as agent provocateur amongst other things in the Gunpowder plot and its aftermath – which allows Cecil to break the power of some of the most influential Catholic families in the kingdom and finally secure his own unrivalled position as King James’ most powerful minister of state.

Peter Tonkin is the author of The Trojan Murders and Shadow of the Axepublished by Sharpe Books.

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