Fiction Book of the Month: Ben Kane on Napoleon’s Spy

Ben met with our editor recently to discuss his latest book, historical fiction obsessives and duelling.
Home » Author interviews » Fiction Book of the Month: Ben Kane on Napoleon’s Spy

Ben Kane we’re here to talk about your new book, Napoleon’s Spy, and the Napoleonic era, and actually it’s very timely because there’s the Ridley Scott movie. Firstly, Scott has said that people who complain about his film being historically inaccurate ‘need to get a life.’ But what he’s also said that’s caused a few rumblings amongst historians; he said to historians who don’t like the film for its inaccuracies, ‘Were they there? Then how do they know?’ The final comment was that the first two history books written on Napoleon are the right ones. And the remainder are making things up (I’m paraphrasing).

Right. I get what he’s saying about people need to get a life because I don’t know if you’re aware of the phrase rivet counters? So for any of your readers who don’t know, rivet counters are the World War II enthusiasts who know how many rivets there were in the Spitfire in January, February, March etc. of every month of World War II. And if you write a novel and you’ve got the wrong number of rivets in your Spitfire wing, they will email you in a very angry way. And they exist to do with every period of history. Let’s be frank, the number of rivets in the wing of a Spitfire is completely irrelevant unless you’re writing an engineering textbook and then stops it from flying properly. So facts shouldn’t get in the way of a good story.

I try very hard. I believe it’s very important to try and get the history as correctly as we can, while being acutely aware that we can’t always get it right. We can only do the best to the best of our ability using the texts and the archaeology that’s available to us. With something like Napoleon, because literacy was very widespread by the 18th century, there are an extraordinary number of texts that survive from the time. With first-hand accounts of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia books, and that’s a staggering amount of information.

To try and answer all Ridley Scott’s points, ‘how do you know, were you there?’ I don’t know what he’s talking about, but if he’s put stuff in his film that’s plausible and isn’t mentioned [in the historical record], I don’t have any problem with that. I do that all the time. I won’t say Napoleon was somewhere where he wasn’t. If we know he’s in place X on a particular date, I’m not going to say he was in a different place. If he did something in place X that isn’t mentioned, but also doesn’t interfere with the facts of what we know, then that doesn’t matter. So I wouldn’t have a problem with that.

If he has people doing wildly anachronistic or totally out of time frame reference modern things, then I do disagree with that. I don’t quite understand why filmmakers take such liberties with history, because the truth is actually frequently as interesting or more interesting. I do accept a story has to sweep you along and make you forget where you are. But in my mind, I can do that in my books and still maintain accuracy. But I’m not going to get into a social media fight with Ridley Scott.

The film itself is hugely entertaining and historically speaking a bit of a car crash.

I think if you’re a historian whose life is writing about Napoleon, I should imagine you are going to probably take it a little bit harder than someone like me, who have read a number of books on the period. But I also understand that, you know, this is this is Ridley Scott making a blockbuster and he’s very good at that.

Gladiator is a really big reason why I started to write about the Romans. I loved Asterix. I loved ancient history when I was a child. And in the early 2000s, I was getting increasingly browned off with being a veterinary surgeon. I decided I’d write a bestselling novel. I can laugh now, but I did literally think to myself, that’s what I do.

I went and saw Gladiator and then Roman historical fiction started becoming quite popular with Colin Iggulden and Simon Scarrow

So I’m willing to cut Ridley quite a lot of slack because that film had a direct impact on me setting my feet down the path I’ve been on for the last years. So good films don’t always have to be accurate. It’s true I’d prefer it if they did. But I’m not going to cut my nose off and just spank my face and not go and see it.

If Scott makes a film that attracts a lot of people to the cinema and then it opens up a world of Napoleonica. They can start reading Napoleon’s Spy or Napoleon’s Fatal March on Moscow. It’ll attract people to the whole period, just like Gladiator did with ancient Rome.

That’s the eternal hope. You wish it was done accurately. You have other things like Rome Total War [Ed: A strategy based computer game set in ancient Rome] which is very popular and is actually quite accurate. But it also has Roman war dogs. I’ve got emails about the Roman war dogs and there’s no evidence for that whatsoever. But millions of people around the world think it’s true. So for every person that comes to look up Napoleon, there are maybe ten people that think, I don’t know, some big inaccuracy, don’t tell me, but they’ll go home thinking that that’s true. Does it really matter? I don’t think so.

There is an Author’s Note right at the beginning of Napoleon’s Spy where you’re pre-empting the rivet counters. I read that and thought, ‘Ben must get so many emails from people from complaining,’ so you’ve been thinking, ‘right, I’m going to preempt these buggers.’

To be fair, the number of complaints that I get about inaccuracies has really dropped. So I took quite a few liberties in my first few books and I’ve become more exacting. But you’ll always get one or two. And you know, what’s funny is that often they’re wrong and I’m right. So there was one email I got a few years ago about wagons in the streets of Rome in the daytime and I got this very self-righteous email telling me that Augustus had banned wagons. And I replied, ‘yes, that’s correct. And my novel set years before that decree.’

Did you get a reply?


Steven Saylor [Ed: See Issue 7] had a man comparing the colour of his wife’s nipples to cherries. Three or four years after the book came out, he got an email from Germany saying, ‘Did he not know that cherries weren’t first described in Rome until a few years after the novel was set?’

Just to explain to readers who may not be aware, the fact that cherries were only described in Roman sources from some years later is just coincidence that the author described them [at that point]. It doesn’t mean they write, ‘Oh, there are these things called cherries that have just come in.’

The next book Steven Saylor wrote, there’s a short story at the back which is free. There are three or four characters and nothing happens. There’s no murder. They’re not talking about a body and how to find out who the killer is. They’re just sitting around drinking wine. The next thing one of the people who’s in the friendship group comes running in, holding this bunch of fruit saying, ‘Look! these are cherries. They’ve just come in from Asia Minor!’

And that’s the end of the story. I think that was hilarious. [Regarding the Author’s Note], would you have thought it was odd if I had what the number of duels? The main character has four duels during the book with the same man. And I thought to myself, and you’ve just confirmed a lot of people might think that’s, well, that’s ridiculous. We know about duelling, but who’s going to fight four duels? And funnily enough, we were talking about Ridley Scott at the beginning. Ridley Scott’s first film is called The Duellists with Harvey Keitel and Keith Carradine. It’s got fairly awful synthesizer music, but the film itself is brilliant. It is based on a Joseph Conrad short story, which itself is based on the real life pair of Napoleonic officers and they had close to 30 duels with each other over a 20 year period.

Duels…were usually involving alcohol, often involved a perceived slur or insult to do with a woman, but could be as ridiculous as the two British officers whose dogs got into a fight in Hyde Park and they then fought a duel, or the two men who argued over the interpretation of the translation of a Greek word and then had a duel.

When the alcohol fumes had gone and sobriety had returned, it’s quite common for duels to be recorded as the seconds got together, the men who were deputized to act on behalf of each participant would get together and agree it didn’t have to happen. Or the two men would fire into the ground or fire in the air. Once you fired your pistol then honour had been served and you could walk away without looking like you’d climbed down.

But often they did shoot each other and wound each other and kill each other. So I just wanted to pre-empt the one star Amazon reviews by putting a really short author’s note at the beginning.

Napoleon’s Spy is set during the march into Russia, but was it Napoleon that attracted you to the era?

It wasn’t, no. In my other life, I work as a bike guide sometimes and cycling huge distances like Barcelona to Rome over the Alps, which is Hannibal and so on. And I give the historical talks and I was doing the Napoleonic period four years ago, and I read Adam Zamoyski’s book [1812: Napoleon’s Fatal March to Moscow] and it reads like a superbly written thriller, but it’s all fact.

I had a meeting with my editor a few weeks later and I just showed her the book and I said, ‘I want to write this.’

It was just the extraordinary grandiosity of the campaign, this crazy idea that he was going to take 500,000 men and conquer Russia, even when he’d been told by his master of horse, de Caulaincourt, who’d been the emissary at St. Petersburg for several years, [the Tsar] will go to Siberia before he surrenders and he didn’t listen.

It was the whole Napoleonic Empire. So Italians and Poles and Swiss and Dutch and Croatians and Germans. There was even a regiment of Spaniards and there were some Portuguese. These poor Spanish guys used to nice warm weather and it goes to minus 40.

What’s your view on Napoleon?

I would immediately bracket my opinion with my area of research was very narrow.  I would love to have the time to go and write a whole series on the Napoleonic Wars, but Bernard Cornwell has already done that. My knowledge of him is from what I’ve read about this campaign. What came across to me to do with Russia is this massive ego, but he his ego was immense. To ignore the advice of de Caulaincourt, who was literally Tsar Alexander’s words. Yet despite his ego and being unwilling to back down when they were on the western bank of the River Neman, which is where they crossed into Russian territory and then at various points in the advance and at the Battle of Borodino and then getting to Moscow and staying there, even though de Caulaincourt was telling him the weather was going to change. It’s evident that he just wouldn’t listen. He was an extraordinary leader. His men adored him. He could he could stop his carriage and get out and walk up to a group of soldiers and pick out one man and say, ‘I remember you at such and such a battle and you won that award, didn’t you?’

Ben Kane is a bestselling novelist and the author of Napoleon’s Spy.