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“In a City of Magic . . .” by Thomas K. Carpenter

Thomas K. Carpenter writes in diverse genres including historical mystery. His short fiction appears in a variety of magazines including AHMM and EQMM, and he writes the Dashkova Memoirs series, the Digital Sea trilogy, and the GAMERS trilogy. Here he talks about his story “The Worth of Felines,” from the current May/June issue of AHMM.

Ancient Alexandria, the setting for the story “The Worth of Felines,” is a city of magic.

Not the kind of magic we might recognize from the latest Marvel movie, or the type that people believe can be summoned from spells and tomes, but the kind that today we call: technology. Alexandria was a strange intersection of knowledge and superstition. This dichotomy was never more present than in the temples of the city, which used technological wonders to provide “miracles” for their followers, so that they might prove their special relationship to the gods and separate their followers from their hard earned coinage.

One of the greatest purveyors of these miracles was Heron of Alexandria, the real life inventor from the story. He accomplished many technological feats during that time, including creating what could be called an early precursor to the steam engine, in service to these temples.

But Heron is not the central focus of the story. That honor goes to Magistrate Ovid, who unlike Heron, was not a real historical figure, though he owes his fictional existence to the inventor.

The original launching point for these stories was the Alexandrian Saga, a seven book series I published earlier in this decade about Heron and how his inventions might have changed the world under different circumstances. The first book, Fires of Alexandria, deals with the mystery of the burning of the Library of Alexandria, and the development of a primitive steam engine, which threatened the slave trade and made enemies for the inventor. Magistrate Ovid has only a bit part in this book, hardly more than an extra in the grand scheme of things.

The books follow how this spark might have changed ancient history forever, bringing about massive technological change, nearly two thousand years before the industrial revolution. But when I finished the seventh and final book (you can find them at all major retailers), I felt like I wasn’t done with Heron, or the city of ancient Alexandria. So I decided to write some smaller mysteries involving the inventor.

In the early stories, Heron is a Sherlockian figure, solving what appear to be intractable problems—in stunning fashion, no less. The magistrate merely provides a Watson to Heron’s Sherlock to hide the solving of the mystery until the last possible moment. They were fun, little mysteries, but ultimately derivative, failing to illustrate the full scope of the character, Heron of Alexandria, from the novels, or allowing Ovid a shred of humanity.

All that changed when I wrote The Curse of the Gorgon. Feeling limited by the structure I’d placed on myself, I decided to try something different, and allowed Magistrate Ovid to become the focus of this story. In Curse, Ovid must solve what appears to be a supernatural crime—the murder of an awful family by the mythical gorgon. While Heron makes a cameo, the story ultimately rests on Ovid’s shoulders and considerable girth.

Thus, the real Magistrate Ovid is born.

But his development wasn’t finished. I wrote a story for a workshop with Kris Rusch a number of years ago. That story was “The Trouble with Virgins.”

In it, Magistrate Ovid is confronted with an impossible situation involving a wealthy Alexandrian and his son, one that mirrors his own struggles with his father. This story was purchased by Janet Hutchings at EQMM in the Department of First Stories.

With a more flesh and blood Ovid, the stories came alive. In the latest AHMM, Magistrate Ovid must save his friend Heron from a Machiavellian rival in the story “The Worth of Felines,” and in a future issue of EQMM, Ovid explores the political implications of the Great Lighthouse in “The Lightness of Man.”

I’m not finished with Magistrate Ovid by any stretch. One of the fun parts about writing these stories, besides getting to explore the characters in more depth, is visiting ancient Alexandria and all her splendor. The story that I’m currently working on involves the Great Library herself. I’d tell you more but I don’t know what happens yet either!

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All Things About “Althing” by Stephen P. Kelner, Jr.

Massachusetts-based writer Stephen P. Kelner, Jr. is a management consultant and the author of Motivate Your Writing! (UPNE). His fiction appears in the Level Best anthology Undertow, featuring stories by New England crime writers. Here he talks about the history behind his story “Death at the Althing” from the November issue.

Vikings get a bad rap. The horned-helmet berserkers of cartoons bear little resemblance to the human beings of Nordic settlements between the 700s and 1066. The early descriptions of them as horrific attackers—“from the fury of the Northmen, God deliver us”—came from people who were not only victims, but, unusually for the time, literate. Imagine Twitter if only one party could type!

Most “Vikings” farmed, of course. History marks the Scandinavian people of this time out because they rapidly expanded into and colonized many areas—most of the modern UK and Ireland, Russia, France (Normandy is Old Norse for “North-Man-Town”—in other words, a Norse settlement), Greenland, and Iceland. Their explorations went even further: Norsemen composed the Varangian Guard of the Emperor in Constantinople. And, yes, many fought to achieve this dominance, but they also traded and settled to leave their profound impact on Europe.

Inspired by my Scandinavian blood, in college I discovered the richness of the Norse Sagas. They have been considered history, myth, and, since the discovery of the Newfoundland “Vinland” colonies, partway back to history again. They can give you a feeling for their culture, and make you confront assumptions in yours. Followers of the Old Norse religion believed they had a predestined fate, a “wyrd,” not unlike Calvinist beliefs of a later time, but reached very different conclusions on how to live your life. While some Calvinists were strict and dour, hoping that they would make it into heaven despite their sins, the Norse believed in living life to the utmost, because if your wyrd was written anyway, you might as well live large—a philosophy more “YOLO” than Puritan!

Iceland is home to some of the most famous sagas. Founded in the 900s mostly by Norwegians fleeing the unification efforts of King Olaf, Icelanders formed a surprisingly democratic state, where all landowners spoke their minds at the Althing—the “Everybody-meeting,” their “Congress,” and still the name of the Icelandic legislature. Admittedly, some of these debates and lawsuits devolved into combat; but they usually managed to work things out.

Like the sagas, myths and history blend in Iceland. To this day, you can see the rock where Grettir the Strong hid; discuss the misshapen skull of Egil the Seer; hear an Icelander describe an elf neighbor; or go to the site of the original Althing and the Law Rock where the Lawspeaker would recite one third of the laws each meeting.

For an amateur historian such as myself, it was tough tackling the academic literature. As a PhD in a different field, I understand that papers assume a common grounding possessed by any graduate student, but not me. At first, I read non-academic books and popular works to give me a basic view of the working society, roleplayers—guides for Icelandic garb, or even children’s books, if well researched. Why the latter? Because while an academic article might delve into the chemical formation of fabrics or distances a brooch may have traveled, an illustrated children’s book shows you what a person looks like wearing them, standing in their town.

I also visited places and things myself: a scaled-down replica of Leif Erikson’s ship came to Boston once for the millennium of his voyage, and I could discuss the realities of sailing with the crew. The Jorvik Viking Centre in York, UK—the heart of much Viking activity back in the day—is a wonderful resource to show you both how people lived and how modern archeology is done. (Hint: not like Indiana Jones.) I haven’t been able to go to Iceland myself, but Icelandair has a nonstop from Boston and specials, so someday . . .

As I dug into Old Norse and Icelandic culture, I found other startling differences. Most people have heard of “weregild,” money paid as partial compensation for an illegal death, e.g., murder. But did you know the weregild for a young woman equaled that of a adult male warrior? And the weregild for a woman who had given birth was more! This culture valued women, believing they had wisdom not accessible to men—sexist, yes, but at least both sides had special value. Again and again in the sagas, women initiated the events—whether negative or positive. (Sometimes as real-life warriors, too: Look up the formidable Freydis Eiriksdotter. But avoid for the negative stories propagated by early Christian missionaries making her “unwomanly” instead of courageous.)

The challenge of historical fiction is balancing today’s modern audience against yesterday’s realities to make it accurate yet understandable, sometimes despite assumptions that may shock today. Worse, we only know a fingernail fragment about these people, much written by the victims of Vikings, not by the Norse people themselves, and what we do have was not exactly annotated. For example, Viking-era storytellers loved using kennings—poetic metaphors for objects, many completely incomprehensible today. Things taken for granted then baffle us today—and no doubt vice versa, could we raise a few Viking shades to ask. Of course, this also makes it fun for writers and audiences: debunking a myth or two, illuminating what life might have been like, or drawing a conclusion obvious to an 10th century Icelander that pleasantly surprises the modern reader.

In this particular story, the characters obviously follow the classic “Holmes and Watson” pattern, with a Norse twist. Leipt-Egil and Thorbjorn not only represent Holmes’ brains and Watson’s heart, respectively, but also elements from Norse myth: the smart, tricky problem-solver (Loki) and the less-bright but strong, trustworthy one (Thor). At the same time, my characters are human beings, not mythic archetypes, each with their strengths and weaknesses. Thorbjorn is smarter than Egil, when it comes to people; Egil has strong feelings, but poorly expressed. They have histories and families, some of which may appear in later stories! And if you see them, trust me, they won’t have horns on their helmets.

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