Best known for the acclaimed John Shakespeare series of historical thrillers, Rory Clements won the CWA Ellis Peters Historical Award with Revenger and hit the bestseller lists with Holy Spy. His new book, Corpus, is the first in a major new series and is already garnering great reviews. You can win a copy here. Katherine Clements (no relation!) caught up with Rory to find out more.
Your new book takes you away from the Elizabethan era to 1936 and the eve of the Second World War. That’s quite a jump! Can you tell us why you decided to have a change of scene?
I love writing the John Shakespeare books – but I had been doing it for seven hard years and I thought a break was in order. Funnily enough, my John Shakespeare holiday came just as I broke through into the Sunday Times Top Ten with Holy Spy – so I’ll definitely be back sooner rather than later.
What was the seed of inspiration for the book?
Conversations with my editor Kate Parkin and my agent Teresa Chris – and a real love of the pre-war period when a new kind of politics was shaking the world. Uh-oh, we seem to have one of those now…
Your main protagonist is Thomas Wilde, a ‘maverick history professor who finds himself dragged into a world of espionage’. Was he inspired by any real life figure?
He was inspired by two people – Conyers Read (the American historian who wrote the definitive biography of Sir Francis Walsingham and was involved in setting up the Office of Strategic Services, the wartime forerunner of the CIA) and James Jesus Angleton (also American but a survivor of an English public school and later chief of CIA counter-intelligence. He was a friend of Kim Philby and, like everyone else, was betrayed by him). But Tom Wilde is neither of these two men, nor an amalgam of them. He is very much his own man.
You’ve picked a very rich period with lots of political change happening across Europe, most of which is well documented. There must have been a lot of research – a pleasure or a chore?
A huge amount of research – and all of it an immense pleasure. Unlike the Tudors, of course, we have actual film of the great statesmen and dictators. YouTube is a wonderful resource, though if GCHQ is watching they might be alarmed by my interest in Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini and their ghastly henchmen.
Did you make any unexpected discoveries that influenced the plot?
I knew about the Spanish gold that Stalin pilfered, but I had not known that seven and a half tons of the stuff went missing and is still unaccounted for. Now that is a gift for a thriller writer.
As an ex-journalist do you prefer to stick to the historical ‘facts’ and do facts ever get in the way of a good story?
I am a bit of a stickler for accuracy, which can be something of a straitjacket. But in the end, this is fiction, so you must be allowed to take a few liberties.
Apart from reading, do you do any other types of research, for example visiting locations or attending reenactment events, and did you do so for Corpus?
I don’t take part in re-enactments. Somehow I can’t imagine dressing up as an SS officer and strutting about in shiny boots. But I certainly love visiting the scenes of my crimes. I live near Norwich, but Cambridge is only an hour away and it seems like a second home to me now.
You must be quite comfortable writing about the Elizabethan world by now. What were the main challenges of writing about a different period?
There were challenges, of course, but there were also advantages. The challenges were largely involved in the the small technical matters: when did the police 999 number come in? How often did the BBC broadcast the news? What was the legal status of heroin? The advantages were the ease of communication. Whereas it might have taken John Shakespeare a couple of days to get from London to Stratford-upon-Avon (stopping off with his mistress Jane Davenant in Oxford on the way), Tom Wilde could be there in three hours on his motorbike if he wished. Or he could just use the phone.
In the novel, Thomas is writing a biography of Sir Robert Cecil, successor to Sir Francis Walsingham as Elizabeth I’s spymaster – a clear link to your John Shakespeare books. You’ve published seven in that series so far. Is this a hint there might there be more to come?!
Are there other historical periods or stories you’d love to explore?
There are, but I’m not saying what.
Do you read historical fiction yourself? If so, which authors are your favourites? If not, what kind of books do you read for pleasure?
I’ve always read historical fiction. It all started with Katherine by Anya Seton, then I, Claudius and Claudius The God by Robert Graves (I visited his home in Majorca last year – well worth a visit; we were the only tourists there), then I fell in love with Georgette Heyer’s heroines and I fancied myself as a Regency Buck. Not many teenage boys read Heyer, but I thought her books were terrific fun. Recently I have been reading 20th century historical fiction and thrillers. The only Tudor fiction I have read is Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, which are both in my Top Five best books ever.
Corpus is the first in a new series. Can you tell us anything about what to expect next or what you’re working on now?
The second one is well under way. It is set in June 1939 – the phoney peace before the phoney war. That’s all I can tell you for now.
Corpus is out on 26th January 2017.