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Parthian Shot - Background to the Book

Parthian Shot is the ninth Corvinus book. The starting point was a real historical event, mentioned by Tacitus for AD35: the arrival in Rome of an unofficial delegation from Parthia, the huge empire which stretched from Rome’s eastern borders all the way to India. It was no more than a starting point, because Tacitus says very little about the embassy and my story is a complete invention; however, he goes on in his Annals for the following year to provide details of an abortive attempt to replace the Parthian king with a Roman-backed substitute, so I used the main characters from that to take a sort of back-sighting which gave me the plot of the book.

I really, really enjoyed writing Parthian Shot because it let me go overboard with plotting (a little too far overboard for my editor Sue Fletcher, who had me take the one twist too many out) and be as Machiavellian as I liked; and, for me in writing the Corvinus books, the puzzle - solving it or making it up - has always been the important thing, far more important than trying to squeeze in huge lumps of unnecessary background detail. I reckoned this was fair enough, given the subject: Parthians, in the eyes of the Romans, anyway, were devious buggers who wore three faces and would steal your back teeth while shaking your hand and still leave you smiling, and I wanted the complexity of the plot to reflect this. As does the title: if you didn’t know (and I apologise for deiving you if you did) a ‘Parthian shot’ was originally a military manoeuvre by the Parthian mounted cavalry, who would pretend to retreat in disorder at the gallop then turn simultaneously in the saddle to fire a lethal volley at their now scattered pursuers. To the Romans, this was just Not Playing the Game.

The Parthians were also - which is relevant to the story - alien: alien almost to a Steven Spielberg degree. That was another strand I wanted to introduce, because I wanted Corvinus (who’s a conservative at heart, however much he may protest otherwise) to be very much a fish out of water. As an example of the huge gulf between Roman and Parthian society - and I use this in the book - the Romans habitually burned their dead while the Parthians left the corpses for the birds to eat: fire, to a Zoroastrian, was and is too sacred to pollute with a dead body, and earth is only slightly less so. Given that ‘Go to the crows!’ was a curse both in Greek and Latin, while to refuse proper burial and leave a person’s body above ground to be eaten by animals or birds was the ultimate sanction and punishment, you can see what effect Parthian burial customs had on the Romans, and vice versa. They weren’t by any means the only point at issue, either.

The last sub-structure to the story was the diplomatic-cum-MI6 one. I’d’ve loved to have done a John Le Carré on that but I’m not nearly good enough, so I didn’t try: George Smiley would’ve made a great Isidorus. I don’t know for certain if the Romans had the equivalent of a full-scale secret service as such (although Isidorus certainly existed, and gathering and processing information clandestinely got must’ve been a large part of his job) but - especially where the Parthians were concerned - I’d be very surprised if they didn’t. In any case, the Roman diplomatic side fitted with everything else.

I quite liked the ending, too.

David Wishart (May 2006)

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