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Last Rites - Background to the Book

Last Rites is a Corvinus book - the sixth in the series - and came about because I wanted to try a Closed Room whodunnit: the victim is a Vestal who dies during the nocturnal rites of the Good Goddess (‘Bona Dea’), held annually in Rome at the house of the senior consul under tight security and with only women present. I also wanted to play a little with readers who did know their Roman history and would be aware from the start of the scandal involving Julius Caesar’s wife and the profanation of the rites in 62BC by Clodius, so although the plot is cut from whole cloth there is that real historical link; plus another important one which again I won’t give you in case you haven’t read the book and I spoil the ending. That one I quite liked.

The clock. At the beginning of the book Corvinus and Perilla take delivery of an all-singing, all-dancing state-of-the-art Greek water clock which owes its existence to our acquiring at the time of writing of a ‘proper’ computer. Me, I’m computer-literate (just, by necessity), but I’ve no patience with the buggers and it’s quite mutual: if they’re going to go wrong then they’ll go wrong with me out of spite, and as soon as I hand things over to my wife and leave the room everything is sweetness and light again. I suspect that to your average Roman smart Greek gizmos like the clepsydra had exactly the same effect.

That prompts a general point. When you know your character (and I know Corvinus) you can tell what his opinion will be on any subject, even when that subject would be outwith the ‘real’ (ie historical) character’s experience. This isn’t as simple (I don’t believe) as writer-identification: I know that Corvinus wouldn’t, like me, feel confident in front of a computer, but I also know that he would be a non-smoker, and I smoke a pipe, when I’m writing especially. This knowledge isn’t the product of a rational process: I could tell you that Corvinus would or wouldn’t like a particular thing, or use certain words or phrases, but it would be a gut reaction on my part; I couldn’t give you a logical reason for it. Probably most writers would say the same, and not only writers: I was jolted, recently, when watching a DVD special feature of an interview with David Suchet, who played Poirot in the excellent BBC series, to hear him use practically the same expressions about his relationship with the Poirot character as I would re Corvinus, or indeed (looking back at previous, non-Corvinus books) re Virgil or Petronius. It was all completely - and eerily - familiar.

More on the subject of computers in the background bit that goes with the next book, White Murder.

David Wishart (May 2006)

read the 1st chapter

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