On a summer night in 1812, a boy sets fire to a house in Paris before escaping over the rooftops. Carrying vital intelligence about Napoleon’s Russian campaign, he heads for England. But landing in Kent, he is beaten almost to death. The Foreign Secretary, Lord Castlereagh, is desperate for the boy’s information. He is even more desperate, however, to track down the boy’s assailant – a sadistic French agent who knows far too much about Castlereagh’s intelligence network. Captain George Shuster is a veteran of the Peninsula, an aide-de-camp to Wellington, now recalled from the continent and struggling to adjust to civilian life. Thomas Jesuadon is a dissolute, living on the fringes of society, but with an unrivalled knowledge of the seamy underside of the capital. Setting out to trace the boy’s attacker, they journey from the slums of London to the Scottish coast, following a trail of havoc, betrayal, official incompetence and murder. It takes an unlikely encounter with a frightened young woman to give them the breakthrough that will turn the hunter into the hunted. Meanwhile, the boy travels the breadth of Europe in the wake of the Grande Armee, witnessing at first hand the ruination they leave behind and the awful price of Napoleon’s ambition. This companion to M.M. Bennetts’s brilliant debut, May 1812, is a gripping account of deception, daring and determination, of intelligence and guile pitted against brutality. Bennetts brings to vivid life the harrowing devastation wrought on the civilian populations of Europe by Napoleon’s men, and the grit, courage and tenacity of those who stood against them.
This is the exciting premise of M.M. Bennetts’ new historical fiction novel, Of Honest Fame. We had a chance to interview M.M. to find out more about the book. Enjoy!
Q: Thank you for this interview, M.M. Can you tell everyone what your latest book, Of Honest Fame, is all about?
M.M.: I like to think it’s a spy thriller with a difference. It opens with an unknown man, an assassin, attempting to kill a young British agent, a boy, which turns out then to be part of a pattern. This sets the British agents searching for the assassin, as well as for the leak who’s betrayed them. So it’s a story of the hunted becoming the hunters amidst the chaos of Napoleonic wars—a world of mirrors within mirrors, of mysteries, of loss, of war and spying against a backdrop of pre-Victorian London, Paris, and Napoleon’s disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812.
The title, Of Honest Fame is taken from a line of poetry by Lord Byron, written in 1816 or thereabouts, so it seemed particularly appropriate, given that the British were fighting one of the bloodiest military dictators of all time, Napoleon: “The drying up a single tear has more/Of honest fame than shedding seas of gore.”
Q: Is this your first book?
M.M.: No, my first book, May 1812, is centered on the assassination of Prime Minister Perceval and was published in November 2009.
Q: What compels you to write historical fiction? Have you ever thought about writing other genres?
M.M.: Probably I write historical fiction, first and foremost, because I’m a historian, and that’s what I know. But even as a child, historical fiction was my favorite genre, because I’ve always loved the way good historical fiction can take you beyond the dry sense of history as names and dates and facts and just put you right in the room, so that it’s all immediate and tangible—their triumphs are yours, their losses too are your griefs. Historical fiction is the greatest means I know for creating a sense of being a part of the continuum of mankind.
I’ve actually been asked to write about my experiences with horses, which I’m told are quite inspirational—but I’ve never had the time. Or at least, not yet.
Q: Can you tell us more about your main characters and what part they play in making the book come together?
M.M.: I wanted to play with the Dickensian sense of multiple storylines all woven into one, so there are three main characters, with their own individual stories, but also working as part of the whole. There’s Thos Jesuadon, a dissolute and a gambler who runs his own network of watchers and spies in London, Captain George Shuster who is on secondment to the Foreign Office from the Peninsula, and Boy Tirrell, who spends much of his time out gathering information, anywhere from Paris to Berlin to Vienna.
There’s also Jesuadon’s muscle in the form of an ex-farrier called Barnet, the Foreign Secretary, Lord Castlereagh, and a Scotsman called Dunphail who doesn’t want anything to do with any of them, but unfortunately was witness to a rather important event.
Jesuadon has almost entirely worked in Britain, so he has a certain expertise there; Shuster has seen a lot of action both as part of Wellington’s army, but also in France as a spy, so he brings expertise, but also a great deal of baggage in the form of post-war trauma; and the boy, who also has suffered great loss, is Castlereagh’s eyes and ears on the Continent—he acts as a window for the reader, so they can see what the people of 1812 knew.
Taken together they epitomise the fact that in this period there were no rules, no proper intelligence agencies, nothing. They were on their own.
Q: Interesting that you are also a book critic for The Christian Science Monitor! How long have you written for them and how did you get this position?
M.M.: I was first taken on ‘on spec’ as a free-lance book reviewer by Tom D’Evelyn in the late Eighties—mainly, I imagine, because I read very fast, but also I was willing to write to whatever length he specified. If he said 350 words, I gave him 350 words and that a day early. And that made me very popular with him. Because those were the days of hot type, and a review filed early and to exact word count was very important—gold dust, in its way. And since then, I’ve reviewed on and off for the paper and I must say have read some marvelous books because of it.
Q: In your opinion, what is the key ingredient for writing great historical fiction?
M.M.: Well, I am the most pedantic of perfectionists and so the detail work is hugely important to me. But the key ingredient has to be understanding—understanding how the people of an age were different from us, not to pass judgment, and also how they were the same, and to convey what they knew and experienced, what their challenges were and how they faced them, and always to make it personal.
Q: Finally, I like to ask authors this question. What is your passion? What is it that you’re more passionate about than anything else?
M.M.: I can only have one? That seems harsh. Horses-poetry-music. There. They all run into one another: the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins sings in my head while I watch the hawks flying over the Downs, hanging on the currents, and I ride out as the music of Beethoven or Einaudi or both pulses through my bloodstream. They’re inseparable.
Q: Thanks for the interview, M.M. Do you have any final words?
M.M.: Only that I hope that in Of Honest Fame I’ve written not just a book to read the once but one which becomes a friend and a favorite, one with literary merit and beautiful writing, but also a ripping good yarn.
Thank you for having me.
You can visit the author’s website at www.mmbennetts.com.