Burke and the Pimpernel Affair is officially published today. It’s only on Kindle at the moment – the paperback edition has been delayed by (yes, you guessed it) covid. It should be along very soon though. Anyway, nice as it is to see people reading physical copies of the books, most of my sales are on Kindle which costs just £3.99. You can always buy it now and get it again once it’s in paperback!
But what do you get for your money? Well, after the very dark story of Burke in Ireland, I thought it was time to have something that was more frothy and fun. As a child I had enjoyed Baroness Orczy’s Scarlet Pimpernel stories and the idea of a story of a daring British agent freeing French prisoners from Paris gaols appealed.
All the Burke stories have a solid historical background, so my first question was: could this have happened? And the answer is that not only could it have happened but Paris in the early 19th century was apparently full of agents springing people from French prisons with embarrassing ease. Burke’s loyal henchman, William Brown, has his own view on why this comes about:
He put it down to the revolutionary temperament: after all, if you spent your whole time talking about Liberté it stood to reason, he thought, that you weren’t going to put your heart into building prisons.
The French and the British were constantly sending spies into each other’s countries, either to gather information or to subvert the enemy with propaganda. (We’ve seen some of this in Burke in Ireland.) The British even had a chain of safe houses for smuggling agents to and from Paris – a chain that came to feature prominently in Burke and the Pimpernel Affair.
So my idea turned out to be not only just about possible but quite plausible. And the more I looked into it, the more real history kept intruding into the plot. So my homage to Orczy turned out to have a lot more historical accuracy than I’d ever expected. (Actually, the most improbable bit of Orczy’s tales – Robespierre’s destruction, indirectly caused by the Pimpernel’s plots – is surprisingly accurate.)
I did wonder if I was pushing my luck in having Burke infiltrate Napoleon’s court and introducing him to the Empress Josephine, but, after I’d written it, I discovered that the real James Burke did indeed spend time at the French court. I’m glad I didn’t know this when I started because it was before 1809, when this story is set, and I might well have ended up changing much of the plot. It’s an interesting example, though, of how once you get into the skin of your characters you can end up inventing things that really happened.
So there you are: a spy romp that turns out not to be the souffle of nonsense that I’d been secretly hoping for. It does remain relatively light-hearted, though. The body count is in low single figures – practically bloodless by Burke standards – and there are the usual comic asides. It introduces quite a few real people who are fascinating characters in their own right: the odious Fouché as chief villain; Morel de Vindé, an aristocratic survivor of the revolution who could pretty well justify his own book; and, of course, the Empress Josephine, who was, in reality, much more than a silly woman who got lucky with Napoleon.
It’s a blast! Buy it (or read it free on Kindle Unlimited).
Burke and the Pimpernel Affair was finished at the end of last summer, but I was re-publishing the John Williamson Papers and I wanted these to have a clear run without trying to promote a new Burke book at the same time. After that we were coming into the pre-Christmas rush with hundreds of books being promoted and it seemed a silly time to be launching a new title. So here we are in January and it’s been 10 months since the last Burke book (Burke in Ireland) and I can’t wait any longer. Burke and the Pimpernel Affair is being published next Friday (14th). And here’s the cover:
We’ve tried to keep the theme of the other Burke covers, but this one is particularly striking. It reflects the thrills and spills of Burke’s most outrageous adventure to date as he infiltrates the French capital in a spy story that shows that he really is a Napoleonic-era James Bond.
Next Friday (when my blog post would usually come out) will be Christmas Eve. What do you mean, you knew that already? It snuck up on me so fast I can hardly believe it. That’s the trouble with retailers starting the run-up to Christmas in October – I just blank it because It’s obviously not going to happen for ages and then I suddenly realise that it’s here.
Anyway, I think you will have better things to do next week than read my blog – at least I hope so (unless Boris Johnson has another cruel trick up his sleeve and we’re all stuck at home desperately looking something to occupy ourselves). So today’s blog is just to wish you all the very best of Christmases. I think we all deserve that after last year.
My Christmas picture is from the Astors’ private chapel at Cliveden, one of the places we were able to go to as the country finally started to open up again. We’d never been there before but the grounds are amazing and I do recommend a visit.
Anyway, that’s it from my blog for 2021. I’ve published something every week (sometimes twice a week) right through the year and now I’m taking my annual break. Stay safe, stay well, and I’ll see you next year (when there will be another James Burke book to entertain you).
Have a wonderful Christmas (or midwinter Festival of your choice).
We somehow made it into December without my mentioning the dreadful C-word. Do I get a prize?
Anyway, we can’t put it off any longer so here is my annual reminder that books make ideal Christmas presents.
Amazon has now introduced the option to send Kindle books as a gift in the UK. Look for the button on the right of the page for the book you are ordering.
That’s a convenient (and cheap!) way to buy gifts right up to Christmas Eve. I can see the Internet crashing on 24 December.
In the end, though, there is nothing quite like a paper book as a gift. For many people, including me, the convenience of e-books means that that’s where we do most of our reading these days, but paper is special. Paper books can be lent to friends or passed on when they’re finished with. They do, indeed, furnish a room.
Old textbooks remind us of our student years, an autographed volume of a special meeting.
There is something personal about gifting a paper book. A paper book says that you want to share something you have enjoyed, or that you have thought about the interests and enthusiasms of your friend and sought out a book that matches them. The transfer of digital data from computer to computer does not, for some reason, carry the emotional resonance of the gift of a physical book. Paperback books make excellent Christmas presents and paperback books from less well known authors suggest you’ve given your gift more thought than just a quick check on the Best Sellers shelf.
All my novels are available in paperback as well as in e-book format, though Amazon can sometimes hide them away. If the paperback edition doesn’t show up, try adding “paperback” to your search. If all else fails, let me know about the problem (try mentioning it in the ‘Comments’ here) and I will track down the link.
There’s been a short burst of frenetic activity while I got the three John Williamson books republished over the summer. That didn’t involve much in the way of writing but there has been a lot of time spent trying to drum up interest in them. In fact, my latest effort came out today and if you are interested in my take on the importance of historical fiction in re-examining the Empire Project, can I point you to this article in Historia: https://www.historiamag.com/re-examining-history-of-empire/?
I’m delaying publication of the next in the James Burke series, Burke and the Pimpernel Affair, until January when everything might have calmed down a little. Until then, can I recommend The White Rajah as the ideal Christmas gift? It’s weighty enough to suggest that you are taking your literature seriously while still containing a fair quota of desperate battles and heroic deeds. And an orang-utan. It’s also the only one of my books to be available in hardback, so it will certainly look impressive when they open it.
If you want details of all my books (five about James Burke, three in the Williamson Papers and two contemporary urban fantasies) you can find them on this website: click on My books.
So there you are: your Christmas gift problems solved and still three weeks to go. Buy a book for yourself and give others to your friends. And keep a couple spare, for those last-minute gifts. And remember, a book is for life, not just for Christmas.
Another historical novelist was asking recently what historical novelists could do to market their genre. I’m not sure it’s entirely the right question. Is there really a genre of historical novels?
I keep reading that historical novels are madly popular right now. This seems to mean that there is a lot of enthusiasm for Hilary Mantel and Phillipa Gregory, partly because of success at the Bookers and on TV respectively. But an enthusiasm for what I (showing my age) still call mediaeval and Tudor fiction is not necessarily going to help me. I did hear on Radio Four that there is a fashion right now for what they called neo-Victorian books, which would help me if anybody had heard of this fashion outside the more aesthetic reaches of the BBC. But that’s not necessarily going to sell the books that friends of mine have written set in revolutionary Russia or on the old paddle steamers of the Mississippi.
My point is that because you like the Falco stories set in ancient Rome doesn’t mean that you’ll like Bernard Cornwell’s Napoleonic Sharpe tales. And you might think that a story based in the Korean War isn’t historical at all – although, according to many definitions, it quite definitely is. In fact, a recent survey suggests that readers’ favourite period is the 13th to 16th centuries (presumably the Mantel/Gregory effect) with the least favourite time periods being prehistory and the 2nd to 5th centuries. So I think we have to get away from the idea that there is one genre of “historical fiction” that people are buying into.
Apart from the whole question of period, there’s the issue of subgenres. With historical fiction, the subgenres are not a trivial or artificial distinction. There is a massive market for what is called in the trade “Regency Romance”. It is unlikely that a reader of Regency Romance is going to rush to buy my own The White Rajah, although it is set only a few decades after the Regency period. Some of Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe books actually take place during the Regency, but I think that Romance readers will not want to read his military fiction. Military fiction is, of course, another subgenre of historical fiction. Cornwell is a particularly strong presence here, but so are the naval adventures of CS Forester and Patrick O’Brian. But is it sensible to assume that same people that enjoy Forester’s Hornblower stories are going to read the Empire series about the Roman legions?
The problem is that genre fiction sells. It is much easier to market a book that can be presented as a “thriller”, “crime story”, “romcom”, or whatever than simply as a novel. In fact the books that are left over after genre fiction has been taken out tend to be lumped together as “literary novels”, which get far more critical attention but, usually, much lower sales. Unsurprisingly, people like me, who write books that are not set in the present day, would rather have ourselves described as authors of “historical fiction” than as of (in my case) authors writing novels dealing with issues of colonialism and exclusion but with some quite exciting bits in. But I suspect that for every Regency Romance reader who looks my book before recoiling in horror, there is another potential reader who never gets that far because they “don’t read historical novels”.
What’s the solution? I have no idea. If you have, please respond in the comments below and you will have my undying gratitude.
Back Home is available on Kindle from tomorrow, 27 November. It Is the last of the three books in which John Williamson tells of his adventures since he left his home in Devon. Now, after his time in Borneo and the horrors of the Indian Mutiny, he has returned to England.
Back Home is different from my other historical books because it isn’t based around a particular historical event. It’s set mainly in London in 1859, a year which is easily overlooked. But the mid-19th century was an exciting time in London. Before 1860, London had more in common with the world of the 18th century than it does with the London of today, but this was a time of rapid change, with modern London beginning to emerge. Back Home tries to capture some of the spirit of the London of that time – a city in transition. It was a time of uncertainty and rapid social change and, as is common in such circumstances, a time of social and political unrest. Karl Marx and his Communists were meeting in Great Windmill Street and the Chartists were seen as a threat to public order. London in 1859 was a lot more like London today than you might think, so this isn’t just a fact-based peek into the past, but it might also make you think a bit about the present. After all, we all believe in Victorian values these days – or do we?
In The White Rajah and Cawnpore, I wrote about colonialism. My view is that the modern notion that colonialism was an unalloyed evil is simplistic, to put it mildly. But the relationship between those with all the power and those with none is always going to end up damaging both. Back in London, Williamson thinks that he has left the violence of the struggles between the powerful and the powerless back in Asia. He learns that the same divisions exist in his own country and that they can lead to bloody battles even in the heart of the capital.
Back Home is an adventure story with criminals and plots and fights and, yes, John Williamson again tries to find love, but there is politics in it too. It’s probably the only story you’ll read that includes detailed instructions for forging sovereigns and a discussion of Marx’s Critique of Political Economy. (Don’t worry: it’s a very short discussion.)
If you’ve read the previous books about John Williamson, I hope you will find this a fitting end to his adventures. If you haven’t, I hope you’ll enjoy a story that stands alone, even if you don’t know the character and his past. (Perhaps you will even decide to read one of the other stories – I recommend Cawnpore.) Over three books I grew close to Williamson and I wanted to see him off in style. I think Back Home did that. I only wish more people read it to share my farewell to a man who is constantly wracked with self-doubt but who always tries to do the right thing.
Buy it on Amazon
Back Home, is available on Kindle at £3.99/$5.35 and in paperback at £7.99/$10.70. You can buy it from THIS LINK.