Steven Saylor, Peter James; and further recollections of Crimefest 2011

September 3, 2011 at 12:32 pm (Anglophilia, Book review, books, Mystery fiction, To Britain and back 2011)

In a recent post about lunch with some book-loving friends, I mentioned having recently read a new Gordianus the Finder story that appears in the July/August issue of Fantasy and Science Fiction.   I first heard about this story at Crimefest in May, specifically at a panel discussion entitled “An Affair To Remember: A Walk Through History.” During the question and answer period, I asked Steven Saylor when we might expect the next Gordianus the Finder novel to appear. I got a most unexpected response: Gordianus would be appearing next in a series of short stories. His creator would be taking him back to his youth, age eighteen to be exact. Along with Antipater, his (older and wiser) traveling companion, Gordianus will visit the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, as well as certain other venues.

These stories are slated to appear in various publications throughout the coming year. They’ll ultimately be collected and published in a single volume in the summer of 2012.

The story that I read, entitled “The Witch of Corinth,” possesses the sprightly dialogue, fast moving action, and vivid recreation of the ancient world that we Steven Saylor fans have come to cherish. In 146 BC, the Roman army laid siege to the Greek state of Corinth. They ended by destroying the place utterly, slaying all the men and selling the women and children into slavery. Fifty-six years later, in the course of their travels,Gordianus and Antipater find themselves on the Isthmus of Corinth, at the heart of the what remained of that once great and wealthy city.

Click to enlarge

As Antipater dozes in the midday heat, Gordianus wanders off among the ruins:

Heat and thirst made me light-headed. The piles of rubble all looked a like. I became disoriented and confused. I began to see phantom movements from the corners of my eyes, and the least sound–the scrambling of a lizard or the call of a bird–startled me. I thought of the mother who had killed her daughter and then herself, and all the countless others who had suffered and died. I felt the ghosts of Corinth watching me, and whispered words to placate the dead, asking forgiveness for my trespass.


In addition to the Crimefest panel on historical fiction, Steven Saylor also took part in a panel discussion called “Born To Be Bad: The Nature of Evil.” Appearing with him on that occasion were Peter James, Yrsa Sigurdardottir, Andrew Taylor, and Steve Mosby. I was full of admiration for their willingness to tackle a Big Subject in a serious way.  Of course, the panelists knew that they were limited in the number of profound insights they’d be able to offer up in the fifty minutes allotted them.

Here’s a tantalizingly brief snippet of video from this session. The subject was evil tyrants. Andrew Taylor speaks first; then Seven Saylor. (Peter James is seated to the left of Andrew Taylor.):

My notes from this session are scattershot; nevertheless, I’m going to transcribe them here as best I can, with clarification and attribution where possible:

Peter James spoke of his experience in visiting Broadmoor, a high security psychiatric hospital. About half the patients are schizophrenics, he told us; the other half are sociopathic.

One panelist referred to a Japanese book whose title was along the lines of: How To Test Your Sword on a Chance Wayfarer. (Further investigation suggests that this phrase is actually the translation of a Japanese verb. See “A Test Case for Moral Relativism,” an entry on a blog called The Constructive Curmudgeon – a name I wish I had thought of.)

Steven Saylor warned against glamorizing the great and powerful people of the past. To that end, he proffered a piece of advice ascribed to the writer L. Sprague de Camp: ‘Great leaders should be viewed through stout bars!’

Andrew Taylor spoke of the notorious Fred West, whose career as a child molester and serial murderer began in the early 1970s. (He had told us about this person when our group lunched with him at Speech House.) Being something of a student of true crime, both here and in the Britain, I was amazed not to have heard before this of this truly appalling man. Taylor assured us that Gloucester and the surrounding countryside were paralyzed by fear during the rampage of West and his equally coldblooded wife Rosemary. This placid region is the last place where you’d expect such horrors to occur.

As often happens in cases like this, the recitation of terrible events was punctuated at intervals by outbreaks of black humor.At one point, Icelandic crime writer Yrsa Sigurdardottir commented that Iceland has only one recorded instance of a serial killer: his victims numbered two!

After that, my notes from this session contain only random snippets, unattributed:

Serial killers are characterized as lacking in empathy and being on a power trip.

The crime fiction genre is possessed of a remarkable elasticity. (I like the use of that word in this context.) It ranges from stories of violent crime to “cozies.” In crime fiction, evil exists to be punished, and the situati0n surrounding it somehow resolved. Is this wishful thinking? Mention was made of the cathartic aspect of crime fiction.

The perception of the nature of evil is wide ranging and changes over time. In addition, evil is culturally dependent. Children ask why, as do adults: Why are people evil? Crime fiction often deals with these issues (as does true crime, I might add).

The murder clear-up rate in the UK is 93 per cent. For rape, that percentage is two. Being raped change one’s life for the worse and forever. It is like being in a car crash from which you never fully recover.

These two phrases stand by themselves in my notes: “The routinizing of evil,” and “The socializing of evil.” With regard to the routinizing of evil, the Stanford Prison Experiment was mentioned. This was carried out  in 1971; I had not heard of it previously. Wikipedia has an entry on the subject, and the study has its own website.

My final entry for this session is this: “The capacity for hate is tied into the capacity for evil.”

The rest is silence…

Well, these are very deep waters, as you can see. I for one am ready to clamber out of them! Still, I wish I could rewind the session and play it through once more. And the same holds true for “An Affair To Remember: A Walk Through History.”


At this juncture I’d like to say something about about Peter James, who was one of the Featured Guest Authors at Crimefest 2011. (The other was Deon Meyer.) James writes a series of procedurals set in Brighton and featuring Detective Superintendent Roy Grace. The first title in the series is Dead Simple. Things gets off to a terrific start in this novel with a drunken bachelor party that gets out of control. Just how out of control – well, read it and find out for yourself. Roy Grace is an immensely appealing protagonist, and although I found the book’s climactic action scenes somewhat over the top, I nevertheless enjoyed Dead Simple and look forward to reading more Roy Grace procedurals.

Peter James at the podium, on the evening of the Crimefest Gala Dinner and Awards Ceremony

[One of the reasons why you gotta love Wikipedia:  Here’s the opening sentence of the Peter James entry: “James is the son of Cornelia James, the former glovemaker to Queen Elizabeth II.” ]


One of the best things about crime fiction conventions is that they afford writers and readers a chance to get to know one another. It was a great pleasure to see Martin Edwards, Ann Cleeves, and Andrew Taylor once again. But I was especially pleased to meet Steven Saylor for the first time. I’ve been an enthusiastic reader of his Gordianus the Finder novels ever since Roman Blood, the first in the series, came out in 1991. These novels served to reawaken my interest in ancient history and its literature. That interest culminated in a journey to Italy in the Spring of 2009. This was a return, actually. I had not been there for forty years. (How was it? Every bit as fabulous as I’d hoped it would be.)

I’m often impressed by the rapier-like wit and the verbal thrust and parry employed by the British in settings that are unrehearsed and conversations that are completely spontaneous. Thus it proved with the panel discussions at Crimefest. But one  of my chief sources of delight was that Steven Saylor was able to thrust, parry, and crack wise with the best of them! He has, it turns out, a terrific sense of humor, which he can deploy at a moment’s notice and to great effect.

The last Gordianus novel, The Judgment of Caesar, came out in 2008. Click here to read my review.  Steven Saylor has been doing plenty since then. Be sure and look at his website. You’ll find not only information about all of his books but also links to sites with more information about ancient history and literature.

Steven Saylor


I’m not sure if I will ever have a chance, in this space, to do justice to Bristol, a city rich in history and fascinating architecture, and boasting the world famous Clifton Suspension Bridge 


Isambard Kingdom Brunel, a man of small stature and enormous accomplishment

We stayed at the Bristol Marriott Royal Hotel, right next door to Bristol’s beautiful Cathedral.


Ron had the inspired idea to cue the video while the cathedral bells were in full cry (as was the wind):


  1. Joann Keesey said,

    Thanks for your continued recollections, Roberta. It helps me to enjoy the parts of Crimefest I missed. Phil Rickman covered the Fred West murders in his Lamp of the Wicked whose original cover was a picture of the plague cross from Ross-on-Wye. It’s the only Phil I have not reread. Parts of that book are burned into my brain.

    On another note entirely, Let me know if you’d like a copy of Secrets of Pain, his latest Merrily. I may shortly have two in my possession, one from Laurel, and one I had preordered from

    Keep up the good work.


    • Roberta Rood said,

      Joann, I’m so glad you liked the post. It brought back happy memories for me, too.

      That’s a very gracious offer you made to send me Phil Rickman’s latest Merrily novel. If you find yourself with two copies, then yes, I’d love to have one of them.

      Your comments have also made me want to read Lamp of the Wicked. Or do you think I’d better not…?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: