Death of a Colonial
by Bruce Alexander
Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons
288 pages, 1999
Buy it on Amazon
The Sir John Fielding series, by Bruce Alexander:
The Chico Cervantes series, by Bruce Cook:
"I don't think it's a good idea to over-research these things," says the man who, as "Bruce Alexander," has written six highly acclaimed mysteries -- including the just-released Death of a Colonial -- that feature 18th-century British historical figure Sir John Fielding. "So many people who write in the historical field, they can't let anything go. It truly bothers them if they can't work in that one bit of research, that favorite thing they liked. And you know -- I can toss it aside. Put it like this: I wouldn't want to allow a fact to get in the way of a good story."
Here's a fact behind which lurks its own good story: "Alexander" is really Bruce Cook, veteran critic, journalist and author of several books under his own name, including a previous crime fiction series featuring Southern California private detective Chico Cervantes. While the American publisher of the Sir John Fielding mysteries continues to tell readers only that Alexander is "the pseudonym for a well-known author of fiction and non-fiction," the 67-year-old Cook, now a Los Angeles resident, says "it's truly high time" that he emerge publicly to acknowledge all of the work he's done.
The son of a Depression-era railroad dispatcher whose job often uprooted his family, Cook grew up in many cities and grew into a man of letters at ease in several genres. After graduating from Loyola University in his principal hometown of Chicago, Cook married, joined the U.S. Army and served as a translator in Germany during the mid-1950s, where the first of his three children was born. After his stint with the Army, he took public relations jobs in the Windy City, then became a book and film reviewer and eventually a book and entertainment editor for newspapers in Detroit, Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles.
During and between editorial stints, Cook published half a dozen books, including a mainstream novel -- Sex Life (1979) -- which, though not a mystery, contained elements of crime fiction. His "first bona fide mystery," Mexican Standoff (the initial entry in his Chico Cervantes series) was published in 1987. But it is his Fielding series (which began with Blind Justice in 1994) that has brought this author the greatest critical attention.
Sir John Fielding, for those who are unfamiliar with these books, was a blind magistrate, creator of the first London police force, the Bow Street Runners, and half-brother of novelist Henry Fielding (who wrote Jonathan Wild, Tom Jones and other works). When he first read about John Fielding in an English-published history of the Runners, Cook says, his imagination was instantly seized: "I may not be the world's cleverest writer, but I knew a great character when he leaped off the pages at me."
Death of a Colonial and its five predecessors are all narrated by Jeremy Proctor, a youngster (13 when the series begins, 16 in Colonial) plucked from a lowly station in life to be employed and schooled by Fielding. The books are ostensibly written by a grownup Jeremy, recording these exploits from his early years. Jeremy -- a likely lad, resourceful and steadfast -- is encouraged by Sir John to study law for an eventual career as a barrister. Under Fielding's tutelage ("Jeremy, to be a lawyer, you must learn to think as a lawyer"), he is much more than Sir John's sighted helper in chambers and around London. As he matures, Jeremy takes an increasingly greater part in Fielding's work, both mental and physical.
In Death of a Colonial, that work takes both the jurist and his student out of London, to Bath and to Oxford, in search of the truth about a man who has appeared after a long absence to claim a disputed inheritance. The apparent murder of a woman willing to identify the claimant as her true son and rightful heir adds danger and urgency to the magistrate's inquiry. Sir John and Jeremy need look into events and records from Britain's American colonies to resolve this English matter.
Each Fielding book has been warmly praised by critics, with several titles named a "Notable Book of the Year" or "Best Book of the Year" by The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune or Publishers Weekly. The novels have been published in 10 countries.
Author Cook is a soft-spoken man who enjoys good books, good wine, good food and good films. He lives in L.A. with his second wife, concert violinist Judith Aller. I recently had the chance to talk with him about his work in Army intelligence, the roots of his Cervantes and Fielding series, and how surprised he is to find himself writing historical mysteries.
Tom Nolan: Growing up, how soon were you interested in books and writing?
Did the other kids like it?
When did you become interested in crime fiction?
I was also a great admirer of and did an article in Commonweal about John le Carré, who was then just beginning to blossom. I think today he's much more a novelist. He wrote about something that I knew a little about: My work as a German translator was not spy work, but it was in intelligence.
In the Army?
You and le Carré must both have been in Germany at the same time.
Actually that's true, because he was born a year ahead of me, I think. But he was in the capital of Germany. That little town? Bonn -- as in A Small Town in Germany.
Did you know any other crime fiction writers, before writing your own books?
So yes, I knew a number of writers. And I did a lot of just reading for pleasure in the field: Ross Macdonald, John D. MacDonald, Raymond Chandler, that sort of thing.
I collected books, too. I was just reading around in a book called A House in Bow Street, a history of the Bow Street Runners, by Anthony Babington, published in the UK, when I first met with Sir John Fielding, this great, great character, and wondered why nobody had done anything about him. This was about 1976 or 77. And nobody had! I kept planning things in my head, how you might do something with him.
So Sir John was in the back of your mind for quite a while.
That's right. I remember it was 1982 when I wrote two chapters and an outline of Blind Justice. (Remarkably, the finished book later followed that [outline] pretty well.) Anyway I sent this to my then-agent, and she actually got an offer on it right away from a publisher. They offered me not very much, but it was something I could live with -- then it turned out their offer was for world rights. And that didn't seem a good deal to me. I'd gotten foreign editions on some of my books by that time, and so I declined the offer. My agent sent it out again and again, but I wasn't able to sell [Blind Justice] because publishers weren't buying historical mysteries at that time.
But -- I'm jumping ahead again -- by 1993, I think, historical mysteries were very much the wave. And [G.P. Putnam's Sons] eventually bought the [Fielding] series on the strength of the same two chapters and an outline.
Before we talk about that, let me ask you how the Chico Cervantes series began.
That was started, the first 65 to 75 pages of it, in Washington, D.C., before I packed my little Toyota and drove out here in 1983.
In other words, before you even moved to California, you were writing a book that took place in California?
Yeah, I was kinda cocky about that. I just got this idea of having a Mexican-American private eye. And I knew California pretty well, because about one week out of four of my time at the National Observer, I'd be on the road, more often to the West Coast than not. I didn't really need a road map by the time I got out here, because I had been to Los Angeles quite a bit.
I was scrambling out here on the West Coast for quite a while, though, before I really got back to Chico. My freelance contacts out here were not all that good. I wrote quite a bit for magazines that didn't pay a lot of money; I found it very tough going. I was in a period where I didn't have a book under contract. When I did get back to the Chico book, I was able to write it, finish it and it was sold in 1986. Published in 87.
But Chico was an original in his profession. Tell me what he's like as a person, or as a character.
Chico's been to UCLA, and he worked on the [L.A.] police force for a good long time, but got tired of being passed by for promotions and so on. So he went out on his own. He had one good year when he was able to buy his car that he likes: that Alfa Romeo. And also he was able to put money down on a small condo. I could show you the building, right around the corner from Barney's Beanery [on Santa Monica Boulevard, in West Hollywood]; he hangs out at Barney's.
Did you ever get any negative feedback, for being a white man writing about a Mexican-American?
But the first thing I did was show the first manuscript to a Mexican-American guy on the [Los Angeles] Daily News, a straight-news reporter; and he thought it was good. He told me he said to his wife after finishing it: "Very convincing. I liked the character." Later, Carol Martinez, my coworker at the Daily News, said she went to Phoenix with her husband to visit their brother-in-law there; he's Mexican-American. He said, "I found this pretty good mystery character: Chico Cervantes; and I'm gonna write mysteries too, because he's convinced me that it can really go, that it'll really work." So, that's nice.
How many Chico books did you do?
Once you got into that first Sir John book again, did it all flow pretty freely?
That whole thing of being surprised by your characters, of characters moving in directions you didn't quite expect or plan -- that is a reality of fiction writing. But I didn't experience that until the fourth Chico. And that has carried into the Sir John books.
You do seem to delight in writing these historical mysteries.
They say these are historical mysteries; actually, I think of myself as more concerned with writing about the past. And the past and history aren't the same thing, really, at all. I mean, the past is human experience. And history is the experience of nations and tribes and so on. They overlap, certainly. But I'm writing about the past that happens to be the 18th century.
It's a great era to write about. So much crime. The last witch was burned in England in the early 18th century. Yet the beginnings of modern times are right there, too.
Do you feel particularly at home in that period?
I feel particularly at home in the 18th and 19th centuries. I don't feel at home in the 17th century, with all the religious wars and the fanaticism that went on there, both in England with the Civil War and in Europe with the Thirty Years War. No, I would say the 18th and 19th centuries I'm happily attuned with.
I never think of myself, by the way, as an Anglophile, really. Because the Anglophiles that I've spoken with, I think don't really look below the middle class; and I think it's important -- having come from very humble stock, myself -- to bring out the life of the poor and the struggling lower class and so on. And I really feel I've done that, in my books.
For those who haven't read your Fielding books, could you describe Sir John a bit?
Well, I have said that he was a good man in a bad time, and he was that. He was knighted for his social plans and for his work with the Bow Street Runners and so on.
He did two significant things in that regard. It was the custom in his time to hang anyone for a theft or offense of five pounds. And they would hang boys, 12-year-olds and whatnot. And he managed to convince the people he had to convince that these boys would be better off going to sea in the navy than dangling at the end of a rope. And so that became the practice: they shipped the boys off to sea, and some of this is covered, by the way, in Watery Grave.
The other thing was that [Sir John] founded the Magdalen Home for Penitent Prostitutes. And that thrived for about 150 years, until about 1900.
I couldn't tell you what Sir John Fielding was really like; but I suppose I've been inspired somewhat by Samuel Johnson. He's a little less haughty than Samuel Johnson, but I would say he's just as given to controversy. And doesn't duck a good controversy.
What about Jeremy?
With Jeremy, I probably had Jim Hawkins in mind: the boy in Treasure Island. But once I'd begun with the characters, [they took on their own lives]. You know, Jeremy is 17 years old in the book I'm working on now, and 16 in Death of a Colonial. And I would say I have an obligation, to the reader and to Jeremy himself, to bring him up through adolescence and so on. That's why I spend so much time on his crushes. He becomes involved, mostly in his fantasy life, with a young prostitute. He's an adolescent boy. He lived in one of the wildest, smallest parts of London. I've tried to make him develop normally, truthfully.
How much research do you do in preparation for writing each new Sir John book?
Different books, different amounts. In a sense, all of them have subjects. For instance, I would say that with Watery Grave, the subject is the Royal Navy; and I did a lot of research for that, because I'm not one of these guys who was an enthusiast of the Age of Sail, as some call it. I had to learn all that stuff.
Death of a Colonial -- that's really inspired by a famous case in English law that I read up on. I first heard about it back on Gilbert Highet's "People, Places and Books," a series of talks on early public radio. It was the Tichbourne Case, or the Tichbourne Claimant. It had a couple of books written on it; even novels, other novels, have been written about it. It was a 19th-century case, by the way: a false claimant on a title, a baronetcy. I only took certain elements of it, such as the mother of the rightful heir who accepted the claimant as indeed worthy, and who died before the trial came up. It was famous, mostly, as a trial. We never got to trial in our book, but I tried to pick up from that.
Didn't you once refer to a book by the short-story writer and playwright Lillian de la Torre, which helped you create the atmospherics and secondary characters of Georgian London?
It's not by her -- it's a collection she made of articles, pretty much all of the 18th century, some of the 19th century. She, as you know, was very much involved with the 18th century with her "Samuel Johnson: Detector" stories. Her book is called Villainy Detected, containing short pieces from the Newgate Calendar [a biographical record of notorious London criminals] and from various little pieces extant at that time. I get inspired by them.
I was inspired by [de la Torre's book] for one of the two cases in Jack, Knave and Fool, where the wife kills or has the husband killed; it's a pawn shop owner. That same book was very helpful with its article on "flash talk," by a contemporary of the period talking about this underworld and lower-class argot that passed around.
Each book, I'll go to different sources. You fix in your mind what you're gonna write about, and then you start gathering books. It's a slow process.
It does seem to take you a long time to produce each of these novels.
I just read a biography of Anthony Trollope, who wrote so many books and wrote them so quickly. And I hear Robert Parker says it takes him, what, about two months to write one of his Spenser books?
Well, Parker's books aren't that long.
I know they're not, but even so, it's dismaying to me! Because I have to really hustle to get mine in, to make that yearly deadline. I work hard to get 'em done in that space of time.
In addition to writing historical fiction, do you read it?
Oh, I've read in the field, you know. Ellis Peters, I liked her. I met her and interviewed her -- Edith Pargeter was her real name -- and she died only about two years later. I liked those books very much, the Brother Cadfael books. And Steven Saylor is good, on ancient Rome. But mostly I feel that what I'm doing, nobody else is doing. So I don't really get much help or inspiration from anybody else. I think what I'm doing is unique -- not because I'm unique, but because Sir John is unique, you know? I really think I've been fortunate in having a character like him.
A reviewer in The Wall Street Journal once said that your books are a "welcome antidote to contemporary works." Do you know what he meant? Would it be that they're in civilized contrast somehow to today's very grim police and coroner procedurals? Not that your books are devoid of violence, but maybe the way that they're written or their characters' conversations and relationships offer a sort of refuge from the coarser aspects of today's books.
Well, I think maybe, all of the above? One of the reasons I was not sad to leave Chico behind, at least for a while -- I'd kind of like to start him up again -- was there are so many fictional private eyes out there that it's kind of unreal now. Some of them are not very convincing. There's a kind of an underlying Mickey Spillane current to a lot of them.
And then there's the television influence -- Law & Order and NYPD Blue and so forth. This may be what the public wants! Maybe they don't want an antidote to all of that. But I think I needed an antidote; I think I would grow bored writing about another era besides the one that I write about.
If you were to create another series in yet a different time period, which one might appeal to you?
I suppose the 19th century, maybe about 1890. Because I find that, of all the modern conveniences we have that they didn't in the 18th century, the one I miss is the telephone. I can't understand why Sir John can't get on the phone to Samuel Johnson or the Lord Chief Justice, but he can't! He's gotta write it out, and Jeremy's gotta hoof it over, you know. And in the 1890s, at least the telephone is coming into use.
On the other hand, it always rather startles me when Sherlock Holmes uses a telephone.
But they had it. That was something that came out in the Trollope book I've been reading. There was a demonstration in 1876 by Graham Bell of the telephone in London, trying to stir up interest. So that's earlier than we might have supposed.
You've remarked before that it still surprises you to find yourself writing these period books.
Yeah, because I never did any of that before. I had a general education in English literature at Loyola, but I suppose I always considered myself a 20th-century guy, you know. And all my writing idols were from the 20th-century: Anthony Burgess, Mordecai Richler, Robertson Davies, Kingsley Amis (who's unfairly dismissed as a mere comic writer), F. Scott Fitzgerald, [Ernest] Hemingway (through For Whom the Bell Tolls), Nelson Algren -- everyone from Chicago has a certain soft spot for him, though he's not remembered much these days.
So yeah, I'm surprised to be doing this. I hope it's satisfactory to people.
Very much so, I'd say. There's a wonderfully compelling quality to the way the Fielding books are written, and they're so very readable. You want to know about these people; you enjoy being in their company.
Well, I think that you should enjoy being in their company. I try to make them real people, real characters, you know.
I found another fiction book that included a very small portrait of Sir John: Lempriere's Dictionary, by Lawrence Norfolk, an English author; it was a big seller here. There were no more than 10 pages devoted to Sir John, but it gave a very nasty portrait of the man. Well, there's no way of proving that other writer's wrong and I'm right, or vice versa. But I feel about Sir John the way I would about someone I know, you know? He has faults. He's a bit pompous sometimes, querulous, can take things out sometimes on Jeremy. But I think that he's real, and -- he's real to me.
I have not read it. I thought it might be best if I didn't read it and just went my own way, and whatever -- and couldn't be accused of any sort of cadging.
Do you see yourself in any of the characters about whom you write?
Oh, Jeremy, yeah, in my own growing up.
Actually, I dislike many books of fiction written today because so many are autobiographical and written about adolescents. And I think that's one reason I want to get away from that contemporary scene. But I haven't gotten away from it entirely, because here's Jeremy, and I've put a good deal of myself in him. But it's emotional; it's not incidents from my life.
Also, my father -- he died early; he was about 50. He was the nicest man I ever knew. (That's not to say he wouldn't get cross or irritable and so on.) I think I've put a lot of him into Sir John. | October 1999
TOM NOLAN is the author of Ross Macdonald: A Biography (Scribner).
To learn more about both Sir John Fielding and Bruce Cook (aka Bruce Alexander), refer to the author's Web site.