MysteryPeople Q&A with Steven Saylor



~Q&A conducted by Scott Butki

I am new to Steven Saylor’s books, but I am quickly becoming a fan. Saylor is most known for his Roma Sub Rosa series, historical mysteries based in ancient Rome. Steven Saylor will be at Book People tonight. He’ll be speaking about & signing copies of his new book in the series, Raiders of the Nile.

I quite enjoyed this one. He does a wonderful job bringing ancient history alive in the book. I investigated more into Saylor and the other stories he’s written in preparation for the interview.

Saylor divides his time between Austin and Berkeley, CA. An earlier historical fiction novel A Twist at the End, focuses on a particularly crazy time in Austin’s history. Set in the 19th century, the story focuses on William Porter (who would later become O. Henry), an Austin resident at that time, and tells the stories of a series of murders. The serial murder was referred to as the “Servant Girl Annihilator,” by the press. The novel is both engaging and chilling. I recommended to learn a bit of the darker side of Austin.

MYSTERYPEOPLE: How did this story develop?

STEVEN SAYLOR: My last novel, The Seven Wonders, was a prequel to the Roma Sub Rosa series, going back to the younger days of Gordianus the Finder, sleuth of ancient Rome. Raiders of the Nile picks up where The Seven Wonders left off, with Gordianus now twenty-two years old and far from Rome, living in Alexandria, the capital of Egypt–at that time the most sophisticated and exciting city on earth. When his beloved concubine, Bethesda, is kidnapped, Gordianus ventures into the wilds of the Nile Delta to rescue her, encountering treacherous innkeepers, ill-tempered camels, a particularly vicious crocodile, and the mysterious leader of a bandit gang, who lures Gordianus into a plot to steal the golden sarcophagus of Alexander the Great.

There’s no murder mystery per se in this novel, but there are plenty of murders, and mysteries, and we see the young Gordianus just beginning to come into his own as a master sleuth. I’d say this novel is equal parts mystery, adventure, and romance, set in a very exotic time and place.

MP: Why did you decide to write a series of books based so long ago?

SS: From childhood, I always loved movies and books about the ancient world, especially Rome. When I got to the University of Texas at Austin, I majored in history, which was like a dream–I could hardly believe I was being allowed to spend all my time reading and writing about Greek mythology or the French Revolution, to name just a couple of my favorite courses.

When I finally took my first trip to Rome, the experience of walking though the ancient ruins was electrifying. I got back home and immediately began reading a book about murder trials in ancient Rome, and one of those cases inspired me to write my first novel, Roman Blood, for which I invented my series sleuth, Gordianus the Finder. Almost 25 years later, Roman Blood is still in print and Gordianus is still solving crimes, with the series translated into over twenty languages.

MP:  How far have you planned out this series?

SS: I’m actually only one book ahead right now–the sequel to Raiders of the Nile, which will take young Gordianus to the city of Ephesus in Asia Minor at the exact moment when Rome’s mortal enemy, King Mithridates, is secretly plotting a surprise massacre of every Roman in Asia Minor–all 80,000 of them–in a single day. How will Gordianus escape? I have to keep writing to find out.

MP: How do you do research on your Nile series?

SS: There’s been very little in the way of archaeological excavation in the city of Alexandria (except underwater in the harbor), so we mostly have to rely on virtual reconstructions of such wonders as the great Pharos Lighthouse. And the whole nature of the Nile Delta has changed since the building of the Aswan Dam, which stopped the annual flooding of the Nile. So most of the research for this particular story and setting was literary, which gave me an excuse to spend lots of time at the university libraries in Austin and Berkeley, my two home towns.

MP: Are Bethesda and Gordianus based on anyone specific?

SS: Every fictional character–male or female, hero or villain–is a projection of his or her creator. We all have a lot of people inside us, yet we get to live only one life. Fiction lets us slip into someone else’s skin, so to speak. That’s why we read novels, and also why we write them–to experience more life, through imagination.

MP: I was impressed you managed to have an ancient version of a car chase, albeit with camels instead. Was that fun to write?

SS: Poor Gordianus, framed for murder, ends up in a headlong chase, making one hair-breadth escape after another–it’s a bit like those chase scenes in Return of the Jedi or Raiders of the Lost Ark. I find that kind of action writing to be a great technical challenge–describing the movement of people and objects through space is the hardest kind of writing, I think. It’s probably very hard to film, as well.

MP: I first heard of you soon after I moved to Austin and I heard about your O. Henry book with its Austin connections. How did you learn about the murders and go about researching those crimes?

SS: That book was A Twist at the End, a novel based on the killings of the so-called Servant Girl Annihilator which terrified the city of Austin in the 1880s. These were America’s first reported serial murders. O. Henry was living here at the time, and I decided to make him a major character in the story.

I first learned about the murders when I came across a brief mention of them in an old picture book about Austin; but when I tried to learn more, I couldn’t find any book or even an article about the killings. That set me on the trail, and the more I researched, digging through old newspapers and court records, the more I found myself immersed not just in the story of the murders, but in Austin of the 1880s, a time and place never depicted in fiction. I wrote A Twist at the End as a sort of valentine to the city of Austin as it used to be, warts and all.

Since Twist was published in 2000, there’s been an explosion of interest in those crimes. I was recently interviewed by the PBS series History Detectives, which is producing an hour-long show about the Austin servant girl killings to air sometime this summer.

MP: Was that fun to write? Any plans for other books based in Austin?

SS: Researching and writing A Twist at the End was one of the great joys of my life. In some ways, it was a like a long vacation from my day-job–writing about ancient Rome! I would like to write another historical epic set in Austin some day, about the early days of the Texas Republic.

MP: What are the advantages and disadvantages of writing a series versus stand-alone books?

SS: The stand-alone author must always be wondering: what will I write next? But with a series, especially a historical series, you can see the road far ahead, and the question is: how many books will it take to get there?

When I wrote Roman Blood in 1991, I could never have imagined there would eventually be a dozen novels and two volumes of short stories about Gordianus the Finder. Such a long series allows a writer to build complex relationships between the characters, and to cover a huge arc of history, in this case from the bloody collapse of the Roman Republic to the rise of Julius Caesar. Gordianus gets to see a lot of history, as do the readers.

Gordianus also get older as the series progresses, aging from his thirties to his sixties–but now, with the prequels, he’s young again, which as close I’ll come to regaining my own youth. I rather enjoy being twenty-two again, if only through my alter ego.


Raiders of the Nile is available on our shelves and via Steven Saylor will be at the store tonight, Mar 31 at 7PM speaking & signing copies of the book. Visit our website for more info & to order your signed copy.

MysteryPeople Q&A with Bruce DeSilva

Bruce DeSilva‘s latest book involving Rhode Island newspaper man Liam Mulligan, Providence Rag, is a bit different in approach. Mulligan races against time to keep a killer in prison as another reporter is uncovering prison corruption that would set him free. We turned the tables on the former reporter and asked him a few questions.


MYSTERYPEOPLE I found the story Providence Rag takes on a much darker and somber tone than the previous Mulligan books, which are partly known for their humor. What was it like working on a novel where you couldn’t always pull that humor tool out of the box? 

BRUCE DESILVA: I don’t entirely agree with the premise of your question. I think my second novel, Cliff Walk, which peers into the bleak world of the sex trade and deals with the abuse and murder of children, was an even darker story. And there is humor in Providence Rag. For example, there’s Mulligan’s displeasure with his new roommate, Larry Bird, his attempt to fob the creature off on Whoosh, and the way he deals with the gangsters who want the bird back. However, I do understand what you’re driving at.

What changed in Providence Rag was the point of view.The first two novels were written in the first person with Mulligan as the narrator, so his trenchant observations and wise-guy humor were never far from the surface. Providence Rag, however, is written in third person limited. Sometimes we see the story from Mulligan’s point of view, but nearly as often we see it from the point of view of his earnest young colleague, Mason. And parts of the story are told from the points of view of their friend Gloria, the one-eyed photographer, and of the killer. Mason and Gloria aren’t humorless, but they are not given to the kind of smart remarks Mulligan is noted for. And the killer does not display much of a sense of humor. It was necessary to change point of view in this novel because the story was too complex to be told only from Mulligan’s vantage point. The very heart of the novel required that readers be exposed to how different things look depending on where you sit. But in the fourth Mulligan novel, tentatively titled A Scourge of Vipers, Mulligan will return as the lone first-person narrator. That book is already finished and will be published in March of 2015.

MP: Mason comes into his own during the book and drives the story as much as Mulligan. How did you handle two characters sharing the spotlight?

BD: Providence Rag poses a troubling question: What are decent people to do when a loophole in the law requires that a murderous psychopath be released from prison–and the only way to keep him locked up is to fabricate charges against him?

To tell the story, I needed a strong character on each side of the issue. Mulligan, whose youthful idealism long ago gave way to cynicism about how the world really works, is the one willing to look the other way if that’s the only way to protect public safety. Mason, given how his character developed in the first two novels, was the logical one to take the position that allowing public officials to subvert the criminal justice system is dangerous. After all, if they can fabricate charges against this killer, they could do the same thing to anyone.

Of course, the moral dilemma the two friends, and the whole state of Rhode Island, face in the novel has no right answer. No matter which side of the issue you make your stand on, you end up condoning something that is reprehensible. So Mason, and Gloria as well, do drive the action more than the supporting characters did in the first two books. But the Mulligan novels have always had ensemble casts. In the first, Rogue Island, Mason, Whoosh (Mulligan’s bookie), and his best friend Rosie Morelli, all play major roles. Mulligan is always Seinfeld to their Kramer, Elaine and George–but in Seinfeld, nobody got stabbed or shot.

MP: Your serial killer, Kwame Diggs, I found to be as chilling as Hannibal Lector, yet more believable. How did you approach him?

BD: The serial killer is loosely based on Craig Price, a real teenage serial killer I wrote about as a journalist many years ago. But Price was already in prison when I researched and wrote his story. I never met him face-to-face. I know little about his childhood, have never heard him speak, and can’t even say for sure what drove him to murder. So the background, motivation, and speech patterns of the killer in the novel are drawn entirely from my imagination. I chose to reveal Diggs to the reader in three different ways:

1. With the overkill and chilling blood-lust he unleashes on his victims.

2. With the string of lies he tells to Mason in a series of jailhouse interviews.

3. With a series of flashbacks in which the reader sees him as a young child in the process of becoming a monster.

Each approach provides a different look at him, but together I think they reveal the full measure of the man

MP: Not only do Mulligan and Mason have ethical dilemmas about what is being uncovered, but so do the editor and owner of the Providence Dispatch. As someone with a journalism background, what did you want the reader to understand about how a paper faces those situations?

BD: Journalists face ethical dilemmas almost every day. Many of the stories they do print not only inform the public but have the potential to both benefit and harm. Sometimes the people harmed by news stories deserve what they get. Sometimes the harm is not deserved but is nevertheless unavoidable if the truth is to be told. But journalists should be cautious about harming people unnecessarily. As a writer and as an editor, I always tried to take care to prevent that from happening. In Providence Rag, I did want readers to see how seriously reporters and editors struggle with this–although few real-life dilemmas are as extreme as the one the book presents. But I also wanted readers to consider how the prosecutors, prison guards, politicians, and citizens of the state grappled with the same moral question–and to ask themselves how they would deal with it as well.
MP: From talking to you at Bouchercon, I know that you’re an aficionado of crime fiction. Which author from the past hasn’t got his due?

BD: If I may alter the question slightly, I’m more concerned with a couple of writers who were popular in their day but have been largely forgotten. Nobody reads Richard Prather or Gregory Mcdonald anymore. Prather’s hard-boiled Shell Scott novels, most of them published in the 1950s and 1960s, were great fun and really well-written. And Mcdonald’s, two series, Fletch and Flynn, published in the 1970s and 1980s, were both funny and devastatingly effective at lampooning sacred American institutions.

MP: Other than being able to draw from your experiences, what makes a reporter a great crime fiction hero, as opposed to, say, a PI or cop?

BD: Real private detectives are nothing like fictional ones. The real ones spend their days serving court papers, investigating insurance claims, back-grounding job applicants, chasing child-support delinquents, and trying to figure out who’s pilfering from warehouses. They go their whole lives without ever shooting anyone down or beat anyone up. The amateur detectives in popular fiction — many of them little old ladies – don’t exist in real life either. Aside from the many varieties of local, state, and federal law officers, the only professionals who regularly investigate wrongdoing are investigative reporters.

In my own career as an investigative reporter, I exposed political corruption, voter fraud, criminal business practices, child abuse . . . In fact, I even investigated a murder. So it was natural for me to make my protagonist an investigative reporter. But unlike cops, reporters don’t get to handcuff people and bring them in for questioning. They can’t get judges to issue search warrants or approve wiretaps. That makes their work more difficult and more challenging – and the inherent difficulties make for good fiction.


Providence Rag is on our shelves now and available via Bruce Desilva will be at our store on Friday, Mar 28 at 7PM  in conversation with Tom Abrahams (Allegiant) and signing copies of Providence Rag. Click here for more information & to pre-order your signed copy.

MysteryPeople Q&A with Tom Abrahams

Tom Abrahams has applied his experience covering politics as a TV reporter to some involving thrillers. His latest, Allegiance, draws a politico into a conspiracy involving Texas politics. Tom will be joining Bruce DeSilva on Friday, March 28 at 7PM for a discussion here at BookPeople. We shot Tom a few questions in advance.


MYSTERYPEOPLE: You do a wonderful job of taking what seems like a far fetched premise and making it believable. How did you approach the antagonist’s plan?

TOM ABRAHAMS: Thank you. I’m glad the plot rang true. I approached the plan through research. My idea was to mix a political thriller with plausible science fiction. It blends my love of George Orwell and my enjoyment of all books Michael Crichton. To me, there’s no bigger influence of Texas and, by extension, Texas politics, than energy. I knew the science fiction element needed to be built around oil and gas and alternative fuels. So I did some online research, reached out to some leading nano-scientists, and crafted a plot that would seem realistic enough to both the reader who knows nothing about nanotechnology and someone who works in the field. Those scientists help me craft the right scenario and the best way to convey it. The trick was giving just enough detail without overwhelming the reader with too much scientific jargon.

MP:  Texas and its politics play an important role in Allegiance. What did you want to say about the state?

TA: I don’t know that I have a message about Texas, so much as I wanted Texas to be a central character in the book. Texas politics and politicians are so often larger than life. From LBJ and Anne Richards to Barbara Jordan, George W. Bush, and Rick Perry; Texas consistently produces people who engage the public in unique ways. They sometimes become caricatures of themselves. I hope that, in some small way, the novel indicates a love for Texas and what it contributes to the national debate.

MP:  How does being a reporter inform you as a writer?

TA: As a reporter, I write every day. I ask questions. And I tell stories with little waste. In those respects, my job as a journalist benefits my job as an author. It also helps that I work in television. As a TV reporter, I think visually. So when I sit at my computer writing a novel, I craft the scenes in my head. I can see what’s happening as I write it. I also think the healthy cynicism I’ve developed over the years translates into a novel with an underlying grit, a darkness that doesn’t jump off the page but is always lurking underneath.

MP: Do you pull from any influences when you write?

TA: My two favorite authors are George Orwell and Michael Crichton. When I write, I try to pull a little from their voices. Though I’ve yet to use deus ex machine in the way Crichton typically does at the end of his novels, I’d like to think the complexity of the plots approaches his storytelling.

MP: What makes thrillers the genre for you to write in?

TA: It’s what I read. I think to be a good writer, you have to be a good reader. Subconsciously, I’m pulling from all of the great (and not so great) thrillers and suspense novels I’ve read since I plucked my first Hardy Boys book from the school library shelves. There’s a saying in television that the camera doesn’t lie. Neither do books. A reader can tell if I’m informed, and more importantly invested, in the story I’m telling. I wouldn’t be a good romance or cozy mystery writer, because it’s not what I read. I tried writing a police procedural years ago. It lacked. I don’t read enough of that genre to be good at it. That’s why I chose this genre. I like politics. I like thrillers. I love science fiction. I wrote a book I’d like to read.


Allegiance is on our shelves now and available via Tom Abrahams will be at BookPeople in conversation with Bruce DeSilva on Friday, Mar 28 at 7PM speaking & signing copies of Allegiance. Click here for more information.

MysteryPeople Review: PROVIDENCE RAG

Providence Rag by Bruce DeSilva

The first two books by Bruce DeSilva‘s, Rogue Island and Cliff Walk, have a certain amount of dark brutality to them. This feeling punches through the books along with a disarming fun spirit, thanks to the humor of the affable hero of Providence, Rhode Island, Reporter Liam Mulligan. With Providence Rag, DeSilva gives us a change in tone as well as in structure and approach. This time he goes for the gut right at the beginning.

Instead of following Mulligan in first-person perspective, as we have before, DeSilva gives us the point-of-view of another reporter, Edward Anthony Mason III, to tell the story.

We start with Mulligan in the ’90s, working as a sports reporter when a serial killer is on the loose. Because the lead investigator is a basketball fan, Mulligan ends up working the story. Mulligan discovers the identity of the killer, a young kid named Kwame Diggs.

When we jump to 2013, that is when we enter Mason’s perspective. Readers of the previous books may know him better as “Thanks Dad,” the moniker Mulligan has given him because he is the son of their paper’s (The Dispatch) owner.

In Providence Rag, Mason breaks from being Mulligan’s annoying tag-along to reporting on his own story of Rhode Island corruption. Due to an odd state loophole, a juvenile prisoner must be set free by his twenty-first birthday, no matter what he did. However, the Providence prison authorities have been keeping Kwame Diggs fifteens years past his 21st birthday on false infractions. Mason’s investigation into this power play by the prison guards creates a serious deadline for Mulligan. He wants to connect Diggs with another murder before he can be put on to the street to potentially kill again.

DeSilva’s novel is full of his trademark level of suspense, but more than that, it engages the reader in an ethics debate. Both Mason and Mulligan are equally right and misguided. The fact that neither is blind to his situation nor to the  consequences of his actions make them both smart and sympathetic to one another.

Then, there’s the world of the reporter that DeSilva enlightens us to. We see some of the tactis reporters can use with witnesses as well as the process between reporters, editors and owners on the legal and ethical ramifications of running a story versus killing it. These scenes are reminiscent of Dennis Lehane’s Gone Baby Gone.

Providence Rag is a unique newspaper thriller. It ties emotion to debate, having you think as much as feel.


Providence Rag is available on our shelves and via Bruce DeSilva will be at BookPeople on Friday, Mar 28 at 7PM, in conversation with Tom Abrahams. Click here for more information & to order signed copies of Providence Rag.

Hard Word Book Club discusses THE RANGER

Make sure to join us on Wednesday March 26th for the Hard Word Book ClubOn the docket is The Ranger  by one of our favorite authors, Ace Atkins. You definitely don’t want to miss because we’ll be joined via telephone by Ace Atkins during the meeting to discuss the book.

Edgar nominated, The Ranger is a smart, fun mix of many of Ace’s loves:  blues, country & western music, classic hard boiled crime fiction, Faulkner, and, especially, the Southern-set action films of the 1970s that starred Burt Reynolds and Joe Don Baker. The Ranger also takes a look at small town America post-recession and post the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

The Hard Word Book Club discussion will take place on Wednesday, Mar 26 at 7PM on BookPeople’s third floor. Ace Atkins will be calling in to discuss The Ranger and its influences with us. Remember, the book is 10% off to those who attend the meeting.

Crime Fiction Friday: UNDER THE BUS by Jim Wilsky

This week’s story comes from the crime fiction online zine, Shotgun Honey. It’s written by Jim Wilsky, co-author of a three book series: Blood on Blood, Queen of Diamonds and the most recent release, Closing the Circle.

Also, to note, Shotgun Honey is looking for submissions. They have served as a launching pad for great writers in the past few years. The biggest rule is that stories have a maximum of 700 words. You can find out more about their guidelines by clicking here.

“Under the Bus” by Jim Wilsky

“The car stopped and he was pulled out, landing on his knees. Yanked to his feet, he was pushed forward. They stopped. Two pounds on a door and it creaked open. The door slammed behind him and he heard a bolt being thrown.

Forward again. Another door opened.

“Steps.” The voice on his left shoulder grunted. Bender tripped immediately and began to fall forward. And down. Hands tied behind him, his face would be the first to hit wherever he ended up….”

Click here to finish the story.


Look Out for The Poor Boy’s Game by Dennis Tafoya
On Our Shelves April 29th

It’s been close to half a decade since Dennis Tafoya came out with a new book. His take on Philly area crime has the gritty pathos of a Springsteen song. The Poor Boy’s Game proves he hasn’t lost his rhythm.

The main character, Frannie Mullen has more than her share of demons. The main one is her father Patrick, a vicious union enforcer. Patrick escapes from prison and in his wake leaves a trail of dead bodies. Everyone is in danger, including Patrick’s pregnant girlfriend. It’s up to Frannie to confront him and protect those closest to her.

The story is a dysfunctional family tale disguised as a crime novel full of intense shoot-outs, grimy settings, and hard dialogue. Like a great cop film from The 70s, The Poor Boy’s Game is uncompromising entertainment.


The Poor Boy’s Game is available for pre-order online via