Local author Bruce Macbain will be appearing at the Brookline Booksmith on Friday, March 22, at 7PM, to talk about his new book, The Bull Slayer: a Plinius Secundus Mystery. In The Bull Slayer, newly appointed governor Pliny must carefully wade through corrupt forces to find the killer of a high Roman official.
I was expecting to meet someone who looked like Leon Trotsky, which is how Bruce Macbain described himself in an email. But I didn't see a clear resemblance between the former Greek and Roman History professor at Boston University and the Marxist revolutionary. Macbain was a kind-looking man with a trim grey beard and glasses. Over hot soup at Panera Bread, 299 Harvard Street, we talked about his mystery series featuring the hero Plinius Secundus (Pliny), Governor of the Province of Bithynia-Pontus.
BrooklineHub: Why did you choose Plinius the Younger as your series hero?
Bruce Macbain: We know so much about Pliny from the collection of letters he published in his lifetime which are still in print. Pliny wrote hundreds of letters. He was interested in all things and had friends in high and low places. He was tolerant, a bit vain and fussy, and very fond of his third wife, Calpurnia, who he married when she was a 14-year-old girl. He was devoted to her at a time when that kind of [romantic] marriage wasn't common.
BH: How did you go about researching The Bull Slayer, and the first book in the series, Roman Games?
BM: I used numerous books on Ancient Rome, Roman religion...I have shelves of books at home for research. I found Invisible Romans by Robert Knapp (Harvard University Press, 2011) to be particularly useful. It's a social history of the Romans.
BH: Your female characters have a very uneasy alliance with each other. Even Pliny's wife Calpurnia and Calpurnia's maid, Ione's friendship is tested. Can you talk more about the role of women in ancient times?
BM: You hear so little about the women in the history of Rome. The women in The Bull Slayer are status-conscious...their value is based on their husband's position. Roman women did have more freedom than Greek women. Greek women were kept secluded in separate quarters than the men.
The Greeks hated the Romans—they thought the Romans were philistines with no art or culture. The Greeks resented the Romans. The character of Diocles the Golden Mouth (a wealthy provincial and orator) embodies the Greeks resentment of having to kowtow to the Romans.
BH: What is your process for creating and keeping distinct such a large cast of characters in The Bull Slayer?
BM: I have a computer file of ideas and a cast of characters. I write a biography of each character. There are no available images so I use Google images and also pictures of Hollywood celebrities like Winona Ryder as she appeared in Girl, Interrupted. She's the model for Calpurnia. Pliny's looks are based on Derek Jacobi from I, Claudius. Diocles looks like John Thaw from the Inspector Morse series.
BH: Can you draw any parallels between Bithynia's government and that of the modern world?
BM: Yes. Many third-world countries today are experiencing deep financial corruption and are ruled by oligarchs. The corruption in Bithynia is not made up—it's documented in Pliny's letters. He was beside himself trying to fix it.
BH: What are the challenges of writing historic mysteries?
BM: The challenge is the mystery, not the history...all the clues and red herrings you need to plant in the story. It's easier to start writing based on actual events and people. But I'm also not afraid to change the facts to serve the story, as long as I own up to the changes in the Author's Note at the end.
BH: What elements do you think constitute a great escapist read?
BM: All good fiction depends on the details. You put the reader in the scene by authentically describing it. That precision can take people to a different place.
BH: What are you working on now? Will there be more Pliny mysteries?
BM: I'm working on an historical novel—not a mystery—about the Vikings, titled Odeon's Child. I will come back to the Pliny series after I'm finished with the Vikings.
BH: What are you reading now?
BM: I'm in a mystery book club run by Liz Mellett, the reference librarian at the Brookline Public Library. I'm the only male! I'm like the club mascot. Right now we're reading A Free Man of Color by Barbara Hambly (Bantam, 1998). It's set in New Orleans in the 1830's. I'm really enjoying the setting.
I read a lot of British mystery authors: Peter Lovesey and Kate Atkinson. I also love the American hard-boiled stuff, like the works of Raymond Chandler.
BH: How long have you lived in Brookline? What do you like best about this town?
BM: I've lived here for forty years. We came for the good schools and bought a nice house. At that time there were more interesting small businesses. Not like today, with all the chains. Where Bruegger's Bagels is now there used to be a store called George's Folly. They carried weird stuff...it was a wonderful old store.
— By Jennifer Campaniolo