Clifford Beal

historical fiction with a twist of lime

Month: February 2014

OK, that’s weird

Coincidence or higher guidance?

When I had just begun to write Gideon’s Angel I was living in a perfectly positioned but somewhat tatty flat in London just opposite the Law Courts where the Strand turns into Fleet Street. And as I stood up there on the top floor looking down at the double-deckers and pedestrians coming and going, I tried puzzling out various plot angles for the 17th century historical novel that was forming in my head. I quickly realized that if the main character was bent on assassination of a major leader, he would at some point have to run into some of the famous of the time and not just his intended target. And if there was going to be a supernatural element to all this in the form of a parallel plot run by some deluded extremists, then that might require some other heavy-hitters known during Cromwell’s era.

I knew that Oliver Cromwell’s chief of intelligence and master spy was a man named John chancery laneThurloe, a London-trained lawyer. If my protagonist was also going to be a spy and rogue assassin, I would have to have him cross paths—or swords—with Mr. Thurloe. And it was just about this time that a rather sublime thing happened to me in London. I was walking up Chancery Lane, about two minutes away from my flat, when I looked up at a blue plaque on one of the buildings leading to Lincoln’s Inn. It was to honour John Thurloe, secretary of state, who had lived on the site.

Thurloe plaqueThat was enough of a coincidence to make me stop in my tracks and smile. But not long after, I was walking up the Strand, again no more than two minutes from home, when another plaque caught my eye. This was a green one very high up the wall outside the old disused Aldwych tube station near King’s aldwych tubeCollege. It was in honour of William Lilly, “master astrologer” 1602-1681 who had lived at a house on the site of the tube station. The proverbial light bulb blinked on and I remembered that King Charles had an astrologer who also ended up working for Cromwell. It was him. Once back at the flat, a bit of googling brought the information I needed and another character for Gideon’s Angel had been found. That’s the interesting thing about living in London. You just never know who your neighbours are going to be.

Lilly plaque

The Real d’Artagnan: larger than fiction

With the premiere of the BBC’s new drama series The Musketeers, a whole new generation is

The original and best: Charles de Batz Castelmore

The original and best: Charles de Batz Castelmore

now discovering one of the great characters of dramatic fiction: d’Artagnan. Hopefully, a few might be inspired to actually read the original book. The Sunday night drama is only the latest in a long line of screen portrayals based on Alexander Dumas’s 19th century novels of adventure, set in 17th century France.  In fact, the oldest film version of The Three Musketeers goes back to 1921. Most of these portrayals have been based to a greater or lesser extent on Dumas’s characterization of the iconic Gascon in Paris.

But the truth of the d’Artagnan legend, now firmly ensconced in popular culture, is far less widely known. Monsieur d’Artagnan was in fact an actual historical figure, famous in his own time and yes,  a musketeer of the king of France. Dumas had discovered a heavily fictionalized account of the life of Charles de Batz-Castelmore d’Artagnan written by a 17th century author named Courtilz de Sandras and based his romances on the story of d’Artagnan as portrayed by de Sandras. The real d’Artagnan had a life as every bit exciting as the character in Dumas’s books, but Dumas made some significant changes including setting the action of the novel several years before the real d’Artagnan ever even joined the musketeers.

Luke Pasqualino as d'Artagnan (sans chapeau)

Luke Pasqualino as d’Artagnan (sans chapeau) in the new BBC drama

In the books, d’Artagnan and his companions, loyal servants of King Louis XIII, work to thwart the plans of devious Cardinal Richelieu and his agents. In fact, the real d’Artagnan served as a trusted secret agent of Richelieu’s successor, Cardinal Mazarin, carrying out a number of diplomatic missions for him while he rose in the Garde Francaise and later in the King’s Musketeers (which had been disbanded earlier in 1646. With Mazarin as his patron, d’Artagnan served Louis XIV at home and abroad, eventually rising to become commander of the famed company. He fought in several major military campaigns, served as the governor of Lille after the city fell to French forces(you can still see the house he lived in) and finally met his death in 1673 while taking part in the siege of Maastricht against the Dutch. Indeed, he died after being shot in the throat while fighting alongside some very rare allies: the English. A young officer named John Churchill was there in the same trench, the future Duke of Marlborough.

Michael York needs a longer blade in the 1974 movie version

Michael York needs a longer blade in the 1974 movie version

When I decided to make d’Artagnan a significant character in my own novel, Gideon’s Angel, I wanted to model him on the real man and not the version in The Three Musketeers. With the action in Gideon’s Angel taking place in the early 1650s, this made it easy for me to write in d’Artagnan as a secret agent of Cardinal Mazarin, travelling to England to stop a plot to assassinate Oliver Cromwell. He’s young, confident, and brash, but also deeply honourable in his wary relationship with the novel’s protagonist, exiled king’s cavalier Richard Treadwell. It was tremendous fun writing scenes that pitted my jaded, war-weary middle-aged hero against this cocksure young French soldier with carte blanche and a “license to kill” from arguably the most powerful man in Europe.

Douglas Fairbanks strikes a pose in the silent film of 1921

Douglas Fairbanks strikes a pose in the silent film of 1921

To be sure, Alexander Dumas did right by the memory of Charles de Batz-Castelmore as a brave man of adventure, and hopefully I have as well. But the real exploits of this remarkable Frenchman are every bit as compelling and exciting as those of the fiction. I recommend Odile Bordaz’s 2010 biography, titled simply: D’Artagnan.

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