If you’re a reader – I mean a devoted reader who is perfectly content with a good book and a comfortable chair, sofa or hammock – I have a suggestion for you: acquaint yourself with Robert Harris.
I suspect plenty of you already have, since every new yarn he comes up with is an instant bestseller. And before you go thinking I’m in for some sort of kickback for publicizing his efforts let me assure you Mr. Harris doesn’t know me from Adam’s off ox (an old phrase I’ve always liked and have never had occasion to use).
Harris is a former journalist and BBC reporter who now writes mighty fine historical fiction. In fact, when I suggested to Margaret George, a master of that genre herself –The Autobiography of Henry VIII; Mary, Queen of Scots; The Memoirs of Cleopatra; Mary, Called Magdalene and others – who is represented by the same literary agent as I am, that she should take on one of my personal heroes, Cicero, she quickly informed me that that old philosopher and statesman belonged solely to Robert Harris.
Years ago I happened upon Harris’ first novel, Fatherland, a “what if” thriller set in a post-World War II world where Germany had won the war. The plot of that page-turner was riveting, but it was the author’s writing that made me an immediate fan. In each of his books he establishes a group of characters, real people from the pages of history – some likeable, some definitely not – and puts them to wandering through a smorgasbord of conflicts needing some degree of resolution, all the time providing sufficient suspense and dollops of irony for good measure.
Harris blends all that together like a master chef. But it’s his use of sensory description of time and place that continuously most impresses me. In book after book he puts me so entirely into the setting that it’s as if I’m actually there. Ancient Rome comes so completely alive in his fine three volume novelization of Cicero’s life (Imperium, Conspirita, and Dictator) that the Ides of March section (not Julius Caesar’s best day) was so real it was as if I was standing close enough to have my toga splattered by blood.
When I read Pompeii I – in a toga again; maybe I should buy one – was as frustrated as the protagonist, a first century engineer who tried to warn the citizens of that beautiful city about what the volcano that filled up the horizon was about to do.
Enigma took me so totally into the famous think tank at England’s Bletchley Park that I could smell the pipe smoke of the geniuses who worked furiously through Nazi codes, the breaking of which would turn the tide of the war.
When I read Conclave I sat staring up at Michelangelo’s exquisite artwork on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel as my fellow cardinals and I went through vote after vote to select the next pope amidst political shenanigans and intrigue. And as I am reading An Officer and a Spy, my current field trip with Robert Harris about the famous Dreyfus espionage case, I’m right there in Paris of the 1880’s feeling the falling winter snow on my face as I walk along the Champs Elysses or sitting outside a little café trying to enjoy a drink on a scorching summer day while the stench of the underground sewers lifts up through the grates of the cobbled streets.
In short, I like this teller of tales very much indeed. So much so, in fact, that I hope he never retires, but keeps writing novels in the English village in Berkshire where he lives with his wife in a former vicarage.
If you are a reader, I suggest you let yourself be transported completely to another time and place by a storyteller who is as good at it as any I’ve encountered, and better than most.
And if you intend to be a writer I suggest you read his books for … the very same reason. Because when you can do what he does you’ll be a writer in the true sense of the word.