I started work on The Message of Blood, book 8 of the Thomas Berrington series, in the last week and already the first draft is 11% complete. There’s a lot of work still to do, but I have a scheduled release date for 13th February 2020. It might seem a long way off, but I plan to complete the 9th book for release in June or July 2020. That will complete the Spanish phase of Thomas and Jorge’s story, but don’t worry because after a short – and relatively peaceful – hiatus in their lives they will return together to England in the company of Catherine of Aragon. And yes, there will be murders, and mysteries, and everything you have come to expect of the series, but by then Thomas will have returned to Lemster, the town he was born in.
A scene from the book, Columbus petitioning Queen Isabel, while she looks bored.
Tentative blurb for The Message of Blood:
Can you expose a killer when they are your best friend?
Spain: 1490. Cordoba, Andlusia
When Thomas Berrington is sent to Cordoba on the orders of a man he hates he welcomes the distraction of a crime, but is shocked when the evidence points to the killer being his closest companion.
When Jorge is imprisoned Thomas has to continue the investigation alone. His task is made harder by the distraction of two beautiful women.
As the truth is uncovered Thomas has to twist and turn through the confusion of Jorge’s past, uncovering a myriad of revelations each of which throws up a new suspect.
Finally reunited the pair come ever closer to revealing the culprit, only to be confronted with a more powerful adversary than they have ever encountered before.
While I was attending the London Book Fair I got chatting with internet advertising guru Mark Dawson, and he asked if I would do a quick interview to tell my story of how I discovered FB Advertising. I said of course (who wouldn’t). It turned into half an hour with James Blatch and you can see the results here with Me being interviewed by James Blatch
If you don’t want to wait, the interview starts around 8 minutes in.
For those interested I thought you might like to read Chapter 1 of the forthcoming Book 6 in the Thomas Berrington Historical Mysteries. This is a first draft only, so might change a little in the finished book.
Thomas Berrington stared at a wooden pallet, its surface stained by years of misuse.
“Tell me, how exactly did you manage to lose a body?” He wiped at blood-stained hands with a damp cloth but it did little good. Only a long bath might do that.
“I did not lose it,” said Lubna, her face set. “I delivered the woman to this pallet before noon and informed the mortuary officer of her location.”
“Perhaps the family collected it, then. Did you check?” He made little attempt to hide his impatience. He had been sent for as he was trying to save an unborn child, the mother beyond any need of his skills. She had been brought in by her husband after falling from the city wall. Thomas was in a bad temper after the man had refused to accept the infant he had saved because it was a girl.
“Of course I checked. Would I send for you if it was that simple? Nobody has come to claim her.”
“You are sure she was dead?”
Lubna cast him a glance that said more than words, perhaps not wanting to sour the atmosphere between them any more by speaking, and Thomas realised he was being too harsh on her. He had lost bodies in the past under similar circumstances. The infirmary in Malaka was both large and busy. He sometimes wondered how any body made its way to its family after it had stopped breathing. Thomas touched Lubna’s shoulder but she pulled away. Not forgiven yet, then.
He wondered if she was distracted by thoughts of the child she carried. Over six months now, beyond the time she had lost their first when they had visited Ixbilya for Thomas to attend the Queen. It had been on his mind of late, hers too, he was sure. He knew he may have been too attentive, too cosseting. Lubna was not a woman to be cosseted, even less so this last year. They had come to Malaka so she could attend the Infirmary, the place Thomas had learned his skills. That had been many years before, half a lifetime, and much had changed in the years since. Except Malaka was still where people came to learn the skills of a physician, ever since Persia fell to Mongol hordes.
It had not been easy for Lubna. As a woman she had not been made welcome, only accepted in the end because she was Thomas Berrington’s wife and everyone knew of his reputation. A reputation that brought respect but little fondness. The lack of the latter did not concern him and never had. Ability and an open mind meant more, and Lubna possessed both.
“What did she die of?” he asked.
“Does it matter?”
“I am curious.”
“In that case, I don’t know. There was nothing physically wrong that I could find. It was as if she no longer wanted to live.”
Thomas frowned. “Such a thing is possible, but rare.”
“Which is why I wanted you to see her, why I came for you. I have learned much this last year but not enough to explain what happened to this woman.”
“We’ll go to the Clerk of records,” Thomas said. “The body might have been mistaken for someone else and given to the wrong family. I have seen it happen before.”
Lubna fell into step beside him. “How often?”
“Not often, but four or five times over the years. It is surprising how many people do not wish to look at the face of a loved one once life has departed.”
The administration offices lay outside the Infirmary, requiring the crossing of a busy road and ascent of marble steps beneath the onslaught of a fierce sun. It was as they climbed the steps that a commotion broke out behind them, a man shouting at a group of musicians.
Thomas stopped and looked back.
“Leave it for someone else,” said Lubna. “You cannot heal the entire world.”
He glanced at her. She was right, the thought clear in his mind even as his body carried him back the way they had come. It was none of his business, but sometimes that made a thing more interesting rather than less. Besides, the missing body would still be missing an hour from now. Or would have been found.
As he approached the gathering Thomas heard laughter and jeering, and saw it was not only the musicians who were being accosted but a well-dressed man he recognised as Ali Durdush, grand master of the Malaka Guilds and almost certainly the richest man in the city, if not all of al-Andalus.
“What is going on?” he asked of an onlooker.
“It’s that idiot preacher, al-Antiqamun. Everyone is his enemy today. He has already torn Durdush’s cloak and now it’s the women he has it in for.”
Thomas watched as the ragged-robed man, tangled hair falling almost to his waist, berated two female dancers. Four others tried to continue their dance but the musicians were faltering. A few laid down their instruments and approached the altercation.
The rotund figure of Ali Durdush bustled away. He glanced in Thomas’s direction and offered a nod of recognition before moving on.
When Thomas looked back at the preacher he had grasped the arm of one of the women and was trying to force her to her knees. All the others had stopped dancing and gathered around. Voices were raised. And then a knife appeared, flashing sharp light from its blade, and al-Antiqamun staggered backward and fell to one knee.
Thomas pushed through the crowd. They had stopped laughing, but one or two now called threats. He reached the preacher and tried to find a wound, but before he could one of the musicians pushed him away.
“Let me finish it,” he said. “This crazy man has been following us for a week now and I will have it no more.”
Thomas watched a blade hang loose in the musician’s hand, the drip of blood from its tip. The man was short, slim, with corded muscle showing in his arms. His accent placed him from the north coast of Africa.
“Leave him be,” Thomas said, and something in his eyes gave the musician pause. Thomas turned back to the preacher and lifted sections of robe until he found the wound. A slash to the arm. Nothing serious, but it would need binding and a salve applied to prevent infection. He saw older scars and knew this was not the first attack on the man. Al-Antiqamun had no-one to blame but himself.
“I need to treat you,” Thomas said, steadying the preacher as he rose. He was tall, with a wild beard that matched his hair. His face was surprisingly intelligent, the eyes calm. Or empty.
“I need no heathen to mend me. Allah sees to his own.” He looked beyond Thomas and scowled at the musicians who were packing their instruments, about to move on.
“You must leave them in peace. They do no harm.”
“Allah forbids it. Music. Dancing. Women in clothing designed to reveal their bodies. It is against what is written.” He looked around. “And where did the fat fool get to, I’ve not finished with him yet.” His gaze returned to Thomas. “I know you.”
“Many do. And I know you, but not your true name.”
“I am al-Antiqamun.”
“I know that too, but it is not your given name, is it?”
“I am al-Antiqamun,” he said again, and Thomas knew it was all the answer he would get, perhaps all the answer the man knew. The child he had once been was long lost in his visions of heaven and hell. Or vengeance. For that was what his adopted name meant in Arabic. Vengeance.
“You are the stranger,” al-Antiqamun said, his voice as calm as his eyes now the dancers had moved away. “The butcher, they call you, do they not?” He smiled. “When Allah’s fire cleanses this land of unbelievers it will scorch the flesh from your bones, gassab.” His head turned, seeking new victims and finding Lubna waiting on the steps for Thomas. “But your wife is devout, I hear. She will live.” As if such was in his gift to offer or take away.
Thomas turned away. The man could bleed to death for all he cared. Those already dead were waiting for him.
We are the proud owners of a house in Spain. I know, it’s tough, but someone has to stand up and say Brexit might be Brexit but some of us still believe in Europe. But this is not meant to be a political post, so no more of that nonsense. Please… no more of that nonsense.
My wife and I appeared on the UK television show A Place in the Sun in February 2017. More about that experience in another post, but it is enough to say we made an offer on the second property we saw. It was accepted, and within three weeks we flew out to take possession. Which is when our education began.
Our house sits on a hillside in a small hamlet that is unknown to Google maps. That should have been a warning, but not one we took any notice of. Not then.
Our house is also classified as “rural”. Which means it’s Campo.
What is Campo?
Look carefully – the little blue dot is our water meter!
Campo is anywhere that is not connected to the grid, likely has no paved road to it, no telephone service, and no postal service. Usually water is supplied from a well or a tank on your roof. It’s more than rural. And often times the house you think you bought is not shown on any official plan.
We were lucky.
When you try to buy anything or get anything delivered you will invariably get asked “Are you Campo? Even something as simple as your post. We take some things for granted in the UK and most of the rest of Europe, like a telephone line, the internet, water, electricity and so on. Except we are lucky. We have both water and electric. But no phone. And we have internet, but again that’s a long story.
Anyway – when we arrived our land was thigh high in weeds so I drove into our closest large town, Velez Malaga, to buy a strimmer. There was a Stihl shop. I had been told Stihl was the best petrol driven strimmer to buy. I’m not stupid. I went into the shop.
First question from the lovely lady behind the counter:
“Are you Campo?” Except it was in Spanish. But I had my phone and I had Google translate.
“Semi-campo,” I said.
She smiled indulgently.
I asked how much the strimmers were.
She extracted a thick catalogue. It contained no prices. But she went through four pages and wrote in the prices for me while I took sharp intakes of breath.
Then she smiled and crossed them all out and wrote their special prices.
Another smile. Another crossing out. By now she had taken 30% off the price if I came in on Tuesday or Thursday. Apparently if you buy equipment on those days, between certain hours, you don’t pay any VAT (IVT in Spanish). I don’t know if this is official government policy or not but it seems to apply to all agricultural and machinery shops we come across.
It will have to come from Madrid. Three weeks. Everything has to come from Madrid, and it always takes three weeks. It’s a good first estimate.
No – our weeds are thigh high, I said, I need something today.
Ah. You can have this one. It is a little more, but we have it in stock.
Yes, I said.
She then proceeded to take 20 minutes dismantling the strimmer in the showroom and re-assembling it for me. All the while there was a queue of other customers, but this being Spain they managed to amuse themselves while openly staring at the strange Englishman.
I got my strimmer.
It works very well. It’s a Stihl, see.
And then we went to find furniture in Ikea in Malaga.
We asked for it to be delivered.
Are you Campo?
It was becoming a familiar litany.
There are not many Town Halls with a view like this
Next we went to the local post office to see if we could get our mail.
Are you Campo?
Yes, we are bloody Campo!
We don’t deliver to Campo. You can have a post box, but for that you need form XY-double-de-dub from the Town Hall.
The Town Hall don’t know anything about the form, but they do ask if we are Campo.
We are so Campo that after an hour in the Town Hall offices we discover our house is not actually the house on the town plans, but that’s fine, this is Spain, they will correct that for us right there and then. It often happens, they say, houses are sold and sold again but nobody bothers to tell them about it. We will have to wait several months before it is official. Where should they send the paperwork?
But it all worked out in the end, and then as we were about to leave the very nice lady asked if we wanted to vote in the European elections. We could, because we owned a house in Spain, she said. It might not be the house shown on their plans, but we looked like nice people, so we now have authorised forms allowing us to vote in the next Euro elections.
Coming to Spain from the UK is a strange experience, one you need time to adjust to. In a few weeks I will try to explain the joys of shopping in Spain, and next time I’ll wax lyrical over the history of illegal construction.
And yes, if you’re Campo you need to be careful about that. We, it turned out, were lucky.
So the question is: Exactly why did I start writing about Andalusia, and Moorish Spain in particular? I introduced this in part 1 of this post, but didn’t give any reasons why. Here they are.
Some years ago, probably around 2010 or 2011, I was sitting at home with my wife and two children when an idea for a book came to me. I have no idea where it came from, but I said, out of the blue: “Has anyone ever written a detective mystery set in Moorish Spain?” They looked at me like I was crazy, and perhaps I was. But that germ of an idea stuck. I did a little research and found nothing that matched the idea I had in my head, an idea that grew and grew, until in the end it wasn’t going to be one book but ten.
Books 1-5… to be continued…
Each would be set during one year between 1482 – 1492. I’ll explain the time period in a moment. Each book features Thomas Berrington, an orphaned Englishman with a past, who has trained as a surgeon in al-Andalus and acts as physician to the Sultan of Granada. He is asked to investigate a series of murders.
Alongside Thomas is the six-foot eunuch Jorge, Watson to Thomas’s Holmes, an unlikely pairing but one that works. Jorge gets far more fan mail than Thomas ever does.
And the ten year period? Soon…
First, some people know, but many do not, that from 771AD Islamic invaders from North Africa moved swiftly throughout Spain. So swiftly, and so successfully, that within a short period of time they reached as far as Poitiers in France before being stopped, or perhaps deciding to stop.
For centuries all but small enclaves of the Iberian peninsula remained in Moorish hands. Only from the 11th Century onward did Spain begin to push the Moors back from the inland areas until at the end only a small but significant enclave remained. Al-Andalus. Protected on three sides by mountains, and on the fourth by the sea. It remained a beacon of culture in a Europe only slowly emerging from first the Dark Ages and subsequently petty wars and infighting.
This came to an end on January 1st 1492 when King Fernando and Queen Isabel walked through the exquisite gates of the Alhambra palace to accept the surrender of Abu Abdullah, Muhammed XIII, Sultan of Granada. It brought to an end the rule of Islam in Spain. On January 2nd Christopher Columbus entered the palace seeking a final approval for funds to forge a new route to the Indies. He was turned away, only to stop at the gates and return. The rest, as they say, is history. In my version of history, it is Thomas Berrington who meets him at the gate and persuades Columbus to try again. That scene came with that initial idea for the series.
Without the decades’ long struggle by Spain against the Moors, which honed their fighting skills into arguably the finest soldiers in Europe, Columbus’s journeys and the conquest of the Americas would have been a very different thing. This is the world in which I chose to set my books. Those last ten years of chaos and despair for the Moors, those ten years of growing exultation for the Spanish. A time of war, deceit and stupidity. Much like all wars.
So far I have finished five of the episodes, with five more to come.
There is a lot of history to cover.
And I have discovered that other writers have also fallen in love with this time period. It came as both a shock and revelation how others could forge such different books from the same material I was working.
I’m going to cover each of their work in more detail in future posts and ask them to guest blog along the way, but you can follow the links from their names here to find out more and read what are excellent additions to this small genre of Historical fiction. I will leave you, until the next time, with Joan Fallon, Lisa Yarde and John D. Cressler.
Next time I’m going to write about how we ended up living part-time in Spain, and some of the frustration and joy we discovered.
Between April 10th to the 12th the London Book Fair will be running in Earl’s Court, west London.
I have visited before a few years ago, but this year I am attending on two days. On one of those I am part of a panel of authors talking about the advantages of different routes to publish. You can find me as a speaker on The Agony and Ecstacy of becoming a Self-Publisher.
For the first time in three years I am actually in the country for the fantastic Hawksbury Upton Literary Festival, and will be speaking on a panel at 1pm on Six ways to be a writer. This LitFest is small, low-key, and totally free. So if you are in striking distance of Hawksbury Upton in Gloucestershire I would recommend you try to come along. If you do, seek me out and say Hi!
I liked my old covers, I really did. But something about them wasn’t quite right. They didn’t say “Historical” enough–and after all, writing books set in Moorish Spain in the 1480s should say historical, shouldn’t it.
So I commissioned a new set of covers, to coincide with the forthcoming release of The Sin Eater. The fantastic Jessica Bell has done a great job on re-branding the books so now the covers tell you exactly what you can expect inside. A little bit dark, a little bit mysterious, but above all historical. You can see the new covers below, and soon you’ll be able to read The Sin Eater as well.
I was seventeen before I spent my first Christmas apart from family—and I shouldn’t have been there, in more ways than one.
Fairbourne sits in the curve of Wales where it meets the Irish Sea. It’s a small place, and lately getting smaller all the time. It’s also the place where most of my memories of growing up reside.
My parents were the proud owners of a static caravan on a small—some might say primitive—site on the very southern edge of the village. Trapped between the sea, soaring cliffs, a thousand foot mountain and a railway line, the caravan lay no more than forty feet from the sea at high tide.
My earliest memories are of lying in bed with the sound of surf churning and sucking at the pebble bank—the only thing separating us from the waves. Now, fifty odd years later, the bank is damaged and, if another tidal surge occurs the village will be left to its own devices. Sink or swim, as they say. Except, in this case, it will be sink.
Most of us have had a best friend. Mine was a kid called John Walford, who is no longer with us. We spent most weekends together between April and September, and also the long summer break from school. Six whole weeks. My father would deliver us to the coast, a two hour drive in those days and those vehicles, and deposit my mother, myself and my brothers at the caravan. We wouldn’t return home until the day before school started. And for the entire six weeks I was barely indoors. There were cliffs to climb, mountains to explore, fish to be caught, sea to swim in. And a railway bridge.
It spanned—and continues to span—the Mawddach estuary. If you don’t know Wales and don’t know the pronunciation that likely comes out as Mawdak, but it’s softer than that. More like Mowthach except the ch at the end is softer than you think.
The bridge runs for a mile or more, linking the Fairbourne side to Barmouth. It’s fashioned out of thick wooden piles encrusted with barnacles, and if you go there at the right time of year salmon hang lazily in the current before they foray upstream. It was, and remains, one of the most beautiful locations in this world.
The caravan site closes at the end of September and doesn’t open until Easter weekend. Between those dates it is cold, wet, deserted and out of bounds
Except that year when I was seventeen John Walford and I had plans. We were going to spend Christmas at Fairbourne. Whether we were meant to or not.
I took the train because I was only three months into being seventeen and not yet passed my driving test. John, a little older, came on his motorbike. A BSA with learner plates. In those days you could ride a machine up to 250cc on learner plates, so that’s what he did. We met at the caravan site, hoping nobody would discover us. Then we had to decide what to do with ourselves.
The railway line ran above the site, raised on a high boulder bank. When we were younger we’d put pennies on the line and wait for a train to come along. Somebody told us it was dangerous, the coins might derail the train and it would come careening down from its high position. But we did it anyway.
The train would come, roaring and steaming—yes, in those days they steamed—and our pennies would clatter up and outward.
Afterward we went in search of them. If we were lucky they’d be flattened, made twice the size. It was a challenge to put the coin on the line a second, third or fourth time to see how flat, how large they could grow.
But on this Christmas Eve, let loose from family control, we had to go somewhere, do something.
I was too young to drink. Here in the UK you can legally buy and consume alcohol from the age of 18. I wasn’t. But John was.
We both knew there was a public house on the station at the start of the long bridge. In those days it was Barmouth Junction, but now it’s called Morfa Mawddach. Remember the pronunciation? There might be a test later.
We could have ridden there on John’s BSA, but we knew we intended to drink pints of beer. As many as we could manage. It never occurred to us we wouldn’t get served, and in that we were right.
We walked. Along the railway line. Climbing the boulder bank and making our way through the darkness. The last train was due at 10 pm, and we started off at 9. More than enough time. The distance was no more than three or four miles, and that Christmas Eve boasted a clear sky with stars pricking holes through.
At the station we entered the bar, me tentative, John, as always, more confident.
I sat in a wooden chair at a wooden table. John went to the bar. Behind it stood a barmaid. Thirty years old. To me, then, that was old. How things change.
John returned, two pint glasses in hand, and we set to.
When we arrived we were the only customers. Then the last train came through. It stopped. It went on. Two men came into the bar. They glanced around, bought drinks, then took a table across from us. If I thought the barmaid old, these two were ancient. Grizzled men of the hills, farmers or fishermen, we never did find out. But, as the beer continued to flow, they told us the tale of the Ghost Train.
There was a film once, they said, back in the 1940’s. Not a great film, but entertaining all the same. And by coincidence some of the filming took place at the very station, in the very bar, we now sat.
“I don’t believe in ghosts,” said John.
“Don’t matter,” one of the old men said. “They don’t much mind if you do or you don’t. They just am.”
John laughed and I, already the worse for wear, giggled along.
“‘Course—it were based on a true tale.”
John laughed again, but it came out uncomfortable this time.
“Line was busier back then,” the man said. “There’d be ten, twelve trains a day. And the station were busier too. People waiting on people coming home. Except one day they waited too long.” He looked at us both with rheumy eyes which had seen everything, including two kids who had no place in a bar on Christmas Eve. “One day the train went over the cliffs south of town. Went tumbling down, taking all the folks with it. Nobody survived. Except…” He paused, maybe for effect, maybe because his glass was empty.
I got up and went to the bar.
The barmaid eyed me. I more than likely looked even younger than my seventeen years, but she poured four pints of bitter anyway. I paid and carried them back, two in each hand.
The man sipped at his, smiled.
“Except,” he said, “the folks waiting saw the train a-coming. Heard it first, o’course. Always do, don’t you? Then the smoke, and finally the train. ’Cept this time she looked different. Not as solid as she should. But her kept on coming. Coming and coming. And then she roared through the station and out over the bridge, trailing smoke and sparks and wisps of grey… something. Until it was gone. ’Twas only later those folks waiting on their kin heard what had happened.”
“Ghost train, it was,” said his companion.
“That’s right. Ghost train.”
I sat back. I listened—for the sound of a distant whistle, for the rumble of something on the tracks. Nothing. But, on this first Christmas Eve on my own, the night felt different. I looked at John. He looked back. We nodded and drank our pints and stood.
The moon silvered the track ahead of us as we stepped from wooden sleeper to wooden sleeper, the distance never quite right, either too short or too long. Behind us silver light illuminated the languid current of the Mawddach estuary.
“Bollocks,” said John. “He was talking bollocks.”
“‘Course he was.”
Our breath plumed the air and white frost decorated the grass beside the line. We came to Fairbourne station and went on, little more than half a mile to go. We didn’t speak again. Our eyes followed the twin tracks of the railway line until they met in the distance. We were watching. Waiting for something to appear.
Of course, nothing did.
We came to the bridge over the roadway and John started down the bank.
I hesitated, feeling in my pocket and pulling out a penny. I knelt and laid it on the line, taking a moment to get it square. They always worked better if they were square to the metal.
John stopped and looked back at me, then climbed up and placed his own coin on the other rail.
We stood for a moment staring at them, the sound of the surf on the beach loud, then we scrambled down and burrowed under the covers and slept the sleep of drunken youth.
Except, at some time in the night, I turned over, disturbed by some sound. I was barely conscious, and more than likely what I heard was nothing more than a dream, but it sounded like a train running fast along the line, rattling and clattering, growing loud, louder, then passing to fade away. A distant whistle sounded and I fell back into sleep.
In the morning we woke late. Remembering the dream I climbed the line in search of my penny, only as I was almost there remembering it was Christmas Day and there were no trains. Except I was wrong.
My penny wasn’t on the line where I had left it, solid and squared.
I looked around. Sometimes they would lie close. Other times they were flicked away, sometimes so far you never did find them. This one I did. Ten feet from the line. My penny lay dull in the grass and I bent to pick it up, turned it over, turned it again. It was wide and flat and thin as a sheet of paper where something heavy had run across it in the night. It was wider and flatter and thinner than any I had ever seen before. And some kind of light clung to it in the grey air of Christmas Day.
I tossed it in the air, caught it and slipped it into my pocket. Good luck or bad? I still don’t know.