Civil War historical mystery
Owen Parry turned his back on a successful career to write. From earlychildhood, he was told of his ancestors who fell in Union blue, and eachyears his parents took him to our great battlefields. His own militaryservice taught him about the unreported valor of the common man.
An Interview with Owen Parry, author of Faded Coat of Blue
by Ellen Healy
Family history--an ancestor was lost at the Battle of Gettysburg--inspired author Owen Parry to recreate one of this country's most tragic conflicts in his new novel Faded Coat of Blue. Through the eyes and words of his hero, Abel Jones, we see the opening days of the Civil War in bold color and striking contrasts.
Abel Jones, a man of strong faith and moral convictions, as well as a veteran of Queen Victoria's wars, feels it his patriotic duty to enlist in
the Union Army and aid his adopted country. He is soon appointed to investigate the suspicious death of a young Union officer who was a vehement supporter of abolition. From the wealthy mansions of Philadelphia, to the bordellos of Washington, D.C., Abel finds himself caught in a web of deceit at every turn.
MysteryNet: As a first novel, why did you choose to write a historical mystery? Are you a fan of mysteries?
Parry: I am a fan of good writing, wherever I find it. I chose a Civil War setting because the period fascinates me; my family traditions reach back to it; and I believe the Civil War shaped the United States we know. It was a marvelously dramatic time.
As for mysteries, I'm always disappointed that many "serious" critics tend to look down on them as a second-rate form of writing. What type of story better allows an author to examine the richness of humankind, the drama of men and women under stress, and the complexities of human nature? I chose to write a mystery because I believed I could offer readers an exciting experience that still engaged issues that matter to me: the difficulty of being a moral person surrounded by the immoral, the quest for justice that makes us better than the animals, and the richness of the American historical and immigrant experience. Mysteries offer us great entertainment, certainly, but also a window into the human condition. It's a great form. I hope I have done justice by it.
MysteryNet: What authors do you admire, or haveinfluenced you to write?
Parry: I admire any man or woman with the fortitude to sit down and write a book. As for which authors influenced me to write, there are far too many to list. We're influenced by all that we read, good and bad. Certainly, my childhood reading was important. Although my parents were not formally educated, they always made sure there were books around the house, and I recall my father spending dollars that mattered to us to buy me books I wanted. My father was a great storyteller, too. And I was drawn to history early. Our family lost an ancestor in the Gettysburg campaign--at least that's when his letters stopped coming--and each year on Memorial Day we packed up the car and a picnic and visited Gettysburg. When a child develops a feel for history--the story of who we are--it never leaves him or her.
As for specific authors, I'm always a bit reluctant to name individual names, since that means leaving others out. But I'll offer a few. In the mystery field, you still can't beat Arthur Conan Doyle, although, on this side of the ocean, the great noir writers of the thirties through fifties came close. While many fine mysteries are written today, they seem to me too often to lack depth and richness of character. I don't like books where cheap irony or easy cynicism substitutes for the exploration of the soul that the best mysteries give us. The ultimate mystery is the riddle of the human heart. The closer a story takes me to that riddle, the more rewarding I find it. Cheap shocks are never as terrifying as the darkness within the human soul.
Regarding non-mystery novelists, it's actually pretty easy to list my favorite living writers: Robert Stone and Thomas Flanagan in America, but, above all others, the magnificent Penelope Fitzgerald, the true jewel in England's crown. Ms. Fitzgerald, who did not begin writing until she was in her sixties and is now in her eighties, actually has written a few novels that qualify as mysteries, but the real mystery is how any human being can write so well with such consistency. She is touched with genius.
We live in a world rich with books. I would love to write for hours about those I value--but wouldn't it be better for us all to use that time reading a good book?
MysteryNet: What was the basis for choosing to write of the American Civil War? Is Abel Jones based on a real person?
Parry: The second question first: no, Abel Jones is not based upon a real person. But he is really, really Welsh. Although we had been in America for generations, my mother's family still had a wonderful Welsh lilt when they spoke. When I sat down to write Faded Coat of Blue, I had only to remember.
As for the American Civil War theme, apart from the family legacy, I know of no period so richly dramatic, with such bold themes and vivid characters. It truly did shape America. Also, although my first goal is to write a sound entertainment, the period setting allows a writer to explore how we became who we are. But I did not want to write "battle books." Although the war--and battles--certainly will figure in the Abel Jones series, we don't need another dramatization of the Battle of Gettysburg. I honor the heroes in uniform, but am drawn more to the privates than to the generals. I'm fascinated by the attempt to understand and recreate the past. How did men and women live? What mattered to them? What was the rhythm of their days? How did they bring themselves to such enormous sacrifices? The Civil War is a glorious, brutal, idealistic, bitter period. Once you reach behind the military campaigns, there is unexplored territory and settings for many a good mystery novel. Famous figures will appear but the emphasis will always be on ordinary men and women.
MysteryNet: Some of the reviews already out on Faded Coat of Blue refer to comparing the moral atmosphere of your book to the political climate of today. Do you see similarity, and if so, was it intentional?
Parry: Faded Coat of Blue is about America in 1861, not America in 1999 or 2000. One of the great pitfalls for writers of historical fiction is to take a character with a modern sensibility and dress him or her up in the costume of a bygone era. I have done my best to make the characters men and women of their times (the reader will have to judge whether I've succeeded or failed). When Abel Jones reacts to something, he reacts as a Welsh Methodist immigrant and veteran of the East India Company's military might have reacted in 1861.
That said, there are obvious parallels between Washington in 1861 and Washington in the 1990's. A battered White House, fractious Congress, whopping corruption in arms purchases, prejudice toward immigrants, a sense of societal decay--but it only shows how much continuity there is in the human experience. In other respects, there are great differences. For example, Abel Jones, the budding detective in the novel, is a man of religious convictions. No fanatic, he nonetheless turns to his faith when the world seems all against him. Certainly, there are many such men and women today--but it's sad that, had I written such a character in a novel set in the 1990's, he would have been an object of derision for many critics. Writing in a historical context allows an author to include faith as one of a man's or woman's characteristics. Now I want to be clear--this is not a religious book, nor a sermon. But Abel Jones is a man of his time, and the times were rich with faith. The book also has other characters who represent the less attractive side of humankind.The thing is, I really like Abel Jones, and wish I could be more like him.
He is stalwart, moral, loving, resilient, intelligent, though not brilliant, and capable of great faith, whether in his religion, his beloved wife, or his adopted country. He remarks, at one point, that he would rather think good of a man than evil. Perhaps that it the core of it all: that we should just try to think good of others, rather than evil. I know there is evil in the world. I have seen more of it than I would like.
But, as an author, I will not celebrate it. Like Abel Jones, I believe that good will triumph, if each of us does our part.
MysteryNet: Historical accuracy is so clearly important to you in the book. Can you describe your research methods and sources, and how long you researched this book?
Parry: In a sense, I've been researching the Abel Jones series since childhood. When I was twelve, I wrote a history of the Civil War--and it was nearly published. Throughout my life, I have kept it as a hobby--visiting battlefields, reading, thinking. But, when this series occurred to me, I threw myself into "serious" research. I visited archives, historical societies, libraries. The original sources, such as the newspapers of the period, are just wonderful to read. Very different standards, in some respects. But, often, the quality of the prose is better than that which we write today. I think the old rule that a writer should know ten things about his subject for every one thing he includes in the text is a good one. I don't believe in doing "just enough" research. I want to inhabit the period. And I read carefully, learning from the missteps of other authors. One of the commonest mistakes I've seen is "laundry-listing." In his or her research, the writer uncovers a wealth of fascinating information and feels he or she must somehow get it all into the book. But part of the art of writing is, I think, strict selectivity. No matter how much you've learned, or how much it interests you, you should only include the details that help bring the book to life. Cut the rest. The reader should never feel that he or she is reading a textbook. Keep the story foremost. Keep things moving. Let the atmosphere curl around the characters like smoke.
Yes, accuracy is important to me. A writer will always make mistakes, but it's his or her duty to minimize them through hard work. Perhaps it's vain, but I would like the Abel Jones series to be so accurate, in fact and feel, that readers would take away a better sense of our national past. I'm not interested in fooling the reader--just convincing him or her that I know what I'm writing about--I want to share an accurate, living vision of our yesterdays.
No book is complete until it is read. The author begins the book, but the reader finishes it. Although it's not part of your question, let me add that I feel it is the obligation of an author to always--ALWAYS--give his or her best. Good enough is not good enough. You must do the very best that you can each time. The reader is giving you both his or her hard-earned money and precious time. You owe them your best. That doesn't mean I think every writer has to write War and Peace every time he or she sits down. We all have different levels of talent--but we must strive to do the best with the talent we're given. To me, failure would mean offering the reader less than the highest quality of which I'm personally capable. Respect for the reader is the writer's first duty.
MysteryNet: In writing a historical mystery, did you start with the historical setting and work the characters in, or begin with the characterization and weave the history around it?
Parry: The human mind is a strange and wonderful device. The character of Abel Jones and the broad plot of the book came to me out of the blue, in a matter of seconds, while I was stuck in traffic on a bridge. Of course, it was all probably bubbling in my subconscious for a long time, but, by the time traffic began to move, I knew I would write that book. Of course, the actual writing took considerably longer, and was a good bit harder than steering out of a traffic jam.
MysteryNet: Last question.... Can you give us a little hint of what's coming in the next book? We look forward to meeting Abel Jones again.
Parry: I'm truly honored that you enjoyed the book. Abel blushes, drops his eyes, clears his throat, and says, "Thank you, mum." He'll see you again next year.
Each novel in the series will have the same narrator, of course, and characters that rotate in and out, developing their lives over the years, but the setting and plot will be very different each time. I promise the reader I will never turn out novels by formula. So--the second book takes Abel Jones to upstate New York, in the winter of 1861-62, where he will be confronted with the Spiritualist movement (a powerful, suppressed part of the period history), grisly murders, immigrant conspiracies, and international plots. Meanwhile, his new friend, Dr. Tyrone will see the war in the West. The greatest part of the book is set in the Finger Lake District, which I find ravishing--especially in winter. It's America's Yorkshire Moors--and I joke about the second Abel Jones novel being my "Victorian Gothic" book. Anyway, that one is already written and at the publisher's. I hope to offer the reader one novel a year featuring Abel Jones. The only thing that could slow that down would be if I felt the quality was slipping. Quality cannot be compromised.
Meanwhile, I'm researching the third and fourth Abel Jones novels, the third to be set in the Deep South after the Battle of Shiloh, focused on the institution of slavery, the dying Old South, and murders at the hands of zealots, and the fourth to involve blockade runners and a trip by Abel to the smoky streets of Glasgow, Scotland, with its mills, shipyards, fortunes and horrendous slums. I have rough plots for the first seven or eight of the novels--but all this depends on the reader. If the series can attract enough fans to keep my publisher happy, then the books, God willing, will keep coming.
Ellen Healy is a former library assistant who is living her dream of working in a mystery bookstore. She lives in New Jersey with her husband, two teenage sons, and her books.
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