Saturday, October 26, 2019

The Mob, Little Italy, and Me...

I'm pleased to join the contributors roster for the website CrimeReads, which is part of lithub and does a tremendous job covering crime fiction and nonfiction.

My first story is about two writers who've made fine careers out of writing books on "the Mob": Anthony DeStefano and Nicholas Pileggi. In Pileggi's case, two of his books have been turned into Martin Scorsese films: Goodfellas and Casino.

In telling their story, I also wrote about the Mafia itself and its connection to Little Italy. Honestly, this is something I've been interested in for years. My feature opens at the San Gennaro Festival, which attracts many thousands of people to Mulberry Street every autumn. Sharing a photo I took of the parade here:

The Mulberry Street parade, with the band wearing the colors of Italy

My story begins....

It was the second week of September, but a cool, fitful rain spattered those who’d turned out for the opening of the annual San Gennaro Festival in New York, a stretch of days beloved of sausage-and-peppers food vendors and cannoli-eating contestants. It was the 93rd annual celebration of the feast, and there was no question that, despite the weather, the stately parade would make its way down Mulberry. A quartet of men pushed down the street the tablecloth-covered wheeled bureau which supported the statue of the martyred patron saint of Naples, followed by a marching band wearing green, white, and red, the colors of the Italian flag.

Over time, Little Italy has shrunk from 50 densely populated Lower Manhattan blocks to a three-block tourist-saturated radius around Mulberry Street. In a roughly parallel decline, the New York mafia, whose most feared members once plotted elaborate crimes in the neighborhood while meeting for dinner, has lost its grip. The heads of the famed five families died—some of them while in prison—and haven’t been replaced with vigor.

The San Gennaro Festival has figured in some of the most iconic films telling dramatic stories of the mob. Robert De Niro, playing a young Vito Corleone, shoots Don Fanucci, a “black hand” extortionist, during the festival in Godfather II, directed by Francis Ford Coppola in 1974. The festival features in Godfather III too, with another young Corleone, played by Andy Garcia, impersonating a NYPD copy on horseback and dispatching Joey Zaza, played by Joe Montegna. The festival serves as a setting for scenes in Mean Streets, directed by Martin Scorsese. As for television, the Italian American festival appears in everything from CSI: NY to a recent episode of the Showtime series Billions.

The same drizzly September evening as the festival’s opening, the New York mafia was actually the topic of a deeply informed discussion nearby. The talk was held at McNally Jackson on Prince Street, though the neighborhood that the independent bookstore lays claim to on its website is Nolita, not Little Italy. The occasion? A talk with two writers known for their mastery of nonfiction that chronicles the most infamous mobsters of our time: Anthony M. DeStefano, author of the newly published Gotti’s Boys: The Mafia Crew That Killed for John Gotti, and Nicholas Pileggi, author of the acclaimed books Wiseguy (1985) and Casino: Love and Honor in Las Vegas (1995).

To read the CrimeReads article in its entirety, please go here:

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Guest Post By Tudor Novelist Tony Riches

Charles Brandon’s Marriage to Katherine Willoughby

By Tony Riches

Charles Brandon, Tudor knight and best friend of King Henry VIII, is best known for secretly marrying Mary Tudor, the king’s sister – without Henry’s permission! Less well known is his last marriage, to Lady Katherine Willoughby.

I’ve just completed two years of work researching and writing my latest book, Katherine – Tudor Duchess, which concludes the story of Charles Brandon, and would like to share a little of her story.

Katherine was the only surviving daughter of Baron William Willoughby of Eresby, by his second wife Maria De Salinas, a Spanish Maid of Honour who came to England with Catherine of Aragon in October, 1501. Maria was one of the queen’s closest companions and it is thought she named her daughter after Queen Catherine.

Records of the time suggest that Katherine Willoughby was an attractive, well-educated girl, who became a baroness in her own right after her father died in 1526. Charles Brandon would have been well aware that she was also the heiress to a substantial income of 15,000 ducats a year.

It was little surprise to anyone when Brandon persuaded King Henry to let him buy the wardship of young Katherine Willoughby in 1528 (even though it seems he was, as usual, heavily in debt). Brandon’s plan was to secure her as a wife for his son, the eleven-year-old Henry, Earl of Lincoln (named after the king), once he came of age.

Katherine moved in to Brandon’s manor house at Westhorpe in the Suffolk countryside. She seems to have been happy to have Brandon’s daughters, Frances and Eleanor, as well as young Henry, for company, with Charles and Mary acting as her guardians. 

Mary Tudor was a friend and neighbour of Katherine’s mother, Maria, who probably saw this arrangement as likely to provide the most secure future for her daughter. Mary had been suffering from a long illness and died at Westhorpe on the 25 June 1533.

Brandon, who was then aged forty-eight, decided it would be best if he married young Katherine (then aged fourteen) himself, and did so barely two months after Mary’s death. We must take care, of course, not to judge Charles Brandon by modern standards, although I’m sure he enjoyed a few knowing winks from King Henry and his courtiers.

Importantly, it seems Katherine was happy to become Duchess of Suffolk, particularly when Brandon’s son, Henry, died the following year. Brandon’s marriage to Katherine secured him the rights to her lands in many parts of Lincolnshire, and by 1538 he became the greatest landowner in the county.

You can find out more about the first part of Charles Brandon and Katherine Willoughby’s story in my novel, Brandon – Tudor Knight, After Brandon’s death, there was talk that the king might marry Katherine himself – but what actually became of her is proof that the truth really is stranger than fiction.

Tony Riches

Interested in reading the book about Katherine Willoughby? Order here:

(The audiobook edition will be available in 2020)

Tony Riches is a full-time UK author of best-selling historical fiction. He lives in Pembrokeshire, West Wales and is a specialist in the history of the Wars of the Roses and the lives of the early Tudors. For more information about Tony’s books please visit his website and his popular blog, The Writing Desk and find him on Facebook and Twitter @tonyriches

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

A 'Quantum' Leap with Patricia Cornwell

I have enormous respect for Patricia Cornwell, who has sold about 100 million Kay Scarpetta mysteries--not bad, right?--plus devoted herself to solving the Jack the Ripper identity challenge, paying for her own forensic research.

But then I heard that she was starting a new series with a cybercrime plot. Wow. I had to put up my hand with Thomas & Mercer to request an interview of Cornwell on Quantum. Cybercrime is my wheelhouse, so to speak. 

In my phone interview, Patricia was fascinating and funny, talking a mile a minute. Here's the opening of my story for BookTrib:

One on One With Patricia Cornwell: Scarpetta, Forensics, Cybercrime and More

"My special sauce is to make things a little creepy. If you don’t want to be creeped out, don’t read me because I’m going to be doing something creepy somewhere.”
Patricia Cornwell transformed the mystery genre with her Kay Scarpetta series, which made its debut in 1990 with Postmortem and set off a frenzy of enthusiasm for learning the details of forensics. Since then, she’s sold some 100 million books.
After working as a journalist, Cornwell had taken a job at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner of Virginia, and the knowledge she gained was put to great use in the creation of Scarpetta, the brilliant blonde Chief Medical Examiner for the Commonwealth of Virginia at Richmond.
Now Cornwell is launching a new thriller series with the novel Quantum (Thomas & Mercer), featuring Dr. Calli Chase, a young NASA pilot, quantum physicist, and cybercrime investigator.
When the novel begins, Chase is investigating a tripped alarm in the tunnels below a NASA research center in Virginia. Outside, a blizzard is bearing down and a government shutdown looms. Inside the tunnel, Chase is busy dealing with the complaints of a claustrophobic colleague when she discovers a spatter of dried blood where no one should have been. 

To read the rest of my interview, go here.

Saturday, October 5, 2019

Incomparable Power: Hittite Queens

My guest today is award-winning author Judith Starkston, a classicist who feeds her obsession with the Bronze Age world of the Greeks and Hittites by writing historical fiction and fantasy. The first book of her Hittite series, Priestess of Ishana, is available FREE on Amazon Oct 2-6 in anticipation of the upcoming release of the second title in the series, Sorcery in Alpara.

You can connect with Judith Starkston on her website, newsletter, Twitter, Facebook and Bookbub.

From Judith:

I write historical fantasy based on the Bronze Age Hittites (c. 1275 BCE)—an empire of the ancient Near East nearly buried by the sands of time. In spite of the vivid glimpses of this lost kingdom brought to light by recent archaeology and the decipherment and translation of many thousands of clay tablets, there still remain vast gaps in historians’ knowledge. To be honest about my imaginative filling of those gaps, my storytelling combines fantasy and history.

For instance, I give my historical figures fictional names, though often only minimally different from their real names. I also let the magical religious beliefs of these historical people find full expression in the action. My “quarter turn to the fantastic,” to borrow Guy Gavriel Kay’s phrase, allows me to honor what we actually know while also owning up to my inventive extensions. Allowing room for the fantastical elements suggested by Hittite culture makes for the best storytelling.

The main character of my series, Tesha, is based directly on the historical Hittite queen Puduhepa. I chose to name her Tesha after the Hittite word for “dream” because Puduhepa was famous for visionary dreams sent by her goddess. Part of the appeal of writing a series based on Puduhepa comes from the model of female leadership she offers. She reigned for decades over the most powerful empire in the world at that time.

The Hittite empire stretched across what is modern Turkey and parts of Syria and down into Lebanon. It was thus close to Mesopotamia and borrowed a great deal from that and other Near Eastern civilizations. Hittite tradition about queenship, however, is distinctly different.

Hittite queens, unlike all the surrounding realms, held independent office for life. When their husbands died, they continued to rule, usually as co-rulers with their sons. The Hittite state allowed a full political role for these women. At the same time, Puduhepa took this allowed role to an active extreme not seen for other Hittite queens. Perhaps there were many other politically energetic queens who are not noted in our scanty historical accounts, but, interestingly and misogynistically, the other active queens we read about are renowned for killing off female rivals by sorcery and scheming to put their sons on the throne and negative acts like these. Puduhepa appears to be an anomaly, despite the powers granted to women by Hittite tradition. However, if there had not been this long tradition of respect for the role and status of queen, Puduhepa’s unique personality would not have had room to express itself.

She enforced laws in her land to bring about fair justice, even when she had to decide court cases in favor of foreign merchants against her own citizens. She diplomatically corralled Pharaoh Rameses II into a peace treaty that, frankly, she and her husband Hattusili needed more than Egypt did, and she made it last. She held her power with her husband, but they shared equal control, a reality demonstrated visually on the peace treaty drawn up with Egypt. On one side of the version made of solid silver for public display, Puduhepa pressed her seal. On the other side, her husband placed his. They did have a joint seal they could have used, but on this most impressive accomplishment, their independent seals appear. Her judicial decrees and letters to world rulers frequently have only her name and seal on them—she didn’t need her husband’s blessing to administer her authority.

Puduhepa’s international correspondence is extensive. In comparison, we know of only two letters addressed to the Hittite court by Puduhepa’s Egyptian contemporary, Ramses’ wife Naptera, and those letters contain primarily polite greetings from one woman to another. Among Puduhepa’s extant letters are diplomatic exchanges with the kings of Cyprus, Babylonia and other countries. In one letter she grants lands to vassal kings under her sole authority. The Hittite expression, equivalent to “Your Majesty” was “My Sun” and it gets applied to both Puduhepa and Hattusili in the correspondence.

There was an exclusive group in the Late Bronze Age Near Eastern world. Certain kings referred to each other as “brother,” but only the kings of highest power: primarily Egypt, Babylonia and the Hittite Empire. Later, when Assyria’s power was on the rise, an Assyrian king was begrudgingly granted the right to use the term “brother” when addressing the Egyptian or Hittite kings. So how did Ramesses II refer to Queen Puduhepa? As “sister.” He didn’t give his own queens this high status.

Puduhepa ruled in a society that gave her legal rights to her power, unlike the surrounding kingdoms of the ancient Near East, but she also made more extensive use of those rights than any other Hittite queen. Part of this arises from her brilliance and personality. Part also came from the close partnership she shared with her husband. Their love for each other and genuine trust seems to have granted her extraordinary talents the room to flourish. Her accomplishments offer a worthwhile model for the modern world as much as a window into the ancient one.

“What George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones did for the War of the Roses, Starkston has done for the forgotten Bronze Age Hittite civilization. Mystery, romance, political intrigue, and magic…” -Amalia Carosella

A curse, a conspiracy and the clash of kingdoms. A defiant priestess confronts her foes, armed only with ingenuity and forbidden magic.

An award-winning epic fantasy, Priestess of Ishana draws on the true-life of a remarkable but little-known Hittite queen who ruled over one of history’s most powerful empires.

A malignant curse from the Underworld threatens Tesha’s city with fiery devastation. The young priestess of Ishana, goddess of love and war, must overcome this demonic darkness. Charred remains of an enemy of the Hitolian Empire reveal both treason and evil magic. Into this crisis, King Hattu, the younger brother of the Great King, arrives to make offerings to the goddess Ishana, but he conceals his true mission in the city. As a connection sparks between King Hattu and Tesha, the Grand Votary accuses Hattu of murderous sorcery. Isolated in prison and facing execution, Hattu’s only hope lies in Tesha to uncover the conspiracy against him. Unfortunately, the Grand Votary is Tesha’s father, a rash, unyielding man, and now her worst enemy. To help Hattu, she must risk destroying her own father.

If you like a rich mixture of murder mystery, imperial scheming, sorcery, love story, and lavish world-building, then immerse yourself in this historical fantasy series. See why readers call the Tesha series “fast-paced,” “psychologically riveting,” and “not to be missed.”

A curse that consumes armies, a court full of traitors, a clutch of angry concubines and fantastical creatures who offer help but hate mankind.

Tesha’s about to become queen of a kingdom under assault from all sides, but she has powerful allies: her strategist husband, his crafty second-in-command, and her brilliant blind sister.

Then betrayal strips her of them all. To save her marriage and her world, she will have to grapple with the serpentine plot against her and unleash the goddess Ishana’s uncontrollable magic—without destroying herself.

“Based on historical events in the Bronze Age, Starkston wraps history and magic together in an unforgettable package.”