JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: It is a truth universally acknowledged; that historical personages with fascinating lives must be in want of a mystery novel in which to appear. This is certainly true of Annamaria Alfieri. Juan Peron, Eva Duarte, Spanish kings, conquistadoros, 19th century dictators, 17th century nuns have all played their parts in her novels. Now she turns her attention from Latin America to the vast landscape of Colonial Africa in her upcoming book, Strange Gods, the first in a series. Today, she tells us how her fiction was inspired by the real life characters known to us from Out of Africa, West With the Night, and The Flame Trees of Thika.
Because I write historical mysteries, I do a lot of research. And in the process, the characters I read about in the history books fire my imagination and worm their way into the action. The ones who appeal to me most were enigmatic in their real lives. Historians and biographers disagree on what they were really like. Even their own writings do not come across as the whole truth. I take a stab at making them clear by giving them roles to play in the story.
My new African series launches in late June with Strange Gods, set in British East Africa in 1911. In it, are two real men, both of them love interests of the great Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen) of Out of Africa fame. Neither plays a major part in this first book, but they influence both the solving of the mystery and the budding romance between my two main fictional characters. Much has been written about Dinesen’s two men and ten times that total about Karen herself. I have read a lot of it. Still none of the three—not the men, not Dinesen—has emerged from the pages as well drawn enough to satisfy a reader of fiction.
Blixen’s husband comes across as the clearer of her two men. Bror Blixen-Finecke, a Swedish Baron, agreed to marry Karen Dinesen, a Dane from a wealthy and important family, who was beyond a woman’s normal marriageable age. Blix, as everyone in Africa called him, was the identical twin brother of Dinesen’s lover. When the first-born twin spurned her, she and Blix decided to become engaged and take her dowry in search of a comfortable life and a bit of adventure. Like many of Europe's impoverished aristocracy, he made his way to British East Africa looking for a way for them to live well without having to put in too much effort. There they found more excitement than lucre, which seemed to suit them both.
My fictional Blix, I admit, was based a great deal on Karl Maria Brandauer’s portrayal of him in Sidney Pollack’s film “Out of Africa.” The facts of Blix make him out as a bit of a stick figure—charming, but all adventure seeking and seduction, not the type that excites my fiction-writing juices. In Strange Gods, Blix holds an important piece of information needed in the murder investigation. He will be back in future books.
Denys Finch-Hatton, the love of Karen Blixen’s life, is much more my cup of tea. The second son of an Earl, educated at Eton and Oxford, Denys’s biographers and Karen herself present him as complex and perplexing. Pollack chose Robert Redford to play Finch-Hatton and was roundly criticized for not choosing an Englishman, but the director said no one could project an image of elusiveness on the screen like Redford.
Tempting as it was to spend my time playing with mental images of Robert Redford, my fictional Denys carries the physical description of the real man. Everyone who wrote or spoke about him described him as magnetic and so he shows up in Strange Gods. Once the real Denys moved to Africa, he developed a very un-colonialist attitude toward the local tribesmen. In my story, the newly-arrived Finch-Hatton takes an intense interest in Vera McIntosh, my imaginary daughter of a Scots missionary, who was born on the outskirts of the burgeoning town of Nairobi and raised with a Kikuyu nanny and tribal playmates. In the time Vera and Denys share, I portray Vera as the source of Finch-Hatton’s sympathetic attitudes toward the African natives. With one foot in the world of the British settlers and the other in the Africa of people who have lived there since the dawn of man, Vera teaches Finch-Hatton how to think generously about the gorgeous land they now both inhabit.
The planned series will progress with one book set in each of ten years. When I get to the third and 1913, Karen Dinesen herself will show up. She will be the greatest of my enigmatic historical figures. The more one reads about her, the more mystifying she becomes. I don’t yet know exactly who my fictional Karen will turn out to be, but I look forward to getting to know her. Stay tuned.
How about you, dear readers? What historical characters do you think are ripe for inclusion in a novel?
Annamaria Alfieri is the author of Strange Gods set in the burgeoning British East African town of Nairobi in 1911. Her South American historical mysteries, Blood Tango, Invisible Country and City of Silver, have garnered critical acclaim from The Christian Science Monitor, Kirkus Reviews and The Washington Post among others.
As Patricia King, she authored the short story “Baggage Claim,” in the anthology Queens Noir. She lives in New York City and is a past president of the New York Chapter of Mystery Writers of America. You can find out more about Annamarie and her work at her website, friend her on Facebook, follow her on Twitter as @AnnamariaAlfier and catch her at her blog, Murder is Everywhere.