SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: Delighted to introduce Macavity Award-winner Daniel Friedman, fellow novelist and friend. Dan and I, who share the same literary agent, met when his novel, DON'T EVER GROW OLD, featuring the irascible octogenarian Buck Schatz, and my novel, MR. CHURCHILL'S SECRETARY, were both nominated for an Edgar award. Dan was the late Miss Edna's Absolute Favorite Novelist of All Time and I finally scored points with my mother-in-law when I invited Dan to dinner.
Dan's newest novel is RIOT MOST UNCOUTH, about Romantic poet Lord Byron and his pet bear (yes, that's right) at Cambridge University. It's had wonderful reviews, including a starred one in Publishers Weekly: "Thriller Award–finalist Friedman (Don’t Ever Look Back) succeeds in making his unique blend of humor, crime, and an unusual protagonist work in the first of a new series starring the famous Romantic poet...Besides adroitly placing the major plot twists, Friedman manages to make one of the most obnoxious leads in recent memory oddly endearing and even sympathetic."
Reds and lovely readers, Here's Dan!
DAN FRIEDMAN: There are some assumptions that are so intrinsic to the very nature of crime fiction that they often go unexamined. The most basic is this: There is a crime, and someone will solve it. For every bad guy, there’s a good guy, and through the methodical practice of diligent investigation, the bad guy’s plan will be unraveled, and he will be exposed so that justice may be rendered unto him.
There are some variations on this concept; there are noir novels in which heroes discover evils so well-established that they can’t be dislodged by something as trifling as the truth -- “down these mean streets a man must walk who is not himself mean,” and all that. But there are always heroes, and they always manage to get to the bottom of the mystery, even if solving it is ultimately an empty gesture.
But what happens when the good guy isn’t all that good? And what happens when the process by which he endeavors to solve the mystery isn’t especially effective? And what happens if he lacks the resolve to take a stand against the forces that will align against him when he closes in on the truth?
That’s going to be a pretty weird story.
And that’s what I’m exploring in my new novel, RIOT MOST UNCOUTH. And, on top of all that other stuff, it’s a mystery novel in which the Romantic poet, Lord Byron, decides to try to solve a series of murders in 1807 Cambridge, England with the assistance of his pet bear.
It’s not unusual to see a mystery novel with a historical figure at its center; there are novels in which Jane Austen, Oscar Wilde, Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Allan Poe, Ernest Hemingway, and the ghost of Dorothy Parker all try their hands at solving mysteries. But both historical mysteries and mysteries that incorporate famous personalities skew toward the gentler, cozier end of the genre, and RIOT MOST UNCOUTH goes in the other direction.
The murders are sad and gruesome, and the arrogant, hedonistic protagonist has a personality comprised almost exclusively of flaws. When he comes face to face with something truly evil, he tries to do the right thing, and that’s his redeeming quality, but he’s not the kind of person who has an easy time figuring out what the right thing is. Publishers Weekly found him to be “one of the most obnoxious leads in recent memory,” but they still gave the book a starred review.
A lot of research went into this book. I write short chapters, and this book has 42 of them, but each one of them begins with an epigram drawn from Byron’s poems and letters, so readers can compare my version of the poet to the real thing.
I also learned about an early nineteenth century England that was a lot more squalid and tumultuous than is commonly depicted in popular culture. When we think of this period, we think of great houses and beautiful clothing and elegant manners, and of stories about love triumphing over rigid protocols and social conventions. But the reality is very different, and very interesting.
King George III was mentally unfit to rule, which threw government into turmoil. Industry had displaced agriculture as the primary driver of Britain’s economy, raising the fortunes of a lot of common folks while ruining a lot of landowning elites, who had depended on agricultural revenues to fund their lifestyles.
London had grown much more dense, and it was almost completely lawless. Even the rich had little protection against crime, because there were no police, and no official apparatus for pursuing and apprehending criminals. When homes were burglarized, people hired “thief takers” who were generally just crooks who helped the victims pay ransom to get their stuff back. Local magistrates put bounties on wanted men, hoping private actors would bring them in for trial. But if there was a crime whose perpetrator was unknown, there was no procedure for figuring out who’d done it.
So when a woman is murdered in a boardinghouse, and nobody knows who has done it, there’s really no better investigative procedure than Byron’s, and his plan is just to get drunk with a bear and then see where the night takes him.
This is a book about writers and butchers; about buckets of Champagne and buckets of blood; about broken hearts and runaway stagecoaches and wine glasses made from human skulls; about the intersection of passion and prudence; about longing and abandonment and guns and knives and teeth and claws.
It’s different from my Buck Schatz mysteries, and it’s got a very different tone than most historical mysteries, but it’s a cool book, and I’m proud of it, and you should read it.
SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: I heartily second that — it's a cool book, I'm proud of my friend Dan, and you should read it. Reds and lovely readers, what do you think of an "unlikable" protagonist. Do you need to adore your protagonist or is there room for flaws? What if the protagonist is as flawed — and obnoxious — as Lord Byron? Please tell us in the comments!