Competition fever!

There’s competition fever here at Downie Towers, with the caption competition running till the end of July, plus two more chances to win goodies. Apologies to those who’ve heard this all before, but in case you haven’t…

First, a chance to stock up your summer reading bag with books of your choice, or to win one of the splendid titles on offer:

Graphic showing titles on offer for Summer of History draw

Would you rather visit ancient Greece, or go to Tang Dynasty China? Meet the Jeffersons at Monticello, or travel to Paris in the 1920’s?  How about Ireland, or Alcatraz? To help you choose, there are links to all the authors and their books below.

Stephanie Dray, Laura Kamoie, Vicky Alvear ShecterCatherine Lloyd, Elisabeth Storrs, David Blixt, Sophie Perinot, Ruth Downie, Kate Quinn, Weina Randel, Jennifer Robson, Donna Russo Morin, Eliza Knight, Heather Webb, Allison Pataki, Stephanie Thornton, Kristina McMorris, Greer MaCallister, and Sarah McCoy

Books can be sent to winners in any country within reach of The Book Depository, which is all of these, so pretty much everyone can enter. Do it by 1 August!

Secondly, as of this moment there’s still time for US readers to enter the Goodreads giveaway draw for one of five free copies of VITA BREVIS. Go for it by 28 July!

Vita Brevis goodreads


“What’s new & old & read all over?”

Judith Starkston takes a good look at the current state of fiction set in the ancient world for the latest edition of Historical Novels Review. This is technically a members-only publication but the many writers who chipped in with our opinions are allowed to leap the fence and go public!

As writing is usually a solitary occupation I was fascinated to see what the other contributors thought. Hopefully you will be too – just click the slightly wobbly photo of the magazine cover below (sorry) to take a look.

Many thanks to Judith, the HNR team and all my fellow-contributors.

HNR May 2016


Badly dressed for the Bard

Big thanks to Fiona and the staff at the lovely Walter Henry’s bookshop in Bideford, who marked the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death on Saturday with tea and cake and fine hospitality. The collective noun for a gathering of  local readers, writers and historians should probably be ‘a gossip’ but we fell respectfully silent to listen to a sonnet by the late Bard, read by his living namesake, writer Liz Shakespeare.

Peter Christie explained why he believes Shakespeare came to Bideford: we know (I didn’t, but I do now) that the King’s Company came all the way to Barnstaple to flee the plague in 1605, so having travelled that far, surely they would travel down the road and play the only other big town in the area? Whose plays were being watched in contemporary accounts of money being ‘wasted’ on the theatre?

Finally Janet Braund Few entertained us with a demonstration of Elizabethan costume and manners. Something we clearly needed, since several of the wenches present had turned up wearing men’s breeches and in a further assault upon modesty, not one of the married ladies present had her head covered.  We had all, as the saying goes, let our hair down.

Rather than shock any sensitive readers with photographs of this scandalous attire, here is a picture of a bag.

Bag with pic of Shakespeare and "The Bard is my Bag" printed on it.

And here’s the book I bought to go inside it, recommended to me by children’s author and farmer (so she should know),   Victoria Eveleigh.




An honour!

Thrilled to hear that TABULA RASA is included on Nancy Pearl’s list of reads for 2015!  You can see the full list of recommendations here. Also, warm congratulations to Mick Herron, another British crime writer who’s doubly honoured by having TWO of his books on the list – a real achievement!

All this is rather nicely timed as it coincides with the launch of the paperback edition in the UK today, under its smart new cover:

TABULA RASA paperback cover

Suppose a part of Ancient Rome survived?

Portrait of Alison MortonFriends who followed the Blog Hop a couple of years ago will have met my writing friend Alison Morton. Alison’s created a gripping alternative thriller world, where her 21st century Praetorian heroines survive kidnapping, betrayal and a vicious nemesis while using their Roman toughness and determination to save their beloved country. Unfortunately, their love lives don’t run as smoothly. If you haven’t visited Roma Nova, now is a good time to start because…

Picture of Nova Roma box set…for a limited time only, there’s an e-books box set available. It contains the first three books ­­– over 1,000 pages of action adventure and alternative historical thrills in three novels which have 140 five star reviews on Amazon between them.

INCEPTIO – the beginning: New Yorker Karen Brown is thrown into a new life in mysterious Roma Nova and fights to stay alive with a killer hunting her… “Breathtaking action, suspense, political intrigue” – Russell Whitfield “Grips like a vice.  Excellent pace, great dialogue and concept.” – Adrian Magson

PERFIDITAS – betrayal: Six years on, where betrayal and rebellion are in the air, threatening to topple Roma Nova and ruin Carina’s life. “Sassy, intriguing, page-turning … Roma Nova is a fascinating, exotic world” – Simon Scarrow

SUCCESSIO – the next generation: A mistake from the past threatens to destroy Roma Nova’s next generation. “I thoroughly enjoyed this classy thriller, the third in Morton’s epic series set in Roma Nova.”
– Caroline Sanderson in The Bookseller.  Historical Novel Society indie Editor’s Choice Autumn 2014

The box set is now available at a special price of $5.99 on Amazon, iBooks, Kobo, and Nook

Grab it while you can!

The best of 2014…

I’m delighted and honoured to find that Tabula Rasa has snuck into the Best Books of 2014 list on Declan Burke’s “Crime Always Pays” blog. It’s alongside several books that I’ve been meaning to read, and some that I didn’t know I wanted to read, but now do.

Clearly there’s going to be a lot of crime (hopefully, most of it fictional) happening on the Downie Towers sofa in 2015.





First, drown your ape.

Welcome to my corner of the 2013 Wonder of Rome Blog Hop! There are (I think) seventeen of us linking up this weekend to offer blog posts on some aspect of Rome for your enjoyment. As you’ll have gathered, I’m Ruth Downie, and I write a series of crime novels featuring Roman army medic Ruso, and his British partner Tilla. Predictably, my choice for the Wonder of Rome is its doctors (even if they did learn most of what they knew from the Greeks).

As part of the Hop I’ll be giving a copy of the Ruso book of their choice to one randomly-chosen reader, so if you’d like to enter the draw, please leave a comment below and I’ll be in touch with the winner. (No, this is not a cunning ploy to make you read to the end. I know you have a ‘scroll’ button.)

Blog Hop logo August 15 to 19 2013

The Ruso books are set during the reign of the Emperor Hadrian, and I’m mightily glad they are. Not only because it’s an interesting period, but – as I discovered when it was too late to change it – I’ve escaped Galen by a gnat’s whisker.

There’s no doubt that Galen (who was born in about A.D. 129) was a marvellous doctor, as he pointed out himself on many occasions.  His influence was such that even in the nineteenth century, German medical students had to pass an exam on his works before they could qualify. But he was prolific. Those of us struggling with deadlines and word counts can only marvel at Galen’s ability to produce vast amounts of prose, and give a quiet sigh of relief at the thought that we aren’t compelled to read it all.

Trephined skull
Surgery has a long history. This hole in the head was created over a thousand years before Rome was founded.

I have, however, been perusing “On Anatomical Procedures” recently. This is how I know that you have to drown your ape. Despatching it in any other way will damage it, thus ruining some of the structures Galen wants you to see as you dissect it.

(It occurs to me now, gentle reader, that you may like to use that scroll button after all. This will get a little gory in places. Crime writers, especially those who write about medics, tend to forget that not everyone is used to this stuff. Sorry.)

The unnecessary drowning of apes is not a cheery topic, and the dissection of living creatures – also recommended by Galen – is even worse. Let’s not even think about… no, let’s not. Yet there’s one practice we accept today that would have been deeply disturbing to the classical Romans. Despite their reputation for cruelty, they would have been shocked at the idea that doctors might routinely learn their trade by taking apart real human bodies. Goodness knows what they would make of CSI or Silent Witness. The medical men of ancient Alexandria had helpfully disposed of criminals this way in the past, but by the time the practice of medicine had spread through Greece and across to Rome, it was much frowned upon. So although Galen managed to examine human skeletons, much of his knowledge of anatomy came from animals.

At least Galen was eager to look, learn, and share his knowledge. Not everyone had such high standards. Rather like the title ‘therapist’ today, anyone in the ancient world could call themselves a ‘medicus’, so it was a case of buyer beware. Martial must have expected his audience to get the joke when he wrote,

Until recently, Diaulus was a doctor. Now he’s an undertaker. He’s still, as an undertaker, doing what he used to do as a doctor. (Epigrams, 1.47)

Just to make the point – Galen was obliged to prove to some of his colleagues that arteries are not empty channels. Neither, he pointed out, are they full of milk.

Photo of Roman re-enactor in bloodstained tunic explaining medical instruments
He looks friendly enough, but can you trust him?

The medic in the photo was travelling with the XIIII Legion, which was a good sign, since surgeons with the Army or – like Galen – the gladiator schools, at least had plenty of practice. And the best were very good indeed. Anything accessible and mechanical – breaks, sprains, dislocations, cuts, removal of arrowheads from places they shouldn’t be – all these they could cope with.  Some of their techniques were still in use in the First World War, and whilst they didn’t have modern anaesthetics, they were well aware of the effects of opium and mandrake.

I thought I should mention that comforting fact before going on to say that they also had a viable method of dealing with cataracts.

Ready? Peep out between your fingers at the sort of precision instrument they would have used –

Reproduction cataract needle
A modern reproduction of a cataract needle, based on one of a set found in the Saone River in France.

I’m told the less terrifying end could be dipped into a liquid medicine and used to deliver it to the patient, one drop at a time. (This one was made by Steve Wagstaff.)

And here are a couple of examples of real patients from the Roman world, the first one a Londoner:

A pair of collarbones, one broken and mended
According to the Museum of London, the broken half of this pair of collarbones only mended so successfully because someone had strapped it up properly.

The unlucky owner of this bone was buried in Arles –

Photo of badly mended broken bone
Should have gone to Galen?

Dealing with what a doctor could not see or feel was a trickier business. The reason for the spread of disease was much-debated and it’s not hard to conclude that epidemics were kept in check less by medics than by engineers, building aqueducts for fresh water, and sewers the like of which were not seen again in Britain until the great clean-up of Victorian times.

Still, despite everyone’s best efforts, recovery depended on the goodwill of the gods. There are testimonies to overnight cures at the shrine of Aesculapius, and Luke’s gospel tells the story of a woman who had spent all she had on doctors and was finally cured after twelve years of illness by touching Jesus’s cloak.

Photo of clay model of foot
A gift to the gods, in the hope of – or giving thanks for? – a cured foot.

In fact some people were firmly of the opinion that doctors were best left out of the equation altogether. Pliny the Elder, although he recommended plenty of remedies, was appalled by the notion that anyone should attempt to make money out of the sick. “Only a doctor can kill a man with impunity,” he observed, adding,  “there is no greater reason for the decay of morals than medicine.”

Not everyone was so cynical. Doctors were given tax concessions, although perhaps in an early example of cracking down on tax dodgers, Antoninus Pius later set a limit to how many doctors each town could have.

Of course in the absence of a doctor, the educated person could always consult a medical text. Modern readers eager to shun artificial chemicals in favour of natural ingredients might thrill to some of the remedies of Dioscorides of Anarzarbus:

  • Toothache? Use the sting of a stingray to shatter the tooth
  • Malaria? Place seven bedbugs inside beans and swallow before the onset of fever
  • Earache? Boil up the insides of a cockroach and drop them into the offending ear
  • Bald spots? Burn the hooves of she-goats and smear them on with vinegar (this is one of many remedies, none of them much more appealing)
  • Thinning hair? Stick on a little extra with a dollop of snail slime
  • Inflamed injury? Plaster on the fresh dung of grazing cattle.

To be fair, not all of Dioscorides’ suggestions are as alarming as those listed above. Most involve medicinal plants and in places he’s careful to point out that he’s only reporting what other people have told him. But should you consider trying any of them,  do remember – this was an era in which anyone could call themselves a doctor.

Blog Hop logo August 15 to 19 2013
Please explore more Wonders of Rome via the links below!

Thanks for stopping by on your way around the Hop. If you’d like to know more about Roman medicine, look out for Audrey Cruse’s “Roman Medicine” or Ralph Jackson’s “Doctors and Diseases in the Roman Empire”.

Meanwhile there’s much more Wonder of Rome to visit at the links below. All of them should go live sometime today (15 August) – and don’t forget to leave a comment here  by the 19th if you want to enter the free book draw!

David Pilling

Elisabeth Storrs

Gordon Doherty

Scott Hunter

Mark Patton

M C (Manda) Scott

Fred Nath

Brian Young

Helen Hollick

Heather Domin

David Blixt

Alison Morton

Petrea Burchard

Tim Hodkinson

S J A Turney

John Henry Clay

Last month I didn’t know what a Blog Hop was…

…and now I’m about to be in one. Ladies and gentlemen, for your entertainment and edification, this coming Thursday a varied group of writers will be presenting a round of blog posts entitled:

Blog Hop logo August 15 to 19 2013

Goodness knows what will be on offer as to the best of my knowledge, hardly anyone knows what anyone else has chosen to write about, However, rumour has it that there will be book giveaways. My piece will be posted here on Thursday along with links to all the others, and  I’m looking forward to some good reading.

CONVOY – Caroline Davies tells stories from the Second World War

I have to admit that poetry makes me nervous. I approach it with caution, afraid of revealing yet again that I just haven’t got what it takes to appreciate this sort of thing. But when Caroline Davies passed some of her poems about the Malta convoys around our writers’ group, even I could see that here was something special. I’m delighted that Cinnamon Press thought the same thing, and they’ve now published the whole collection.

Cover of CONVOY

CONVOY weaves together the stories of the men who risked desperate odds to get supplies through to Malta during the Second World War, and of their families back at home. It’s a vivid and moving series of accounts. But I wasn’t sure why Caroline had chosen to write it. After all, the War was history before she was born. There was only one way to find out, so I asked her.

 Caroline – Even as a child I was aware that my taid (my grandfather), was involved with the supply of Malta by sea during the war.  Although I didn’t know any of the details I took it for granted that everyone else must be aware of how important the defence of the island was. (Me – Malta was a vital strategic base for British forces.) I can remember being shocked that other people seemed to know about the Blitz and the Battle of Britain but not the Malta convoys. A large part of my motivation for writing this book was to reclaim that forgotten history.

 Me – Are all the poems based on real events and real people, or are any of them fiction?

Caroline – In many of the poems there is a mixture. Where there is a man’s name in the heading, be it Captain Thomas Horn, or PB ‘Laddie’ Lucas, or Tom Neil then the events and the people are real but what I’ve had to imagine was how they felt about what was unfolding around them.  A number of the poems are complete works of my imagination especially the ones written in a child’s voice, that of my mother. Overseas Posting is based on a single remark by one pilot about how he coped with others being posted missing so the name in that poem is fictitious.

Me – Have you had any responses from people who were involved?

Caroline – The majority of them are no longer alive to respond and those who were in their twenties during the war will now be into their nineties. There are two poems in the book which are based on an incident in Tom Neil’s Onward to Malta. He is very much alive and well and so after some hesitation I did send him the poems to read. He was utterly charming about them whilst protesting that he hadn’t done anything special during the war.

There’s more about Tom Neil on Caroline’s blog, here:

I’ve mostly had contact with people who like me, are the children or grandchildren of those involved. Paul Lazell whose Dad, Bill, was with the Royal Artillery sent me his father’s diary to read and that provided the basis for one of the found poems in the book.

Me -As someone who usually has at least 100,000 words to play with, I’m impressed by the way the poetry weaves together many stories with few words. With such a large number of ships and a complex series of events, how did you choose what to put in and what to leave out? Did you end up cutting much of what you’d written?

photo of CarolineCaroline – I suspect I probably should have cut more than I did despite all the good advice from my main critical reader, Katy Evans-Bush. The choice of what to leave in was largely governed by deciding to follow individual men, like Roger Hill who was involved in the Operation Pedestal convoy – the attempt to get fifteen merchant ships to Malta. At one point I did have ambitions to follow the fate of every single ship but as my publisher Jan kept reminding me I wasn’t writing a comprehensive maritime history.

One of my men only has six lines in Operation Pedestal. During the editing process I decided these could be cut, only to dream that night of a seaman trying to reach a life-raft which is getting further and further away from him. Needless to say he was reinstated into the poem the next morning.

Me – Were there any stories that you’d like to have put in but which didn’t fit?

Caroline – Plenty. There were various people involved with the RAF; Group Captain Woodhall who was the fighter controller on the island and George Beurling, one of the fighter pilots who shot down twenty seven planes in fourteen days about whom there were many stories.

My focus however was on what was happened out at sea on board the ships. In this regard I would have liked to have included a incident involving Captain David MacFarlane, master of the Melbourne Star during the Pedestal convoy. She kept being left behind or in the words of her captain “we were nobody’s baby”. A merchant ship on its own without any protection from naval vessels was much more vulnerable. Every time MacFarlane steered to take position astern (i.e. behind) one of the destroyers, their hoped for escort would zigzag and pull away.   Finally he is given permission to take up station on one of the warships when the Ashanti comes alongside and tells him to turn around as the main body of the convoy is astern of them. McFarlane says that he is quite happy where he is and back comes the stern reply ‘I am the Admiral’.

Me – One of the book’s strengths is the restrained nature of the language – the events are narrated with emotion but without sentimentality. Was that a deliberate choice, or does it echo the tone of the accounts you read?

Caroline – At the back of my mind whilst writing the poems was the idea that they had to sound as if the men themselves were telling the stories.  In their accounts and interviews they definitely understate the dangers involved and there’s plenty of black humour. One of my critical readers did suggest that perhaps in places it was a little too impersonal and I did have to work on getting more emotion into the poems.

Me – What surprised you most during the research?

Caroline – There were two aspects that surprised me. The first was how attached I became to many of the men and of course I couldn’t have written any of it without them. The other thing was how difficult emotionally it was at times to write, especially about the Operation Pedestal convoy in which so many ships were lost. In the end the only way I got that written was to go off to North Wales for a week’s writing retreat and just make myself finish it.

Me – I’ve heard it said when people are talking about the Second World War that we have become softer nowadays, and that ‘you couldn’t get people to do that now.’ You have a foot in both camps, so to speak – do you think it’s true?

Caroline – People are still the same underneath though, aren’t they? I don’t think the current generation of young people is that different from the young men and women at the end of the 1930s and if called upon to make the kinds of sacrifices that had to be made during the war I know they would rise to the challenge.


I’m grateful to Caroline for taking the time to answer, and for agreeing to let me put up a couple of the poems on the blog. I asked for the first one especially, because I love the bleak humour.

Extract from Operation Pedestal

 From a pilot on board H.M.S. Furious

Sir, why are the armourers

taking the ammo out of my Spitfire?

Looks like cigarettes they’re putting in?

That’s right.

Someone was worried about weight

preventing us taking off.


Fags don’t weigh much I suppose.

Indeed. Malta is short of smokes

as well as everything else.

It’ll do morale a power of good.

That’s kind of us, Sir.

I hope the Germans

and Italians don’t know.

What if they do? You couldn’t hit them

even if you had ammunition.

I would like to be able to try, Sir.


Christmas 1941

After three months of dodging the bombing

the Ajax is moored upstream

at the head of Marsa creek.

The bombs still come every day.

Her crew take shelter in the caves.

One watch on board.

She’s hit on Christmas Eve.

The bomb passes clean through her bow.

No explosion. Just bubbles of water.

The Chinese greaser first back on board.

No matter how hard he searches

he can’t find what he seeks.

No sign of the crate. Not a single feather.

A lingering rank chicken smell from the corner

where they’d been fed. Given water.

A hole in the ship’s side instead of

the New Year’s dinner. He takes it personally,

this intervention of the Luftwaffe.

On their unmarried mothers, sons and daughters

he calls down curses. Until this moment

he hadn’t fully seen the point of this war.

© Caroline Davies

Cover of CONVOY

CONVOY is available from