Author of the Month
Jane Finnis (aka Jane Copsey)
[June 2006]
Chosen by reviewer Kim Malo, MyShelf.Com
   

      Mention mysteries and the Roman empire and most people think of adventures in the imperial city involving Falco trying to stay one step ahead of trouble on all sides or maybe a Wishart or Roberts drawing on the more raffish members of the senatorial class. What they probably don't picture, unless they've had the good fortune to discover Jane Finnis' books for themselves, is a an intelligent and attractive female innkeeper with a sense of humor and a will of iron on the fringes of the empire in the north of Britain. I'd like to do them a major favor by changing that.

Jane's books are a fresh change of pace in a genre that is sometimes too apt to play follow the leader (as I've suggested before, with too many books being sold as "the next [insert well known author name]". They're interesting and fun to read and very well researched without rubbing your face in it with period detail, as some have complained about historical mysteries being prone to do. They also do a great job of helping you get a feel for the time by putting yourself in the place of the highly believable characters - I could never imagine being a Falco (even as I might empathize with some of his family problems) or a Claudia or a Libertus, but I can sure imagine being an Aurelia. And so her stories give my imagination a rich vicarious experience of her times. That bit of vicarious time travel into experiencing life in a different real place and time is a big part of why I love historical mysteries.


Interview

Jane Finnis took time off from "slaving over a hot word processor" (to quote her own website, which incidentally always give me a smile by offering the page update info in Latin) to answer some questions. I tried not to make them the sort of basic questions that lend themselves to stock replies, and in return she not only took the trouble to give me answers that were interesting and informative (the same passion for history and the stories she's telling that makes her books so enjoyable also shines through here), but went on to thank me for making her work. Of course she put it much more graciously, actually saying how pleased she was for the chance to talk about her books in some depth. Enjoy the result of her labors here, then check out her books (more about them at the end of the interview).

Kim: I see from your site that early exposure to I, Claudius inspired an interest in Roman times. What made you decide to set your stories in a mansio [inn] on the edge of the Empire in Britain rather than closer to the heart, where Claudius ruled and most Roman mysteries are set?

Jane: I live in Yorkshire, and when I realised that nobody to my knowledge had set a Roman-era mystery there, I jumped at the chance. I wanted a part of the Empire where I could paint a distinctive picture, and not worry about the work of other writers - many of them excellent - who had trodden the ground before me. And, though it's great to fantasise about tax deductible research trips to Italy, there's a lot to be said for a familiar location when it comes to checking the million tiny details I need for background: things like how the sky looks when it's about to snow, or which flowers bloom in April (remembering of course that many of our familiar flowers weren't in Britain in the first century.)

Kim: How do you balance making Aurelia a strong, feisty woman without making her just a modern woman in fancy dress. An example of the difference to me is how she accepts that the inn has to be in her brother's name, where a woman today might act the same but not accept it as a natural, if annoying, fact of life.

Jane: In most countries and periods of history, women have been at a severe disadvantage legally and politically, yet many of them worked the system to get around these restrictions and live independent lives. They also, like Aurelia, had ideas that strike a modern chord. But the point to remember is that the views she holds, while they may have a modern-seeming ring to them, emphatically don't imply that she has any concept of a campaign for "women's rights." For instance, she doesn't resent the fact that her mansio has to be in her brother's name; that's the law and she's used to it. But she minds very much if anyone suggests that she, being a woman, can't be expected to run the inn as well as a man could. Similarly, she accepts that men have political power and legal superiority over women, but that doesn't prevent her being sure that she personally is equal to the men around her. (She is, too!)

Kim: How common was it for a woman such as Aurelia to run a mansio? Or even to have a profession? Was this something that was different on the frontier?

Jane: Quite common. I - following the lead of historians - must rely on educated deduction here, because there are so few contemporary records that spell the situation out, and what does exist was mostly written by men. But most women of Aurelia's day would have helped with their family businesses as well as looking after the household, and inevitably some would become organisers and, in effect, managers. Of course ladies of the wealthy classes, wives of senators and knights, didn't need to earn, but many of them could and did exercise behind-the-scenes power through their menfolk - just like some of the formidable grandes dames of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe.

Kim: What was the biggest surprise for you so far, while doing the research for the books?

Jane: I've been surprised and delighted at how many people share my fascination for the ancient Romans. I've always been interested in them, and thought I was in a very small minority, indeed perhaps I was. But nowadays history - "heritage" - has become fashionable and popular, including Roman history, and of course TV and the Internet have played an important part in this. It's great.

Kim: What are the things other people find most surprising about Aurelia and her life and times?

Jane: People whose view of Roman history is formed by Hollywood are surprised by how different life was in the Roman provincial countryside from the hurly-burly of Rome itself. Life in the provinces wasn't all bloodthirsty games, palace revolutions, sexual perversion, and violence. Of course life for settlers like Aurelia could be violent and cruel, especially as in her time the native Britons weren't thoroughly pacified. But ordinary people in Britannia were much less likely to be subject to the arbitrary day-to-day tyranny and mob rule that characterised Rome.

Kim: I found the Saturnalia feast scene in A Bitter Chill interesting, along with the details of Aurelius running the mansio in both books -have you ever tried cooking from Apicius or any of the other Roman writers yourself, or tried eating Roman-style on couches at a re-enactment (I can't imagine doing that without making a mess of myself). You certainly made me feel as if you and I were there.

Jane: I've often imagined myself at a Roman banquet, but never been to a re-enacted one. I'm sure I'd find dining while reclining extremely difficult. And I've never cooked an entire Apicius recipe - they're quite difficult to interpret because they don't give a lot of details about quantities or timings. Like many modern cooks, I enjoy using ingredients the Romans liked, such as olive oil, Mediterranean herbs, red wine, and honey. Unlike Aurelia, I have safe drinking water, so I probably drink less wine than she did, but then again I don't water my wine down, so perhaps my total consumption is much the same!

Kim: If you could enter a time machine and take a visit back to Aurelia's time for just a day or two, where would you go and what would you like to see and do yourself?

Jane: I'd go to Rome itself. I visited modern Rome quite recently, and looking around the historical city centre was quite magical. To see it as it was in the 90s AD would be fabulous. I'd stroll around among the crowds in the various forums (yes I know the correct plural is fora, but it doesn't feel comfortable.) I'd wander through the busy streets, visiting the temples, admiring the shops and markets; I'd eat Roman fast food at a tavern, and maybe go to a theatre, or watch a chariot race. And I'd love every minute.

Kim: What do you think would most surprise people about your own life as a writer?

Jane: I'm afraid I can't think of anything especially surprising about my writing life. I don't compose novels with a reed pen on papyrus, I just bash away at a computer, trying not to get distracted from it, (and not always succeeding.) Perhaps the only slightly unusual aspect is that, as my publishers are in Arizona and I'm in Yorkshire, all my manuscripts and their editorial advice and corrections whiz to and fro by email, which is both quicker and easier than sending printouts through the post.

Kim: What do you love most about writing and what do you most dislike?

Jane: I love it when I'm in a writing mood, and the words flow quickly and easily. The resulting text feels right, and will need little or no editing. I hate it when the reverse happens - when getting words down is like pulling teeth. I make myself write regardless of my mood, but I know deep down that whatever I force out with difficulty is likely to need re-working later. Most writing days are midway between those two extremes.

Kim: What is the one thing you would most want someone to know who was wondering if they might enjoy trying your books.

Jane: That the Romans were very like us in so many ways, including their motives for love, hate, heroism and murder. So if you feel put off by the unfamiliar historical locations or the Latin names, bite the bullet, (oh dear, not a very Roman expression!) and at least read the first couple of chapters. By then I hope you'll see that human nature hasn't changed much in two thousand years.

Kim: And what is the one question (and answer) you wish someone like me would ask you that we haven't yet?

Jane: Nobody has ever asked me this. If you could arrange for historians to make one important new discovery about the Roman Empire, what discovery would it be? Answer: I'd love someone to find an ancient library containing the complete works of the many Roman authors who wrote about the first century, but much of whose output hasn't survived through time. There are so many books we only know about from sketchy quotes or references by other authors. But I do realise this is rather a tall order. As Aurelia would say, "You don't want much, do you?"

Kim: Mmmm, I'd love to hear about that library too. Enough to maybe be worth taking time to re-learn all the Latin I've forgotten since high school.
Jane, thanks very much for an entertaining interview. I learned a bit and spent a lot of time nodding along and smiling at your answers. I'm sure Myshelf's readers will enjoy it and hope it encourages people unacquainted with your books to give them a try. There are some samples from the first two at your website, linked to below. And I very much look forward to reading Aurelia's next adventure when the current round of slavery at that hot word processor is done.


Reviews

A Bitter Chill
By Jane Finnis
Poisoned Pen Press - September 2005
1-59058-193-8 - Hardcover
Historical Mystery [Roman Britain 95 AD]
Buy it at Amazon

Reviewed by Kim Malo, MyShelf.com

      I've read enough historical mysteries to really appreciate someone staking out fresh territory rather than offering something that may be enjoyable but still begs to be labeled the next [insert established author's name]. Jane Finnis does this with her Roman series featuring Aurelia Marcella, a female innkeeper. Ms. Finnis stays true to the customs of the time by having Aurelia's brother Lucius the mansio's (inn's) legal owner, but Aurelia's clearly in charge (I suspect that happened more often than we might think). And while the setting is Roman, it's the shaky British frontier of the empire, not the more usual Rome itself. The mansio and frontier settings provide a natural context for the stories to be filled with a variety of native and Roman characters, with inevitable conflicts among them. A Bitter Chill is second in the series, with each book working well as a standalone. There's connection between them, but you don't have to have read the first to enjoy the second, nor does reading the second spoil the first.

95 AD. Late December means cold and snow, but also the joys of Saturnalia, with special decorations, feasts, and gifts. Aurelia hopes business is poor, so she and her staff can just relax and enjoy the holiday. Not a chance. A party full of demanding, rich, and powerful Romans arrives. Which is bad enough, but when one of them is murdered, fingers point immediately at Aurelia and her sister. Not that life was all smooth sailing before. Lucius has appeared just long enough to explain that trouble will keep him away for the holiday, while a local protection racket has offered a taste of what could happen if Aurelia doesn't co-operate. Aurelia may be resourceful and clever, but the stakes this time are her inn and maybe even her life.

I really like this series. The author clearly knows and enjoys her setting, bringing it to vivid life, populating it with interesting characters that you are amused by and care about. The style is light and casual, making for easy reading. Recommended.


Get Out Or Die
By Jane Finnis
Poisoned Pen Press - December 2003
1590580753 - Hardcover
Historical Crime [AD 91, Roman York and Environs]
Buy it at Amazon

Reviewed by Rachel Hyde, MyShelf.com

      Aurelia Marcella and her half-sister Albia run the Oak Tree Mansio, a prosperous inn on the road to Eburacum (modern York). When the book opens, she has just found a young man outside, battered and unconscious. This is the start of a series of killings and assaults, each of them bearing a message that all Romans must leave the country or be killed. This is apparently the work of disgruntled local rebels, led by the fancifully masked Shadow of Death, and soon nobody is safe and Romans are living in fear of being next to be decapitated and left as a message. It is up to the plucky and resourceful Aurelia and her friends to find out whodunit and bring them to justice, but it isnít going to be as easy as it sounds to identify who is on the side of the enemy.

This is a wonderfully good-humored and easy-to-read tale for all its considerable 350+ pages that hopefully heralds a new series. Aureliaís contemporary, straight-talking style makes her a perfect narrator (although at times perhaps she sounds a bit too modern) and the reader is plunged into a pacey story straight away. To its detriment, there is some repetition as body after body is found and the investigators wrack their brains. Some editing could have been done in places, but there is always enough going on to keep the plot bubbling merrily away. There is also a convincing background of Romans who want to settle down and make a go of life on the frontier and locals who either think this is a good or dreadful thing, depending on their disposition. Think of a western set in 1st century Yorkshire and all the more believable for not being overdone.. The leading characters are all rather lovable, and the villains colourful and hissable in a broad sense, making this bright, shiny debut just the thing to relax with somewhere. Whenís the next one coming out?


Jane Finnis' Official Site on the web. Contains information about the author, along with her husband, dog and books. Information about the books includes how to get autographed copies and audiodisc versions. There's also a page with links to some of Jane's favorite Roman Britain and mystery websites.

Booklist - Amazon.com -

The Aurelia Marcella Series (In Order)
Get Out or Die (December 2003 - Hardcover)
A Bitter Chill (September 2005 - Hardcover)
Aurelia's third adventure, working title Buried Too Deep, (Forthcoming)
 

Historical Mystery Short Stories
"The Cleopatra Game" Published in The Mammoth Book of Roman Whodunnits edited by Mike Ashley - a non-Aurelia story set in Rome during the reign of Vespasian

2006's Honorary List

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