Author of the Month
Beverle Graves Myers
[January 2006]
Chosen by reviewer Kim Malo, MyShelf.Com

     Historical mysteries are my passion, which means I've read enough that can with justice be called "the next X" to really appreciate it when an author's books offer something fresh and new. Beverle Graves Myers' series set in 18th century Venice, featuring castrato opera singer Tito Amato, certainly do that. An unusual setting and an unusual hero, with fast paced, well written and well researched stories full of action, drama, color, humor, and -most of all- humanity. Tito is a very engaging hero, whose life may have been unalterably changed by 'the cutting' but who is also his own person, not wholly defined by that.

These books offer the best of what I look for in historical mysteries - a highly entertaining read that teaches me a bit about another time, but takes things a step further into vicarious time travel by letting me feel that I'm part of that time for the duration of the story. And in my opinion they aren't just stories for historical mystery fans. There's enough action, life and fun to satisfy anyone, while those who avoid historical mysteries thinking that they're nothing but thinly veiled history lectures are in for as much of a shock as those who avoid anything to do with opera (and no, I'm not a huge fan) thinking of it as something only appealing to cultural snobs. These stories are just plain entertaining fun for anyone.


Beverle Graves Myers graciously answered some questions I had about her creation of Tito and his world and writing and opera in general. I hope you enjoy her answers as much as I did:

Kim: I see from your website that you've been interested in opera since you were very young. Why did you decide to write mysteries with an historical operatic setting rather than modern ones, and why this particular time in opera history.?

Beverle: The notion of writing a historical mystery came first. For some years, my favorite reading has been mysteries, with a heavy emphasis on Victorian, Medieval and Roman mysteries. When I finally had time to write, I knew I would set my novel in the past. I chose the 18th-century because there weren't many authors writing in that time period. Following on the heels of that decision, I chose the opera milieu because I knew I would love researching and writing about that world.

Kim: What is your own personal favorite opera to experience, and why?

Beverle: Rigoletto. Every note is a joy, and the storyline is dramatically honest and tight. I love how the characters' failings set the scene for their downfall.

Kim: What is it that got you specifically interested enough in the castrati singers to want to write about that particular aspect of operatic history - was it simply their uniqueness, something particular that you read about them, something else?

Beverle: I was determined that my protagonist be an individual of his or her time, someone that was more than a typical sleuth in period costume, someone who couldn't have existed at any time other than his or her own. Reading Anne Rice's CRY TO HEAVEN set me thinking in that direction a long time ago. As I delved into the history behind the phenomenon, I learned that many more boys had been operated on than I would ever have thought and that they had been largely forgotten. I became very excited about "outwitting history" and bringing their story to the attention of today's readers. In plotting, Tito's unique status gives him an opportunity to mix with all levels of society yet observe people from an outsider point of view. The injustice he suffered makes him sensitive to injustice heaped on others.

Kim: Was a desire for some stereotype busting a factor? I have to admit that I learned a lot myself from your books and further reading they lead me to, starting with the fact that Tito has a physical love life. I had always assumed that was impossible for the castrati. Nor did I realize how common it was to pretend there had been an accident requiring the surgery or that they tended to be unusually tall as a group (is there some biological reason for that?).

Beverle: Anne Rice's book presents the castrati as larger than life. Many of them were famous, but they were still real people and I wanted to represent them as such. Everything that Tito does or is has a basis in fact. They were tall because the hormonal manipulations led to an excess of growth hormone (testosterone usually suppresses GH at puberty)

Kim: You use the life of Farinelli (Carlo Broschi) to tell people more about the castrati on your website. How heavily did you draw on the real life historical castrati in creating Tito as a person and in depicting his life, and which one(s).

Beverle: Farinelli is a hero of mine. I keep one of his portraits on my desk as I write. In personality, Tito is very like him. CRUEL MUSIC, the third Tito book which will come out in fall of 2006, involves Tito playing the role of music therapist just as Farinelli did for the King of Spain. I originally considered making Farinelli my sleuth but realized that the details of a real person's life hems a writer in a good deal. I'm glad I didn't try to do that.

Kim: When I think of your books, I think of something filled with bravura color, life, dramatics and thrills - much like an operatic performance. These are NOT effete intellectual exercises, such as some might assume who think of opera itself that way. They're fun, fast paced, action filled romps. Do you think your fondness for opera has influenced your actual writing style, beyond its obvious influence in providing a setting you were interested in and a natural environment for Tito.

Beverle: It's such fun when readers enter into the spirit of the books. So far, I've written the books as if they could be translated to the stage--four acts; scenes for solo arias, duets, quartets; themes of revenge, unrequited love, sacrifice, cruelty, bravery, loyalty, the stuff of which opera is made.

Kim: Also, do you think your past background in medicine and public psychiatry influenced your writing? I wondered particularly about the psychiatry, since Tito is such an engaging, appealing hero and so much of my pleasure in the books is being able to really see the world through the eyes of someone with an entirely different perspective from my own, and one that includes a lot of mental scars to go with the physical.

Beverle: I put all of my main characters "on the couch" and write out a psycho-social history for each one, just as I would if I were doing a full psychiatric exam on a patient. I know all their fears, desires, and hidden secrets. My plots grow out of this, so my novels are definitely character driven.

Kim: Another thing I've really enjoyed in your books that I don't think gets mentioned enough is your vivid depiction of 18th century Venice itself. It's a living, breathing city full of street life and politics, not just a one dimensional dramatic stage set or the tour guide version. And it's not a setting that has been used very much elsewhere. How do you as a writer of historical mysteries see that past setting for yourself and bring it to such vivid life for modern readers?

Beverle: For me, this is the hardest part of writing historical fiction. I rely heavily on the memoirs and autobiographical material from contemporaries. Fortunately, Venice has been a tourist destination for a long time. It is such a unique city that many literary types have felt compelled to describe their Venetian experiences. My list of sources includes Casanova, Goethe, Lorenzo DaPonte (who was Mozart's librettist), Mozart himself, even Mark Twain. I also collect copies of paintings of the period. I take a magnifying glass to scenes set on a canal or piazza and study what the background figures are up to, what they're wearing, etc.

Kim: A somewhat related question - I've found that there's a great deal of difference of opinion even among fans of historical mysteries about the need for historical accuracy vs simply creating some sort of a period feel. How important do you think accuracy is in historical mysteries?

Beverle: It is impossible to be completely accurate--even scholars who are writing PhD dissertations disagree on many points. My main objective is to entertain the reader for a few hours, so I try to be as accurate as I can without stopping the flow of the story with excruciating detail. I check to make sure every item mentioned was in existence at the time, and more importantly, I make sure that my characters' mind-sets are congruent with the prevailing world view of the era.

Kim: What do you find the hardest part of writing, and is it different for your short stories vs your novels about Tito.

Beverle: Plotting a novel and keeping all those red herrings going until the climax is the hardest part for me. The plots of the short stories are easier because the focus is much more restricted.

Kim: And of course the flip side - what do you personally find the most enjoyable part of creating a story?

Beverle: The research--plucking social and political conflict from the historical record and weaving my own story from those threads and the characters that I've created.

Kim: Back to the color, action and dramatics I think of with your books -that almost seems to make them natural candidates for someday being dramatized, whether for TV or the larger screen or maybe even an opera or operetta of their own. Is that something you would ever be interested in and if so, is there anyone among today's actors you think would make a great Tito (obviously visually only, unless you think one of the modern counter tenor singers might work well for both looks and voice).

Beverle: That's a tough one. Perhaps a tall Johnny Depp? For the voice, Dominique Visse, especially on the CD of the baroque opera Cleofide, is the modern counter-tenor who sounds most like Tito. And in my mind, Benito is Jaye Davidson from The Crying Game to a "T".

Kim: Is there anything else you would like your readers and potential readers to know (other than that you are currently working on Tito's next adventure, which makes me personally very happy)?

Beverle: I've modeled the Baroque Mystery Series on historicals that I've loved, particularly those that show the protagonist in relation to his or her family and friends and allow all the characters to grow and change in response to their experiences. My favorite authors are Stephen Saylor, Sharan Newman, Kate Ross, and Elizabeth Peters. I'm planning for my series to follow Tito and his family throughout his career which will last until Napoleon is on the brink of destroying the Venetian Empire and popular taste is toppling the castrati from their pedestals.

Kim: What is the one question you wish someone would ask you that they haven't yet about your writing, Tito, castrati in general, opera, or all of them?

Beverle: I'm stumped!

Kim: And probably exhausted after offering such thoughtful answers to so many questions. Thank you very much, Beverle. I look forward to Tito's return later this year and enjoyed the chance to spend some time with his creator.


Painted Veil
By Beverle Graves Myers
Poisoned Pen Press - March 2005
1590581407 - Hardcover
Historical Mystery [1734 Venice]
Buy it at Amazon

Reviewed by Kim Malo,

      Beverle Graves Myers wrapped her superb debut novel featuring 18th century Venetian castrato singer Tito Amato around Tito's brilliant professional debut. This is her follow-up and even better.

The follow-up to Tito's own debut is a bit less triumphant. Too much indulgence in the trappings of stardom over dedication to the practice that made him a star has relegated him to a secondary role in the latest opera. Tito's vow to reform includes a decision to be as co-operative as possible in hopes of regaining everyone's trust, making it easy for the maestro to push him into investigating a scene painter's ill-timed disappearance. The painter does reappear, but dead, a murder victim, with reason to believe someone associated with the opera is responsible. The search for who killed him and why sends Tito ranging through the many layers of 18th century Venice for answers: from the Jewish ghetto (named for the geto or iron-foundry that once stood there) through a charlatan's mystical secret society, to the secretly crumbling ruin behind a nobleman's desperate status-saving façade.

Ms. Myers writes fast paced, atmospheric stories full of memorable characters: compelling, lose-yourself-in-this-one reading. They're also an historical mystery fan's delight, providing a well-illuminated entrance into a memorable, vivid, but long gone world, brought to very personal life through the eyes of her appealing hero: The core of Tito's world may be his music, but he's also a passionate and knowledgeable observer of his Venetian home, taking the reader along with him as he travels through its many worlds - one moment settling into a working class tavern initiating an unlikely friendship with the Englishman whose pocket he has just saved from being picked, the next caught up in the ethereal beauty of his own voice twinned with his rival's performing music fit for the angels. Highly recommended.

Interrupted Aria
By Beverle Graves Myers
Poisoned Pen Press - March 2004
1590581113 - Hardcover
Historical Mystery [1731, Venice]
Buy it at Amazon

Reviewed by Rachel Hyde,

      The exotic, doomed city-state that was 18th century Venice is a wonderful setting for novels of all kinds and ought (in my opinion) to be more used. If you feel the same, you will enjoy this tortuous tale of music, masks and murder. The protagonist, Tito Amato, has returned to his native city after many years of training in Naples to be a castrato singer. With him is his best friend, Felice, whose voice has failed, and he is in search of a cure. But all is not well - neither at home where Tito's younger sister is in the throes of some mental agony and his father hides his own secrets, nor at his work in the opera. At the mercy of their aristocratic benefactor, he witnesses scenes between warring sopranos and rumblings of discontent. Soon there is a murder, and Tito has to find out whodunit before Felice is executed.

Having the protagonist tell the tale does give the author only one viewpoint, but in this case, this is more than compensated for by the immediacy of Tito's pacey telling. The lid is lifted on the exotic world of Venice and opera, but there is also the crime to be solved and other mysteries to get to the bottom of. Tito has to find himself a place in this society, which loves to hear him sing but despises him for his condition. An outsider who sees the inside makes an ideal narrator for this alien but fascinating society. In the wrong hands, this could be a gloomy tale, or overly dramatic without much substance, but it manages to work on several levels. The result is a highly compelling, and very enjoyable first novel, and hopefully part one of a series. I do so love a well paced book that leaves the reader wanting more, instead of wishing there had been less!

Beverle Graves Myers' Official site on the web. Contains information about the author and her books, her book tour schedule, her short stories: historical and others (including links to some that are available online), and the castrati singers.

Booklist - -

The Tito Amato Series (In Order)
Interrupted Aria (March 2004 - Hardcover)
Painted Veil (March 2005 - Hardcover) 
Cruel Music (Forthcoming - Autumn 2006)

Historical Mystery Short Stories
"A Baroque Phantom" Published in Fables 2001 Setting: 18th-century Venice - Available online through a link on Beverle's site
"Revenge of the Snake Woman" Published in Futures Mysterious Anthology Magazine, 2003 Setting: 1950's carnival sideshow
"The True Story of the Whirlaway Cafe" Published in Low Down and Derby Anthology from Silver Dagger [2006] Setting: 1943 luxury passenger train
"The Franklin Fiasco" Published in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Sept 2004 Setting: 18th-century Venice (Ms. Myers' favorite of her stories per her website)
"The Mozart Muddle" Published in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Dec 2005 Setting: 18th-century Venice
The last two will soon be joined by "The Casanova Caper," another Nicco Ziani story that Hitchcock has purchased for next year (2006).

2006's Honorary List

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