Thursday, April 02, 2015

The Story Behind the Story:
“Cry Wolf,” by Michael Gregorio

(Editor’s note: With this 54th entry in our “Story Behind the Story” series, we once more give center stage to the husband-and-wife team of Daniela De Gregorio and Michael G. Jacob, who write under the byline “Michael Gregorio.” After penning four historical mysteries featuring early 19th-century Prussian magistrate-cum-detective Hanno Stiffeniis, the most recent of which was Unholy Awakening, these two have taken off in a very different direction, publishing Cry Wolf [Severn House], a new mafia thriller set in central Italy’s Umbria region, where the couple live. Below, they tell why they’ve chosen this new literary path.)

Why kick good fortune in the teeth?

This is a dilemma that many writers have to face at some time.

You sold your first novel as part of a two-book deal. Those two books sold well enough for your publisher to ask for two more, featuring the same protagonist and setting. Before you know it, you have become a brand, and you’ve been pigeon-holed. You are now a relatively well-known writer of “historical thrillers” in the UK, or “historical mysteries” in the USA, and your novels have been translated into more than 20 languages. Your publisher is smiling, your agent is pleased, you have a growing band of faithful readers, and no one feels the need to ask you what you think about it.

That was pretty much the position Daniela and I were in when the following remarks, delivered by critic Barry Forshaw, appeared in The Independent in 2010:
The publishers tout Unholy Awakening as a “dark, gothic, vampiric mystery set in 19th-century Prussia,” and it’s hard to argue with this summary. With their first book, Critique of Criminal Reason, the husband-and-wife team who are Michael Gregorio managed to shoehorn references to the philosopher Kant into a thriller scenario. That book was a sweeping piece set in the Age of Enlightenment, with Prussian magistrate Hanno Stiffeniis enlisting Kant to aid him in investigating a series of violent deaths in Königsberg. It was clear that attention had to be paid to a major new talent in the period-crime field. Subsequent books (Days of Atonement and A Visible Darkness) have added lustre to the Gregorio brand. The reader of Unholy Awakening will notice fewer philosophical underpinnings in this gruesome narrative, but the powerful sense of time and place--and the minatory atmosphere--are in place.
Who wouldn’t be happy with such a write-up?

Obviously, we were very happy, but after four books featuring Hanno Stiffeniis, we felt that it was time for us to take a step back and decide whether we really wanted to be the next C.J. Sansom or Hilary Mantel.

Doesn’t that sound logical, measured, and cool?

It sure does, but that is not what happened.

What really happened was this: our lives were turned upside-down by something over which we had no control. One day, our next-door neighbor was arrested. Just 20 years old, he and four young friends were accused of being terrorists. We knew them well. Daniela and I live in a lovely old town in central Italy, and we had taken part with the five boys and hundreds of other people in protest meetings, sit-ins, and marches against building speculation that threatened to spoil the town, in our opinion. We’d appeared on television, and enlisted the help of prominent Italian environmentalists, art historians, and politicians. Questions were asked about the local clash in the Italian parliament. And just when everything was slipping into place, the police pounced at dawn one morning and arrested the five most defenseless kids in the protest movement. OK, so they had written slogans on walls, but what else had they done? The local authorities accused them of plotting acts of violence, hiding weapons and explosives. They had, according to the police, sent an envelope containing unexploded bullets to a regional political bigwig.

We put aside our plans to write another Hanno Stiffeniis mystery set in a fictional town in 19th-century Prussia, and we discussed what was going on in our own back yard. Right or wrong, what we came up with was this: the boys had been set up. Could we sit down and write another fancy tale for lovers of cute historical crime fiction while those poor kids were languishing, innocent, in jail? Of course, we couldn’t. So we helped to organize protest marches, spoke at public meetings, testified in court in their defense, wrote to national newspapers and appeared on local TV saying that they were innocent, and that it was a major miscarriage of justice.

And then, one day, we received an e-mail message …

An Italian publisher with a strong interest in environmental questions had launched a series of novels with crime and the environment as their central themes. Would we be interested in writing a novel about what had occurred in our town to kids that we knew?

We jumped at the opportunity, with one small reservation. We agreed to write a fictionalized account of what had happened, but we refused to sell the foreign rights. Boschi & Bossoli was published as a standalone in Italy in 2012. It wasn’t an immense success--it was too political, too vindictive, too Italian, let’s say--but it was something that we had to write. And while we were writing it, we came up with a theory that we couldn’t use in the Italian book, precisely because it was so political, so vindictive, so simple, and so Italian, too.

Who was behind the conspiracy that took five young people to a maximum-security prison, where one of them celebrated his 21st birthday alone in an isolation cell?

It sounds phony when you suggest such a conspiracy, but we believe that it was true. The mafia was behind it. Not the mafia of The Godfather or Gomorra, but another kind of mafia, an evil coalition of local business interests, greedy politicians, ambitious policemen, all with the desire to crush a protest movement convinced that there are more important things in this world than money, power, and a disregard for the beauty of a fragile eco-culture which the small country town of Spoleto represented.

We knew the book would not be a commercial success. That was why we held back the world rights. Daniela and I had decided that we were no longer exclusively interested in Immanuel Kant, Prussia, and Hanno Stiffeniis. Indeed, we wanted to write a new and different version of the Italian story, a fictionalized and damning portrayal of all the smaller mafias that make life in Italy such a hassle.

We re-used some of the original material we had gathered, and invented a great deal more. We took away the central role in the story from the kids, and we spoke through the mouths of the real protagonists, the crooked politicians, cynical cops, and professional criminals who had been behind the conspiracy to ruin Spoleto for their own selfish interests. We did “a James Ellroy,” let’s say--very different, but very exciting for us. We had to invent a new central character who would bring all these elements into focus, a park ranger named Sebastiano Cangio, who sees signs of the Calabrian mafia--the ’Ndrangheta--invading tranquil Umbria, and in Cry Wolf, we feel that we have achieved exactly what we set out to achieve. This novel was released in the UK in December, and goes on sale in America this month. It has garnered reviews from Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and Kirkus Reviews which go beyond our wildest dreams:
Outstanding writing, a suspenseful and terrifying plot, and enough twists to keep even the most seasoned reader guessing, this is a terrific read that belongs in all mystery collections. (Booklist Starred Review)
But there’s an even better end to the real story.

The five kids were found innocent of the terrorism charges, the political bigwig who received the letter containing bullets will go on trial for corruption in the near future, and the crooked policeman who arrested the boys was condemned to 14 years in jail for running arms and drugs, and for his “limitless ambition” (in the words of the judge). Even better, after what amounts to seven of the busiest years of our lives, the ugly modern building which started the whole thing off has been scheduled for demolition!

Did we do the right thing to kick good fortune in the teeth?

We feel that we did the only thing possible under the circumstances. We also feel that we have been well rewarded for it. We have opened a new series of “Sebastiano Cangio mysteries” with a new publisher, and we still have magistrate Hanno Stiffeniis in the wings, if any enterprising publisher feels like asking us to pick up the Prussian historical mystery series again.

Like German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibnitz, we feel that we are living in “the best of all possible worlds.”

Voltaire, the pragmatist, on the other hand, just laughed at fools like us and Leibnitz!

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