The story behind The Executioner’s House

Last year, I sat watching some grainy film footage of the Nuremburg war crimes tribunal in the building where it all happened. It was 27 years since I had left my Foreign Office posting in Berlin, during the last years of a city split by a hateful wall. Playing my part in exercising Allied right of access to East Berlin, the entire city became part of me – as it still is.

As I sipped a late afternoon coffee, not far from the mediaeval executioner’s house, I couldn’t stop thinking about the tribunal and what it must have been like to have been part of the prosecution teams.

On my train journey back to Munich, I conceived a story that explored just that. I decided that it would play out in Berlin, a city I knew well, and one where, after dark – along shadowy cobbled side streets away from the noise and bustle of the main thoroughfares – the ghosts of a once shattered and then divided city still lurk.

A year later, my new novel The Executioner’s House, was published.

I hope you enjoy it.

Character profiles: Discretion and secretive vs. open and rebellious

The final character profile from A Motif of Seasons compares two people, one with a strong sense of discretion, who hides their feelings and keeps secrets, and another with a strong and emotional openness and the rebelliousness of a new generation forged in war.

Count Frederick Paul von Deppe

Frederick is Count Joseph von Deppe’s younger brother, and is a courtier at the Royal Palace. He is discreet, enigmatic and hides a deep secret.

Countess Arabella Elisabeth von Eisenwald

Arabella, not yet in her 20s, is beautiful, precocious and rebellious. A gifted singer, a lover of Shakespeare and English poetry and isolated in conflict-torn Germany she seeks sexual pleasure, only to fall deeply in love in the midst of the tragedy of war.

Tomorrow, on the 100th anniversary of the ending of the Battle of the Somme, A Motif of Seasons will be published. I hope these character profiles have given you an insight into the lives and loves of the key actors in the book. If you’re keen to read more, you can buy the book here from tomorrow.

Character profiles: Unorthodox backgrounds

The penultimate character profile from A Motif of Seasons contrasts a man of enterprise whose character is undermined by greed and disloyalty with a young man from a similar unorthodox background but who does not succumb to the same petty human weakness.

Ernst Kiefer

Kiefer is a devious fixer, chancer and thug who allows his principles, loyalty and honour to become misplaced by flawed ambition and the pursuit of money. Beneath a surface of self-confident malice lies a weak and insecure man in search of respect and redemption.

Florian Whitfield

Florian, the grandson of Robert Whitfield, is a young Royal Flying Corps pilot, tested in battle on the Western Front in the Great War. Within a hard shell formed during his unusual childhood – shared between his Bohemian life-style parents in London and the more formal family structure of Meltwater in Norfolk – he is a man of great gentleness and sensitivity.

A Motif of Seasons is published in paperback and ebook edition on 18 November 2016. You can pre-order the book here.

Character profiles: A mother’s blindness

Today’s character profile from A Motif of Seasons features another mother and daughter: a woman, full of suppressed rage and unfulfilled revenge, who fails to see that her daughter, despite her contrasting happiness and success, is just as vulnerable and insecure.

Rebecca Bartlett

Rebecca is a young English governess to Count Joseph and Countess Beatrice’s children. Betrayed early in her life, she seeks not only the warmth of true and loyal companionship but also to assuage her deep bitterness towards her betrayer. Despite achieving security her heart is forever stricken.

Alice Bartlett

Alice is Rebecca’s daughter. Beneath her lustrous veneer of femininity, sexual allure and flirtatiousness which men find irresistible is concealed an earthy young woman whose instinct for survival is shaped by an east London childhood. She becomes an integral strand in the von Deppe family fabric and an accomplished pianist. But while she is outwardly bold she remains within deeply insecure and vulnerable.

A Motif of Seasons is published in paperback and ebook edition on 18 November 2016. You can pre-order the book here.

Character profiles: Inflexibility vs outmanoeuvring

Continuing the series of posts introducing new readers to some of the key characters in A Motif of Seasons, here is the third pairing. Count Joseph von Deppe and his wife Countess Beatrice offer a perfect juxtaposition of Prussian-style inflexibility against a woman’s determined and clever outmanoeuvring.

Count Joseph von Deppe

He is head of the von Deppe family and a senior official and counsellor in the Prussian (later German) Parliament. Though warm and approachable, he is overly principled, stiff in attitude and a strong advocate of German nationalism.

Countess Beatrice von Deppe

Joseph’s wife Beatrice is softly spoken. Yet behind her gentle exterior is a determined and strong believer in fairness and honour. She is a worthy opponent of her husband’s frequent inflexibility and a persuasive exponent of pursuit of the future rather than stuffy adherence to outmoded traditions and outdated attitudes.

Does this relationship sound familiar to you?

A Motif of Seasons is published in paperback and ebook edition on 18 November 2016. You can pre-order the book here.

Character profiles: The good and dark side of human nature

Continuing the series of posts introducing new readers to some of the key characters in A Motif of Seasons, here are the second pairing. Charles Hardinge and Robert Whitfield typify the contrast between the good and dark sides of human nature and the damage the latter can cause.

Charles Hardinge

Victoria Elise’s English husband, he is an admired barrister – fair minded, wise and clever – with a shrewd ability to observe events, people and their motives and to hide his feelings and inner thoughts. He is the perfect foil to his mercurial wife.

Robert Whitfield

An only child, he is the patriarch of the family’s large estate – Meltwater – in Norfolk and rich investments in London. He is vain, manipulative, secretive and unprincipled. Yet beneath his overarching ambition and palpable self-confidence, he is weak – a coward driven by fierce inner demons of envy and greed.

But again, the question is: which would you rather be?

A Motif of Seasons is published in paperback and ebook edition on 18 November 2016. You can pre-order the book here.

Character profiles: Who would you be?

Over the next few days, I’d like to introduce new readers to some of the key characters in A Motif of Seasons. As an author, I’m fascinated by the different aspects of human nature, so I’ve decided to pair the characters up to compare and contrast them. Here are the first two.

Exemplified by a typical mother/daughter adversarial relationship (which many of you will be familiar with from your own experiences), today’s pairing introduces Countess Elisabeth Mariette von Schellenhorst and her daughter Countess Victoria Elise.


Countess Elisabeth Mariette von Schellenhorst

Granddaughter of the famed Countess Arabella von Deppe (the lead character in The Music Book and Fortune’s Sonata), family matriarch and fierce keeper of an old music book full of past family secrets, she is a formidable and duplicitous woman with a secret of her own. Now in her twilight years she considers the time may have come for Herzberg to let go of its much vaunted past but lacks the courage of her belated conviction to say so.

Countess Victoria Elise

Elisabeth Maritte’s daughter and only child, she is refined, striking and – in sharp contrast to her mother – unconventional and opinionated, leading sometimes to verbal duels. A brilliant pianist and a challenger of the past, she takes risks to her mother’s horror. Her love of music and her intense sensuality are her principal weapons to fulfil her ambitions; and she shares her great grandmother’s belief that the centuries old notion of the weaker sex is a malevolent means by men to enforce continued female inequality.

The question is: which would you rather be?

A Motif of Seasons is published in paperback and ebook edition on 18 November 2016. You can pre-order the book here.

My writing method

People often ask me about my writing method. Of course, each writer has his or her own but here is mine (please remember I’m relatively new at the game).

First, I set myself a completion deadline and stick to it. This approach probably reflects my diplomatic career in which every task – writing a brief, a policy paper or a speech – had a firm deadline which had to be met.

Second, I decide a working title for the book. It may not remain the title at the end but during the writing it provides a valuable focus – the end point. I’ve only changed a title once at the end, but on the advice of my copy editor reverted to the one I had chosen at the start. She was right.

Third, I then decide how many parts the book should have and once that is done I list the provisional chapter headings in each part. These headings (and the part headings) sometimes get changed as I go along. Nonetheless the list acts a road map.

Fourth, I don’t write every day as I have other things to do but I will certainly do so when I am free, whether it be during the day or evening. I have a notebook with me all the time so that on train journeys, bus rides or when I’m just having a coffee in London I can write down quickly any thoughts about the storyline that suddenly occur to me – as a consequence of what I might observe, overhear or read. I am fascinated by human nature and it’s all around us when we are out and about.

Fifth, towards the end of writing a book I try not to become obsessed with tying up too many loose ends. Some I do but others I leave, knowing that they will always be there if I want to follow up with a new book later.

Last, how do I know if I’ve got to the end of the story I am telling? The answer is I know I have when I get there. I just get a feeling that it’s time to stop.

If I didn’t I might miss it.

Encore: on music and writing again

I have already written about the way in which some pieces of 18th and 19th century music inspired a handful of scenes in each of the three books in the Herzberg trilogy.

As a general rule I do not write to music playing in the background, much preferring to write in silence. The room in Norfolk where I do so overlooks a garden which greatly extends the quiet space in which I can let my imagination loose – a larger stage for characters to come to life whether during the day or in the evening.

Sometimes however I find it helpful before I begin writing to listen to a piece of music to help me let go of other preoccupations of the day. I choose at random from several favourite pieces. These include:

  • Jean-Philippe Rameau: Symphonie Imaginaire: a selection of Rameau’s best music assembled all in one work by the French baroque specialist Marc Minkowski and played under his baton by Les Musiciens du Louvre; or
  • Mozart: the aria Soave sia il Vento from his opera Cosi fan Tutte. In the trio two young women say farewell to their lovers who are about to deceive them cruelly revealing in turn the women’s own weaknesses. It is sublime piece of music accompanied by a superb libretto “On your voyage may the winds be gentle; may the waves be calm; may all the elements respond to your desires….”. What better words to hear at the start of a journey of imagination; or
  • Gregorio Allegri’s Miserere, a setting of transcendent beauty of Psalm 51 and once one of the Vatican’s most closely guarded secrets which anyone found attempting to copy it was threatened with excommunication. But then Mozart came along and wrote out the whole piece from memory. The rest is history.

Selected extracts from A Motif of Seasons

With just over 3 weeks to go until the publication of the latest and last book in the Herzberg trilogy, A Motif of Seasons, my diligent team has selected six extracts to provide readers with a little glimpse into what they can expect.

My personal favourite is the poem written by Frederick in the bloody trenches of the Somme:

The Corporal’s Bloody Day

Inky black into battle grey,
Battle grey into bitter blue;
So becomes the hue
Of another bloody day.

Time to move each frozen limb,
Locked night-long in crusted mud;
The guns of the Hun begin to thud
Atop the trench’s brim.

“Sir, men ready for inspection,”
Barks the sergeant,
Midst his men shuffling to attention.
Knee-deep in slime,
Affection I convey
To weary faces, lifeless eyes.

“Will we make it home to Blighty?”
Asks the corporal,
Seeking reassurance.
“Yes,” I shout above the din.
“You’ll make it, Stripey.”

Inspection done, I move along
To the tune of loading rifles, whistled Tipperary song.
All standing ready for the sergeant’s fateful order:
“Lads, forward to the German border.”

Sudden comes the eerie whistle,
Then the deafening cascade,
And vivid pink, floating in the wind like down of thistle.
Alas! No Blighty for poor Stripey, despite the promise made.

And so the day goes on
As other days have gone,
On into another accursed night
Of vanquished hopes and unrelenting fright.

You can read the rest of the extracts here.