Interview: David Bishop on his Cesare Aldo Book Series - Murder, Mystery and History
So, you want to read a great historical fiction novel, but where do you start? A quick glance at the listings on Amazon reveals there are some 60,000 books in the genre. Now, if a novel takes on average eight hours to read, it will take you 480,000 hours to read all of those books. That’s 2857 weeks. Or 657 months. Or, and this is where the numbers get a bit terrifying, 54 years.
Here’s my advice, save yourself 54 years of reading through precariously balanced piles of books and just go and read the recent novels by D.V Bishop instead; easily the best examples of the historical fiction genre I’ve read in years (though, not 54 years, I’ve not been circling the sun that long).
I was delighted to have the opportunity to sit down with David and speak to him about his Cesare Aldo series of books, City of Vengeance and The Darkest Sin. David proved to be absolutely awesome, check out his words below!
Imagining History: Can you tell us a little about your books City of Vengeance and The Darkest Sin, what are they all about?
David Bishop: Both novels are historical thrillers set in Renaissance Florence. They feature Cesare Aldo, an officer of the most powerful and feared criminal court in the city, the Otto di Guardia e Balia. Aldo has the authority to investigate, question, and even torture suspects or witnesses. But he is also a gay man at a time and place when that was punishable by death. So, Aldo is an officer of the court, yet he lives and loves on the wrong side of the law.
In the first book of the series, City of Vengeance, Aldo investigates the murder of a Jewish moneylender and uncovers the true-crime conspiracy to overthrow the ruler of Florence, Duke Alessandro de’ Medici. In the follow-up, The Darkest Sin, Aldo finds the dead body of a naked man deep inside a convent, covered with blood. Could the killer be one of the nuns and, if so, what will happen to the convent?
What was your inspiration for setting a story in sixteenth-century Florence? Why that particular era?
I’ve always been fascinated by Florence. It was the cradle of the Renaissance, which took humanity out of the Middle Ages and brought us incredible art, architecture, and science. Renaissance Florence gave the world Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and much more. But it was also the city that inspired Machiavelli’s The Prince, the ultimate guide to acquiring and keeping power. Renaissance Florence features both beauty and backstabbers, stunning breakthroughs in the arts and sciences alongside bloody conspiracies.
It differs from Rome or other city-states in what we now call Italy because Renaissance Florence was built on banking and commerce, in large part thanks to the Medici family. The Church was still a significant factor, but business mattered more. It’s hard to enforce the law if the richest can buy their way out of trouble. It certainly makes for a very cutthroat setting!
Your protagonist, Cesare Aldo, is brilliantly realised. How did you go about creating such a layered and believable character?
Thank you for the kind words! I spent years and years thinking about these stories before I dared to write them. I got the idea in the late 1990s but didn’t believe I knew enough or was a good enough writer at the time to do them justice. Getting the character of Aldo right was crucial; make him interesting enough and readers would (hopefully!) want more.
Aldo needed to be as comfortable in the dodgiest back-alley taverns as he was standing before the Duke of Florence. Aldo needed the skills to survive in a knife fight but also be nimble enough to survive the sharp tongues and vicious barbs of courtly intrigue.
Most of all Aldo needed to be his own man, with his own moral code and his own belief in justice. He will bend or break the law when necessary, especially when those he cares about are threatened. You do not want to be at the wrong end of Aldo’s trusty stiletto!
You've loads of wonderful, and utterly detestable, characters in your book. Who is your favourite? Or the one you just love to hate?
My favourite in City of Vengeance must be Meo Cerchi, a rival officer to Aldo at the Otto. He is scum yet believes himself to be utterly correct in everything he does. The Darkest Sin introduces Aldo’s evil stepmother, Lucrezia Fioravanti. She’s a true daughter of Florence, happy to sacrifice her own children for the sake of the family business. Aldo and Lucrezia have a brief but brutal meeting in the novel, but her shadow looms large over his whole life.
The city of Florence is like a character in and of itself. Whilst reading your books, I felt like I was inhabiting the city. How did you go about researching the city and piecing together the location of its streets, markets, and districts so the layout makes sense to the reader?
I have a bookcase groaning with research books stacked double-deep. Getting the historical events correct was a challenge, especially when historians don’t agree on the date that key events occurred. But capturing the details of ordinary life was the harder task: what poor people ate, how they dressed, what the city smelled and sounded like…
I’ve been fortunate to visit Florence several times to research the city. Happily, many of the buildings standing in Aldo’s time – the 1530s – are still there today. The centre of the city is not hugely different, even 485 years on. Each novel is set in a different season, so walking around Florence at different times of the year is extremely helpful. I can’t wait to go back.
Speaking of research, what was the most fascinating piece of historical trivia you uncovered?
The most famous bridge in Florence is Ponte Vecchio. Today it is full of jewellery shops and tourist stalls, but in the 1530s that was where many butchers sold their meat. By the end of the day, the bridge was awash with blood and unwanted offcuts, all of which got washed into the river Arno. The stench at the height of summer must have been horrific!
There's a tremendous amount of historical detail in your writing, yet it never gets in the way of the pacey narrative. How did you go about balancing these elements?
Long ago I was a journalist, a profession that trains you to never let the reader get bored. I edited comics for ten years, a storytelling medium where concision and clarity are crucial. After that, I wrote TV drama for shows like Doctors, where scenes last less than a minute.
Thanks to all of that, I don’t tend to have a problem with pace – quite the reverse, in fact! When I was working with my editor Alex Saunders at Pan Macmillan on City of Vengeance, he said some historical fiction writers are often too in love with their research to leave it out, and pace suffers. But his big note for me was to let scenes breathe a little more, so the reader has a clearer sense of place. Now I work hard to immerse readers in each setting – while keeping the pages turning at the same time, of course.
So, I've read both City of Vengeance and The Darkest Sin, what are you working on next and when can I get my grubby eyeballs on it?
I am writing the third Cesare Aldo novel right now, which should be out next year. It is set in the summer of 1538. Tuscany is suffering a terrible drought, the city of Florence is gripped by a blistering heatwave, and someone is burning sinners alive…
Ohhhhhhh! Sounds thrilling! I shall add it to my reading list. Thanks so much for taking the time to answer our questions David!
Check out David’s website for all things Cesare Aldo: https://dvbishop.com/
And you can find David on Twitter here: https://twitter.com/davidbishop