'Where do you get your ideas from?'
Every time I do a public gig someone asks what's actually a very sensible question, so I try to resist answering wearily, 'I've got an ideas tree in the vegetable garden.'
The basic idea for The Dead Hand – actually my forty-ninth novel – was easy. I had to get Harriet and Matthew back to their home where there is a Roman site, and there they had to investigate a crime. But after forty-eight novels it wasn't too easy to move beyond there. However, inspiration came on a wonderful archaeological holiday on Orkney and Shetland. No, I didn't get to dig, much as I would have loved to, because the excavation season was over. But the tour leader's knowledge and enthusiasm more than made up for any disappointment. If you haven't been on one of Peter Yeoman's tours, sign up now. This is a man who can bring the distant past alive: he glows with passion for it.
But, as academics tend to say, prehistory is not my period – more to the point, not the period in which my lead archaeologist, Sir Francis Palmer, specialises, though were he able he would have many a joyous conversation with Peter. So I needed more help. This came in the form of an exhibit at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. Not just any exhibit – the Alfred Jewel. This is an aestel, a tiny tool employed by Anglo-Saxon monks to guide them along the text they were reading – no sticky fingers on their vellum, thank you. This stunningly lovely piece touched my heart; it connected me to a person who lived over a millennium ago. But it still wasn't Sir Francis' period.
He'd have been totally at home in the last source of my idea – the Roman Villa at Chedworth, in the Cotswolds. He would have been able to ask the dedicated and patient guides (all volunteers, of course, at a National Trust property, apart from James Ball, the administrator) intelligent questions, not the naïve ones I pestered them with. Mike Spittle in particular was an absolute inspiration.
So suddenly I had a plot on my hands. A learned archaeologist with a gift for communicating; a Roman site; and an Anglo-Saxon treasure in quite the wrong place.
An ideas tree? Who needs one with help like this!
7 November 2023
A treat for historical-mystery fans. Booklist
Cutler's quirky series blazes its path… A little history, a little mystery Kirkus Reviews