Michael Gregorio is the writing name of the couple Daniela De Gregorio and Michael G. Jacob. The pair has created a wonderful historical mystery series set in the early nineteenth century and featuring rural Prussian magistrate, Hanno Stiffeniis. In the series opener, Critique of Criminal Reason, Stiffeniis is on the track of a serial killer spreading terror in Königsberg. That debut earned the authors a starred review from Publishers Weekly, who called the book a “stellar debut … that cunningly incorporates the ideas of the great thinker Immanuel Kant into a twisty, fast-moving whodunit plot.” Booklist declared of this same work, “Sherlock Holmes himself would struggle to keep up with the master sleuth Gregorio brings to life.”
In the second installment, Days of Atonement, with Napoleon Bonaparte’s troops still occupying Prussia, Stiffeniis investigates the brutal killing of three children. Publishers Weekly termed this novel an “outstanding” historical, while Booklist dubbed it an “enthralling sequel.” Another serial killer is on the loose in the third series addition, A Visible Darkness. The setting for this one is along the Amber Coast of the Baltic Sea. In their third consecutive starred Publishers Weekly review, a contributor called the book a “superb … whodunit…[that] subtly probes the heart of human darkness.”
Daniela and Michael, welcome to Scene of the Crime. I can only say that the reviewers are spot on with your books. You’ve done an excellent job in bringing the early nineteenth century to life.
Perhaps we could start with you describing your connection to your Prussia. How did you become interested in that time and place?
Our first novel, Critique of Criminal Reason, was set in Königsberg at the start of the nineteenth century, and it led us to write a series of historical crime novels which all take place in East Prussia, the ‘fatherland’ of modern Germany, let’s call it.
Quite recently an American lady asked us where Prussia was. It seemed zany at the time – where’s Prussia? – but it was a very fair question. The fact is that Prussia no longer exists. The country was divided up and absorbed into Russia and Poland at the end of World War II in 1945.
So, to answer your question, Syd, we couldn’t live there, or even go there. Okay, we could visit modern Poland or the Russian ‘corridor’ to the Baltic Sea, but it wouldn’t be the same. Indeed, having seen photos of modern Kaliningrad (old Königsberg is now a Russian nuclear submarine base!), we wouldn’t want to go there.
So, how did we end up (mentally) in Prussia? Well, Daniela had an idea for a short story about the Prussian philosopher, Immanuel Kant, and his valet, Martin Lampe. I suggested that we expand the story into a full-length novel, and we started writing it together. At that point we had to learn about a country that had been, literally, ‘forgotten.’ Prussia was once an independent kingdom with a unique sense of national selfhood, and a long and glorious history.
When the first novel sold, Faber & Faber (our UK & world rights publisher), and St Martins-Minotaur (our publishing house in the USA) wanted more.
What things about Prussia make it unique and a good physical setting in your books?
Now you sound like the American lady asking tricky questions… We were trying to re-create a world and a society which had disappeared. The history of Prussia and the physical geography of the area are easily verifiable in books, or on the web. The climate and vegetation of the Baltic region are equally accessible. Establishing the basic facts was easy enough…
At this point, we should mention that we live in a medieval/Renaissance town in sunny Italy: Spoleto is an hour from Rome by train. Could anywhere be more different from the north German plain? Well, our medieval streets are dark and forbidding, and we live in the mountains, so we have bitterly cold winters, too. If you describe February in Spoleto, you could be describing a winter in Prussia, Russia, or New England in the early nineteenth century.
You use what you know, identify what is useful, and invent just about everything else. Our Prussia is a Grimm-inspired literary fantasy. Our protagonist, Hanno Stiffeniis, lives in the small country town of Lotingen (which doesn’t exist, though we know where we have placed it on the map), and he visits towns and places which may, or may, not have changed extensively since 1804 – 1810, which is the historical period that we have covered so far, i.e., the time when Prussia was invaded by Napoleon and occupied by the French army. Hanno has been to Königsberg, Bialystok, Marienburg, Danzig, and a host of other towns and villages which we have never visited. Lucky Hanno!
Setting plays a part, but history and plot are pre-eminent. As soon as you start thinking in terms of ‘plot’ and ‘history,’ dropping names like Napoleon Bonaparte or Immanuel Kant, and murdering people, the reader’s interest in nondescript factual description takes a back seat.
Did you consciously set out to use Prussia as a “character” in your books, or did this grow naturally out of the initial story or stories?
Location plays a major part in every novel, but you have to avoid bland repetition. We have written four novels set in Prussia, but every time we have used a different location, and each one has taken place at a different season of the year. Our aim is to entertain; each time the reader turns a page, he or she has to be surprised. In that respect, ‘location’ is like ‘character.’ You have to show off various aspects of the subject, and each one must add something to the story. We have certainly described Prussia, but that was not our primary concern.
How does Hanno Stiffeniis interact with his surroundings? And how does the setting affect Hanno Stiffeniis?
Hanno Stiffeniis is a proud, loyal Prussian-born magistrate, who lives in a small country town which has been bombarded and occupied by the French. An unwilling collaborator by virtue of his profession (technically, he is a procurator, that is, both an investigator and a judge), he is sometimes employed by the French to resolve local problems which involve Prussian murderers and nationalist rebels. He is caught in the middle, and must go wherever he is sent. He resents the effects of French military domination, measuring its changes on the country that he loves. Hanno prefers to think of himself as the magistrate of provincial Lotingen. He sees the town in terms of himself, his wife and his children, and their place within local society. As is usual in small towns (like Spoleto, the Italian town where we live), contrasts are more clearly marked by their close proximity. Rich and poor mix, and they live next door, or almost.
We have made his home-town of Lotingen a sort of Germanic microcosm, an imaginary centre of local administrative power, which is ideally suited to reflect contemporary historical problems. In our second novel, Days of Atonement, for example, Hanno investigates the murder of three Jewish children. The story takes us into the Jewish ghetto, and inside the closed world of the defeated Prussian army. It sets out to reveal the complications which the French revolutionary promises of ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’ unleashed within Prussia. Technically, Jews acquired equal rights with other Prussians, but things are never as simple as the legislators think…
Has there been any local reaction to your works?
Well, the first book was translated into twenty-odd languages, including Polish, German and Estonian, all of which have an enduring historical interest in Prussia. We don’t (and can’t easily) follow the local reviews, but we have received letters from Germany and Poland from enthusiastic and generous readers, who say that they enjoyed the novels. One of our most exciting moments as published writers was the news (see the attached photo) that trams in Warsaw had been decked out to advertise the launch of the first book in Poland. Can you imagine that? You are sitting at home in Spoleto, Italy, and the trams of Warsaw are racing around town with your name and the title of your book splashed all over them!
Have you ever made any goofs in depicting your location or time period? Please share–the more humorous the better (we all have).
Not all letters from readers contain unmitigated praise. One German reader from Bremen wrote recently to say that there had never been a nineteenth-century massacre of Jews in his town, as we had reported in an aside. We’re still trying to trace the precise historical reference that prompted us to mention the incident, but we believe that there was an incident. We don’t recklessly invent history, we use it. Another reader wrote to say that the Baltic Sea is not affected by tides. We had described a Baltic beach “at low tide.” Recently, reading “Zoo Station” by David Downing, I noticed that he mentions the Baltic Sea at low tide, too. Maybe he hasn’t been there, either!
Of the Hanno Stiffeniis novels, do you have a favorite book or scene that focuses on the place? Could you quote a short passage or give an example of how the location figures in your novels?
Of the four Hanno Stiffeniis novels that we have written, we are, perhaps, most proud of the world we have created in the most recently published, A Visible Darkness, which focuses on the barren coast of the Baltic Sea, and the women who collect amber on the windswept seashore. Daniela says that it is her favorite in the series, while my vote goes to Days of Atonement, especially the scenes in the remote fortress of Kamenetz, which is “…perched on the crown of a barren hillside like a huge, hideous spider, ready to attack its prey.” If the location has no ‘character,’ then in our novels it serves no purpose…
A doctor from Singapore wrote recently to ask about Kamenetz; he hoped to visit the castle while visiting Europe, he said, and he couldn’t find it on Google maps. We had to explain that it was an invention, then apologize for building up his hopes!
Who are your favorite writers, and do you feel that other writers influenced you in your use of the spirit of place in your novels?
Daniela: Two authors and their chosen settings interest me in particular: Franz Kafka and the Brothers Grimm. Prague in the first case; rural Germany which is bizarre, grotesque and ferocious in the second. Neither author identifies the precise setting, and they avoid naming places, yet they communicate the ‘psychic’ atmosphere in a manner which is memorable and extremely effective.
Michael: I love Bill James’s nameless, south-coast UK seaside town – run down, slightly sordid, and full of scheming criminal minds. I’d like to visit the place, though it doesn’t exist. In the same way, I enjoy Alan Furst’s forays into the forgotten corners of European cities. Descriptive writing in their novels always reinforces a sense of precariousness and menace. Dickens, too, of course. Think of the opening pages of Great Expectations.
Our latest novel, Unholy Awakening, will be published this summer in the UK and USA. Magistrate Stiffeniis has a particularly tough time bringing a ‘vampire’ to justice. Now, we think he deserves a holiday. While he’s resting, we’ll be working on something ‘completely different.’
Well, Cathi Unsworth did describe our stuff as ‘Python-esque!’
Thanks once again, Daniela and Michael, for an intriguing discussion.
For more information on the writing team of Michael Gregorio, visit their author homepage.