Most often, the mystery stories we read are set in a contemporary world, except perhaps in a place we don’t know so well. Their detectives are marked by their similarity to or difference from us. Zara Altair, however, has created a protagonist who lives much longer ago and farther away than mid-twentieth-century Los Angeles or Cabot Cove. How does that sort of hero come to be? How different are his life and the murders he must solve from what is ordinary to us? Zara Altair has built her world in Ostrogoth Italy of 512 CE, with habits, relationships, and politics that are fascinating — and so different from what we know.
What’s the theme behind your story?
Murder and politics in a small town in ancient Italy.
What’s the logline?
In a small town in Italy in 512 CE, a Roman patrician must solve a murder and quell civil unrest while local politicians plot to stop him. He can trust no one as he tries to discover the murderer.
What were you thinking about or what was happening when the idea occurred to you?
I wanted our hero, Argolicus, to stop living with his mother. I moved him to the family’s domus in town, which would pull him back into politics, which he doesn’t like.
How did the original idea change as you went along?
Two major changes happened as I was writing. At the beginning, Argolicus meets a woman whom his mother has set up as his potential bride. I knew that they wouldn’t marry, but as I was writing, she and his best friend fall in love at first sight. That was a surprise.
As the antagonist and opponents close in, Argolicus’s mixed birth—Roman and Ostrogoth—becomes a big issue. Opponents imply that he is not only the wrong man to save the town, but is conspiring with the Ostrogoth king to destroy Roman tradition.
How did you conceive of your characters for this story and how did they change?
Argolicus leaped off the page when I was reading the Variae by Cassiodorus. I was doing background research on Theodoric’s rule in Italy. Argolicus was a real person at the time of Theodoric’s reign in Italy. He is mentioned nine times in Cassiodorus’ Variae (iii 11, iii 12, iii 29, iii 30, iii 33, iv 22, iv 25, iv 29, iv 42) as praefectus urbis of Rome. His childhood and ongoing friendship with Cassiodorus and Ostrogoth neighbor Ebrimuth come from my imagination as well as his retirement in the very southern tip of Italy, the setting for the mystery series.
Argolicus is a learned man who turns detective at the bidding of friends and neighbors who know him as trustworthy, wise, and fair. His tools are the logic of Aristotle, the self-restraint of Epictetus, the theology of ArDomhnall Gleesonius, and the empirical insights of Marcus Aurelius, all sharpened to an edge by ferocious curiosity. He collects evidence, deciphers politics, and digs into the deepest secrets of the human heart.
Proba is a new character created for this book. I have women friends who are geeks. I wanted a strong female character who was good at math. I wanted her to be realistic for her time and culture, but with skills not normally attributed to women at that point in history. She keeps track of her father, the grain merchant’s, transactions, so she is in the culture but with an unusual role.
Are you pleased with the results, or do you wish you had done anything differently in the story? Why or why not?
Every writer feels they could do better. We are always learning and improving our craft. Overall, I am pleased with the story. Argolicus makes a new friend, reconsiders his position in society, and, of course, discovers the killer.
Who would play your leads in the movie if (when!) you make a deal?
Argolicus would be played by Domhnall Gleeson; Nikolaos, his slave tutor, by James McAvoy; Proba, the daughter, by Ashley Rickards; and Ebrimuth, Argolicus’s friend, by Kyle Lowder.
Zara Altair writes traditional mysteries set in Ostrogoth Italy featuring Argolicus, the Roman patrician who thinks his way to finding a killer. The Argolicus Mysteries are The Roman Heir, The Used Virgin, The Peach Widow, and The Vellum Scribe, with more on the way. A mystery lover since childhood, she has written about writing for a number of publications, including ProWritingAid and International Thriller Writer, and is a member of Sisters in Crime. She lives in Beaverton, OR, where she reads, walks among trees, and shares space with a cat. She coaches mystery writers at Write A Killer Mystery. To join her mailing list, visit http://bit.ly/ArgolicusReads.