Borgias, Bother, and Bad Ideas: Behind “Book of Hours”

So I had this idea for a novel.

There was this gentleman thief, see, and he needed to steal something. Wait. There was more. This something, see, was hidden in the pit network underneath the Colosseum. The hypogeum, if you’re into archeology. A caper in front of ten thousand tourists. Say crooks or spies did drop exchanges there, payoff money or hacked secrets. Glam Rome, high stakes, chases through crumbling passages. Toss in the yucks. It sells itself, right?

Some ideas know better than to come together. I worked on the first draft, got 15,000 words in. And froze. Several times. Even with the leeway of a comic premise, story problems kept clogging the works. No thief, see, could get past modern security, polizia squads, and ten thousand smart phone cameras. And why the hell would any mobster anywhere choose the Colosseum to stash diamonds or jump drives? The pits where tour groups flock through all the Italian day? Out of a million less complicated alternatives? No, my idea wouldn’t be selling itself.

But the first chapter worked. It stood alone more or less, no Colosseum-sized plot problems. Our hero, see, just had to steal something stealable from a place such things get stolen from. A super-valuable book. The scene zipped like a Bond movie opening, a slam bang action setpiece launching into the main plot.

We’d last left our hero in a bad way. Ed, our once-brash gent, had been outfoxed by a mademoiselle high on Holmesian deduction and low on morals (“Aix to Grind,” AHMM September 2014). Now a few months later, Ed is in crushing debt to the Corsican mob for his Aix sins, and worse, he’s in the cold, cold clutches of the Marchesa Isabella Ruggieri. In “Aix,” Ed bragged over stealing a haul from her. The haul, it turns out, were personal treasures at the dark heart of her Borgia bloodline fixation. She’s guaranteed his debt for now, provided he steal her heirlooms back. Rapidamente.

So. The Marchesa has sleuthed out the location of her biggest Borgia prize, a medieval book of hours. It’s a prayer devotional, lots of ornate inlay and artwork if commissioned for the wealthy. In Ed’s case, for Pope Alexander VI. As fiction does, things get worse. The devotional has landed at a book collector’s Alpine villa, the sort of book collector who doesn’t blink at offers lacking, shall we say, clear provenance. The villa has the sort of intense security that such a collector would deploy. And Ed’s forced-upon partner for the heist pretty clearly wants to kill him. 

In what was pure delusion, I figured the rewrite from chapter to story should go smoothly. As a short story, “Book of Hours” could just be its singular self, from catchy opener to rising action to big honking finale. Draft after draft kept coming out flat. The elements were there, sure, but not there there. It was all outer Ed, still a slambang chapter one setting up a pay-off that wasn’t coming. 

Pope Alexander (Wikipedia)

Okay, then. Make it about something. Sounds easy. It never is. Through multiple hair-tugging bouts and shoves away from the computer, after much angst and printer ink, I finally remembered to do what I should’ve done in the first place: deepen what Inner Ed needed to gain from his night of Borgia hunting. And what did Ed lack at this, his feast of consequences?

Pride. Ed needed to regain a hint of his swagger from “Aix.” With pride would come hope. A just-maybe belief he can score enough money to pay off the Corsicans or outwit the Marchesa.  Not confidence all at once, but built in steps over 5,000 words. 

And whether by luck or instinct, the novel opening pitted Ed versus a terrific foil: Corsican foot soldier Cassius who’s babysitting during the caper. Where Ed uses wit, Cassius speaks in grunts. Where Ed aspires to artistry, Cassius is a blunt instrument. Ed knows his manuscripts and the monks who crafted them. Cassius sees only quick cash. When “Hours” opens, Ed isn’t all that engaged in the crime. Why bother? Sure as sunrise, if Cassius doesn’t pop Ed that night, someone else pops him soon enough. But Cassius bungles through the job, even damages the haul, which increasingly irritates–and awakes–the professional in Ed.  

Wounded pride. It’s enough to bring a gentleman thief back to thieving. And make him a lot less gentlemanly.


“Book of Hours” appears in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Jul/Aug 2018.

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