Sunday, September 13, 2009

Beverle Graves Myers - Waking the Dead

Our guest today is Beverle Graves Myers, author of the wonderful Tito Amado Mysteries set in 18th Century Venice and the world of opera. 


Why set a mystery novel in the past? For some writers, it’s a journey 

to a time and place that can’t be reached by conventional travel, a wonderful way to stretch our powers of perception. For others, historical fiction provides an opportunity for a painless history lesson or a reminder that there’s nothing new under the sun. 

For me, it’s all about the characters, so like the inhabitants of the 21st century in their basic desires and needs, but with intriguing differences. The castrati singers, for instance.

I fell in love with baroque opera when I first heard Alfred Deller’s ethereal soprano fill my college Music History classroom many years ago. Mr. Deller was a modern singer who had trained his falsetto to recreate the castrato roles of 18th-century composers like Handel, Gluck, Vivaldi and Mozart. Already an opera fan, I was as much overcome by the music as the amazed audiences in those smoky, candle-lit theaters of three centuries ago. They swooned, cried real tears, and shouted for encore after encore. Something absolutely unique must have been going on, so I decided to learn as much as I could about the singers who had caused such a furor.

My research skills were pretty good, I was a history major, after all, but there wasn’t a lot of information out there. No autobiography of a castrato singer exists, and most of the academic papers focused on the music instead of the men. I was wondering about the offstage lives of the performers who made such an irrevocable sacrifice for their art. Were they willing victims? Were they considered freaks in their communities? What happened to the boys who failed to find fame?

I did learn that the greatest castrato singer of the baroque era was Carlo Broschi, a pleasant and generous fellow who went by the stage name Farinelli. A Golden Globe winning film has since been made of his life, but at the time, almost no one had even heard of him. Farinelli particularly interested me because he gave up his stage career to give nightly, private serenades to King Phillip V of Spain. The king suffered from a depressive illness, and Farinelli’s soothing concerts encouraged him to carry out his royal duties. The first music therapist, perhaps.

Another castrato, Atto Melani, is also famous for his encounters with princes, but as a spy rather than a caretaker. Atto turned his handsome looks and beautiful voice to good advantage by reporting on the French court for his patron, Mattias de’Medici. While entertaining at receptions and intimate suppers, Atto kept his eyes and ears wide open. He was also said to be quite active in the beds of both male and female aristocrats.

I kept these stories and others in the back of my mind through medical school, a residency in psychiatry and a ten-year stint at a public mental health clinic. When I made a mid-life career switch to writing fiction, Farinelli and Atto and all the others were waiting, ready to serve as inspiration for my singer-sleuth Tito Amato. Since I write mysteries, a murder or other serious crime makes up the core of each novel, but surrounding the investigations, I was determined that my characters reflect the mindset of the 18th century, not the 21st.

Here’s where waking the dead comes in. There’s a wonderful scene in The Addams Family—the film with Raul Julia and Anjelica Houston, not its shoddy imitators. Near the end of the movie, Gomez proposes a game to celebrate Halloween. “Wake the dead. Wake the dead,” shout Wednesday and Pugsley, and they all gleefully repair to the family cemetery with shovels. I see myself playing a similar game when I bring people from the past to life on the page. Instead of shovels, I use words. 

Presenting historical characters honestly is quite a task. Everything around us, plus our genetics and our past experiences, contribute to who we are. It was no different for humans of other eras. How to convey the setting to readers without burying them in backstory and detail? I’ve developed a strategy—I start with everyday activities and comment only on those that bear directly on the plot or seem unique to Tito (my first-person narrator) in some way. 

Her Deadly Mischief opens with Tito readying himself for the opera’s opening night performance. Singing is his profession, something he does almost every evening. But this time, one thing is different. Instead of every eye being trained on the stage, one box on the theater’s fourth tier is keeping its curtains stubbornly drawn. Irritated, Tito aims the full force of his luscious voice at the box and is astounded when a woman falls over the railing like a life-sized rag doll. Tito is the only one to view her killer, an anonymous man in a carnival mask, before he runs away.

As the investigation into the murder proceeds, the characters must behave within the parameters of their time. One example: Tito is surprised that Messer Grande, the chief of Venice’s rudimentary police force, is more enlightened than his predecessors who’ve sparred with Tito in previous books. This new Messer Grande actually treats Tito with respect instead of disdaining him as a theatrical freak. The reason? Messer Grande is a Freemason, a member of a new (to 1742) brotherhood who believes in the worth and equality of all men. He’s also adopted the budding technique of disguising himself to infiltrate bands of ruffians rather than simply ordering his men to drag suspects in to beat the hell out of them.

I’ve had great fun shoveling through cultural layers, attempting to dig out the ways my fictitious castrato would approach the problems posed by a murder in his theater. If I’ve succeeded, my readers should enjoy a trip to 1742 Venice, and the castrati, those forgotten heroes of the stage, will be called back for one more encore.  

Beverle Graves Myers made a mid-life career switch from psychiatry to mystery writing. A graduate of University of Louisville School of Medicine, she worked at a public mental health clinic before her first book was published in 2004. Interrupted Aria introduced singer-sleuth Tito Amato and the Baroque Mystery series set in the dazzling, decadent world of 18th-century Venice. Her Deadly Mischief is the latest series title. From her home in Louisville, Bev also writes short fiction set in a variety of times and places. Her stories have been published in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Woman's World, Futures, and numerous anthologies. She has earned nominations for the Macavity, Derringer, and Kentucky Literary awards.

Bev's website address is


Vicki Delany said...

I love novels where the author has gone to the extra trouble to dig into the times enough to know what would be in character for a person of that era. The extra work always shows. Good luck Beverle, the book sounds great.

Beverle Graves Myers said...

Hi Vicki,

Thanks for the kind words and a big thanks to Donis for hosting me on Type M for Murder. Just to clarify, my sleuth is Tito Amato. He gets Amado and D'Amato all the time, so we're used to it. Just don't call him Vito or Toto as a couple of reviewers have. That gets him riled.

Best to all,

Charles benoit said...

I would imagine that coming to grips with some of the common mid-set issues would be really tough. How do you address issues (antisemitism, homophobia, role/place of women) that are so different from our own and still make the characters believable and, for some, likable?

Beverle Graves Myers said...

Hi Charles,

I often have the characters I want to be likeable quesioning the status quo, at least in small ways. And then, sometimes the issues were not so cut and dried as people often think. The 18th century generally looked at homosexuality differently than our century, not so are you or aren't you, but shades of gray.


Donis Casey said...

I have a tendency to research myself to death, then I have to determine how much historical fact and period detail is too much. Sometimes I find it hard to know when to stop. It's difficult not to want to put in EVERY fascinating detail about the period and stick to your story instead. Do you sometimes have to be severe with yourself when you're deciding what facts to use?

Beverle Graves Myers said...

Severe, yes. Things that advance the plot. And I also decide what goes in by getting in Tito's head and seeing what he notices. Everyday things don't make it in--it's unusual things that catch my protag's eye.

Eileen said...

I do need to pick these up! (Not only am I a mystery fanatic, currently writing an Art Deco themed book of my own, I'm a former opera student.)

Thank you for posting.

Charles benoit said...

Wow, both opera fans on the same blog site!

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Jeb said...

Beverle, your books are indeed a visit to 1742. I have cherished every one of them to date.