Thursday, 14 March 2013

GUEST BLOG: The Malice of Fortune: When Truth is Stranger than Fiction - Michael Ennis

At a time when literary tastes run to Vampire-hunting American presidents and zombie-menaced Jane Austen heroines, what does a novelist do upon discovering that Leonardo da Vinci and Niccolo Machiavelli not only worked together closely, but were equally well-acquainted with one of one history’s most intelligent and enigmatic serial killers? The temptation was certainly present to create a camped-up, mashed-up sendup of the premise: Mr. Machiavelli and Dr. Da Vinci in The Adventure of the Renaissance Ripper.

However, as the writer in question, I decided to look more closely at the history behind this little-known meeting of the minds.  And that’s when I was reminded yet again of the eternal truth that undergirds both historical fiction and true-crime nonfiction: You can’t make this stuff up. Just as there’s no such thing as a generic murder, history seldom matches textbook accounts – nor do actual events adhere to some law of averages. The more carefully you examine the details of documented history, the stranger and more unpredictable things begin to look.

For example, I started The Malice of Fortune with the idea that Machiavelli could use the precepts of The Prince to solve a crime – or as it turned out, a killing spree. Yet as I did my due diligence on Machiavelli, reading his volumes of literary works (of which The Prince is only a fraction), diplomatic dispatches, and personal correspondence, I discovered in a letter to a close friend that Machiavelli researched The Prince in a rather unconventional fashion.  Alone in his study late at night, Machiavelli would “interrogate” long-dead historical personages, noting that he had the ability to “completely get inside their heads.” Other letters revealed that Machiavelli also applied this technique to living (but not physically present) popes and kings, in an effort to divine their motives and anticipate their actions. Based on this “profiling” technique (long familiar to television audiences and readers of books like The Silence of the Lambs) as well as Machiavelli’s pioneering study of “the nature of men” – what today we refer to as behavioral psychology – I was able to quite credibly cast Machiavelli as a sixteenth century criminal profiler.

Combining Machiavelli’s actual practices with Leonardo Da Vinci’s well-documented (in many pages of his own notes and drawings) dissections of human corpses, I eventually found myself with a forensic team – profiler and pathologist – that might appear to be a latter-day fantasy, but was in fact drawn entirely from history.  I also had a well-documented murderer who in many ways resembled a real-life Hannibal Lecter, a highly “organized” (to use current forensic jargon) psychopathic serial killer with great intellectual gifts; a manipulative and persuasive personality: and a penchant for dismemberment, riddles and bizarre geographical games.

The challenge presented by this almost too-perfect (and seemingly all-too-trendy) material was to root it realistically in the past, without providing my protagonists some absurd foreknowledge of modern forensic concepts. In order for Machiavelli and Leonardo to come face to face with this murderer just as they had in recorded history, four centuries before terms like psychopath and serial killer even entered our lexicon, I laboriously built a complete database of every word that these two revolutionary thinkers wrote in their many volumes of notes, letters, and literary works. And before I wrote a single line of dialogue, I parsed this database word by word, thought by thought, constructing a forensic vocabulary that was completely consistent with what Leonardo and Machiavelli actually understood about the human mind, as well as their phrasing and speech patterns.

But to fully put flesh on the bones of the past, I also required the kind of compelling, often quirky background details that have provided a good living for so many true crime writers (as I said, there’s no such thing as a generic murder). Noting that one of Machiavelli’s correspondents needled him about a familiarity with witchcraft he had evidently acquired in the backward region of Italy known as the Romagna – the place where the real-life Machiavelli met both Leonardo and the murderer – I extensively researched Renaissance-era witchcraft, which was actually a widespread folk religion known as stregoneria. As I read through the transcripts of witch trials and other period sources, I discovered the practice of smearing a narcotic ointment over the naked body in order to induce an hallucinogenic trance known as the “goat ride,” as well as one witch’s clever use of a Latin textbook to convince her illiterate clients that she had an esoteric book of spells; both of these details became major plot elements in The Malice of Fortune. Similarly, the actual murderer’s interest in riddles and geographical games allowed me to use as a key device one of Leonardo’s most revolutionary works, his Map of Imola – an almost Google-satellite-like aerial view that Leonardo drew at exactly the time and place where he encountered Machiavelli and the murderer.

But these examples hardly scratch the surface of my efforts to ensure that my stranger-than-fiction story had the ring of truth. After many years, when I finally had all the pieces assembled, I realized that I had not only written an historical thriller, but had re-written the history of one of western literature’s most iconic and controversial works. The end of The Malice of Fortune justifies the claim my carefully recreated Machiavelli makes at the very beginning of his narrative: “There is a terrifying secret I deliberately buried between the lines of The Prince.”

Trust me, that’s not the kind of thing you can just make up.

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