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Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

BooksOctober 10, 2023

From Mt Roskill to Renaissance Florence: How I wrote an award-winning crime novel

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

In July D.V. Bishop became the first New Zealand writer to win the prestigious Crime Writers’ Association (CWA) Historical Dagger Award with his novel The Darkest Sin. He explains how the history of Florence, libraries and the Covid years helped him dream up his award-winning story set in a 16th century convent.

A few weeks ago I won a Dagger Award, the first person from Aotearoa to receive this honour from the Crime Writers’ Association of Great Britain. Other Aotearoa writers have been shortlisted for Daggers over the years, including “Darth” Vanda Symon and Stella Duffy, but winning literary prizes doesn’t happen much to people like me who grew up in Mount Roskill.

I was awarded the CWA’s Historical Dagger for my novel The Darkest Sin, a murder mystery set in a Renaissance convent. To be honest, I never thought the book would win a frozen chook in a raffle. It is usually a writer’s debut or the first book in a series that gets this sort of attention. Yet, The Darkest Sin is the second in a series featuring Cesare Aldo, a detective who investigates crimes on behalf of the Otto, the most feared court in 16th Century Florence.

The book was written during the early months of the pandemic in 2020 while I was teaching four days a week in Scotland. I was stressed to the eyeballs, having to suddenly turn the Creative Writing MA I led at Edinburgh Napier University into a seamless online programme. 

The UK spent most of 2020 in lockdown with everyone stuck indoors, allowed one walk a day. The world shrank to the walls around us, which made writing a novel about a group of nuns facing enforced enclosure by authoritarian men seem a bit on the nose.

Then there’s the fact that second novels are notoriously difficult. I’d written a load of other things before starting my Aldo series – heaps of tie-in novels for well known characters from other media such as Doctor Who, Judge Dredd and A Nightmare on Elm Street, nearly fifty issues of The Phantom comic, plus TV and radio scripts for the BBC. But the Aldo books are all my own creation, so if I stuffed up there was nobody else to blame. 

I had a two-book contract which was great, but it also meant any hopes of getting another contract depended on the quality of The Darkest Sin and how strong sales were for my first Aldo book, City of Vengeance. Only problem? That novel was published in February 2021 when Britain was back in lockdown (again) and all the bookshops were shut.

To elevate my stress levels higher, I decided it would be a good idea to make The Darkest Sin very different from City of Vengeance. The first Cesare Aldo book was a conspiracy thriller about a real life plot to overthrow the Medici duke of Florence, with the city’s future at stake. The Darkest Sin was a much quieter story, a locked room mystery about the fate of a convent.

And yet, despite all my worries and misgivings, this is the novel that three years later would win the Historical Dagger award. Go figure.

But, why Renaissance Florence?

David with his Dagger. And the novel that won it.

The days when an author wrote a novel, submitted it to their publisher and never needed to worry about it again are long gone. Writers – especially writers of popular genre fiction like crime – are now expected to get out and spread the word. If you want to raise awareness, and hopefully sales of your books, you have to pimp your writing.

That means visiting bookshops and libraries, recording podcast interviews, appearing at book festivals, and writing articles like this. A lot of authors find this difficult because they’re natural introverts, far happier at home reading or imagining new stories. But I’m a screaming extrovert who enjoys doing the author hustle. (British newspaper The Guardian once described me as an “opportunistic marketing spiv” – I took that as a compliment.)

Whenever I talk about my Cesare Aldo novels anywhere, I can guarantee somebody will ask: why Renaissance Florence? Why set the books there? It’s a bloody good question and, if I had any sense, I would have chosen somewhere easier. I can’t speak or read Italian, despite two years of Duolingo lessons, and I also don’t live in Italy (worse luck).

It was a combination of factors that led to me setting Aldo in 1530s Florence. I had long been fascinated by the city, how it was a crucible for so many of the things we now take for granted; the rediscovery of classical architecture, the birth of humanism, incredible breakthroughs in art and science and philosophy. Yet it also gave us Machiavelli’s The Prince, that essential handbook for every arsehole who craves power in Westminster, Washington or Wellington. In short, the best and the worst of humanity, all in one place.

Florence is remarkable because it survived the Second World War pretty much intact, unlike many other cities in Europe. That means you can walk the streets and see many of the same buildings that have stood for half a millennium or longer – perfect for a writer striving to imagine what life was like there 485 years ago.

But the true lightbulb moment came when I picked up a slim volume in a neglected bookshop near the British Museum in the late 1990s. This monograph about crime in late Renaissance Florence fell open at page 86 in my hands. There the academic author stated the criminal justice system in Florence in the 1530s was roughly comparable to a modern police force.

That brought everything together: the time, the place, and the means by which I could write a series of crime novels tackling all the things mentioned above. But it took twenty years of research to figure out how to tell such stories. My shelves now groan beneath all the books I bought to discover all I could about late Renaissance Florence. Part of that long delay was fear: I knew I had a good idea and was desperate not to fuck it up.

The other major factor in preparing to write these novels was creating my detective. Cesare Aldo needed to be someone who could move through all levels of Florentine society, from rich merchants and courtly intrigues to the dirtiest, most disreputable taverns and bordellos in the city. I wanted him to believe far more in justice than he did in enforcing the law. 

The key to unlocking Aldo was his sexuality. Cesare is a gay man at a time and place in history where that was partially tolerated yet also punishable by death, depending on the circumstances. He is an officer of the court, yet his sexuality makes him a criminal. Anyone discovering his truth could easily destroy Aldo, which can and does have fatal consequences. That has helped to make him a far more complex, intriguing character for readers.

The third Cesare Aldo novel, Ritual of Fire, is out now in Aotearoa bookshops, and I’ve just handed in book four. I have no idea if I will win a Dagger again (my anti-skite tendency says I’ve already peaked) but that’s OK. Growing up in Mount Roskill, I never imagined it was possible to win such an award. I guess all those bike rides up the hill to the mobile library van at the Lynfield shops were worth the effort.

The Darkest Sin ($30, Pan Macmillan) is out now and can be purchased Unity Books Auckland and Wellington. The first book in the series (City of Vengeance) can also be purchased here and here, while the third in the series Ritual of Fire (longlisted for the 2023 Liam McIlvanney Prize) will be in bookshops soon.

Keep going!