Mark Stibbe is an award winning and bestselling author of over 40 books. Imagine that!! His new novel, ‘The Fate of Kings’ is about a Vicar on the Kent coast who becomes enrolled in the emerging British Secret Service in 1793. Mark has unique qualifications: he’s been a Vicar for 25 years and an avid reader of all things Napoleonic for nearly 50 years. I’m delighted to have him on the blog.
MKT: How would you summarise The Fate of Kings?
Mark: The Fate of Kings is about a fictional Vicar called Thomas Pryce who is inducted at St Leonard’s Deal in January 1793. He is married to a French wife and is a fluent French speaker. After the execution of Louis XVI and France’s declaration of war against Britain, Pryce learns that his wife’s parents are in mortal danger across the Channel. Enlisting the help of the famous boatmen of Deal, he goes to France on a rescue mission. This in turn leads to him discovering a plot to assassinate King George III. Pryce’s response to this news, along with his natural skills as a covert, bilingual operative, brings him to the attention of William Wickham (his future spymaster in London) and William Pitt the Younger, Lord Warden at Walmer Castle (the next-door parish to Deal) and Prime Minister. As a result, Pryce is enrolled as a most unusual asset in the war against France – a spy vicar!
You mention your belief that the British Secret Service emerged in 1793, what sources did you use for this?
Most people mistakenly believe that the British Secret Service formally evolved at the time of the First World War, but the pioneering work of Elizabeth Sparrow reveals that in fact it was earlier, when William Pitt the Younger was confronted by the challenge of tens of thousands of French emigrés fleeing from the Terror and pouring into Britain. Among these legitimate refugees were French assassins and secret agents, intent on doing great harm. Pitt tasked William Wickham to root out ‘the spy in our midst’ and he did this through an act of Parliament (the Alien Act) and through the Alien Office. With Elizabeth Sparrow’s help, I was able to recreate the alarming historical context for Pryce’s first ventures into espionage, drawing on both her own and other historians’ works to bring past figures to life – figures such as Fouché, Pitt, Wickham, Even Nepean, Lord Stanhope, Lady Hester Stanhope, the Comte d’Artois and others.
Do you think there are parallels between these times and our own?
In our Brexit-dominated landscape, issues of immigration and terrorism have featured often in political discourse. And we shouldn’t forget that the favoured method of instilling fear in the French Revolution was decapitation. These are just a few of the striking parallels between 1793 and 2017. Part of the appeal of the Thomas Pryce stories is the sense of resonance between past and present historical horizons.
How did you come up with the idea of a Vicar who is also a spy?
It came to me New Year 2013 when I was living near the coast of Kent, near the parish of Deal. It occurred to me that British spies have, for the most part, been quite an amoral lot. Think of Richard Burton’s character in the 1965 version of The Spy who Came in from the Cold. He railed against the idea that spies were moral philosophers working out what’s right and wrong against the backdrop of larger metanarratives like ‘the Word of God.’ He said spies are mostly seedy people with a drink problem. I thought it would be interesting to reverse this tradition and create a character who declared the absolute validity of the Ten Commandments in his public life but then had to rethink them and even break them in the far more secretive and shadowy hinterland of espionage. Conflict is everything in stories and when that conflict is internal as well as external, it produces a mouth-watering cocktail.
And why did you particularly choose the town of Deal?
Deal is a fascinating place. Julius Caesar landed there when he invaded Britain. He called the town Dola. With its long, shingly beech, it’s the ideal place for an invasion force to land, and that applies to future stories when Napoleon was hoping to cross the Channel, once Britannia no longer ruled the waves. That, of course, never happened but this didn’t stop Deal and Walmer being constantly in a state of high alert, with William Pitt himself involved in leading the local volunteer defence force.
Which writers of historical fiction have inspired you?
It will come as no surprise to learn that Bernard Cornwell’s series about Richard Sharpe have been an important stimulus, although my writing style is very different. Patrick O’Brien too, although again his writing style is very different. I have tried in the first Pryce story to write short chapters that are immediate, visible scenes. The novel is therefore fast-paced and the suspense and plot twists never let up. Someone described Pryce recently as ‘the original James Bond’ and these stories as ‘Poldark meets Grantchester.’
Do you hope these stories will end up on the screen?
I sincerely hope so. This is the main reason that in May 2015 I invited G.P. Taylor to collaborate on The Fate of Kings. I asked him to write the screenplay of the novel so that we could have a ready-made script for film producers. I already have interest from two producers, so the prospects are promising. I think Pryce is ideal Sunday night TV viewing! The recent adaptation of War and Peace, not to mention the hugely popular reboot of Winston Graham’s classic stories, shows that there are no signs of any let-up in the public’s fascination with the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. And programmes like Grantchester demonstrate the popularity of stories in which Vicars find their faith and morality sorely tested when confronted by the thick darkness of criminal activity. In Pryce, we get all these coming together in a very rich way.
Have you been to Nantes to do some research?
I have indeed. My wife and I spent several days earlier this year going around the old parts of the city with a French history teacher. It was fascinating. I am looking forward to bringing the past to life again in the second adventure of Thomas Pryce, vicar and spy.
What are you working on now?
I have a Christmas novel coming out next September, called Desperado: A Christmas Tale. I’m also working hard on the second Pryce novel, The Drowning Man, set principally in Nantes in the winter of 1793-4, when Jean-Baptiste Carrier (the proconsul of Nantes) was killing the enemies of the Revolution using mass drownings and a horrific method of execution known as the so-called ‘Republican marriage.’ This novel is going to be a lot darker than The Fate of Kings.
The Fate of Kings by Mark Stibbe – 1793. As the Terror begins to cast a great shadow over France, Thomas Pryce, the new Vicar of Deal, crosses the Channel to find the missing parents of his beautiful French wife. Facing grave dangers, he makes his way to Brittany where he not only discovers the fate of his in-laws but also uncovers a plot which threatens to topple the British monarchy. Fighting against a sinister secret society in a race against time, Pryce battles to thwart the plans of a Parisian spymaster and his agents in London.
Many thanks, Mark, for introducing us to your writing. The Fate of Kings sounds like just the kind of story for me.
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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.