Normally I write a mystery series set in eleventh century Japan. This invariably causes strangers to ask me, “Why Japan?” Their curiosity is due to the fact that few people take an interest in Japanese history before WW 2. In a way, it is even stranger that I chose to write about Japan even though I was born and raised in Germany. In other words, I don’t make the easy choices.
When I created the Akitada mysteries around the figure of an eleventh century Japanese nobleman, I set myself up for years of research and daily battles over what was or wasn’t known about the period. My choice of a protagonist added to the problems. For a mystery to be successful, there are any number of things wrong with the picture: the unfamiliar locale, the unfamiliar history, and a main character who isn’t an ordinary Joe. Still, the mysteries sold, both the novels (eight of them) and the stories. And people loved them.
One year, when my publishers lagged behind in bringing out the next Akitada novel, I decided to write a historical thriller set in my native Germany. It was, of course, again the wrong decision. Eighteenth century novels for American readers generally take place in the United States, or in England, or possibly in France. Who ever heard of Germany playing a role in the eighteenth century? Clearly I had embarked on another venue of no interest to the average reader.
But I had fallen in love with the idea of this book. The Left-Handed God (yes, even the title is peculiar), tells the story of two ordinary young people, a brother and sister, who are drawn into an assassination plot against Karl Theodor, Elector of the Holy Roman Empire and ruler of the Pfalz, an insignificant country. Since the castle in Heidelberg had been razed by the sun king, Karl Theodor had moved his court to Mannheim where he ruled in the splendor typical of his time.
During the seven-years’ war (probably the first true world war because it was fought both in Europe and in America), Karl Theodor supported Austria against Prussia, and that is where my novel begins.
Franz von Langsdorf fights in his first battle at Freiberg in 1762. As a student in Heidelberg, he had joined the army to support his widowed mother and younger sister. Instead of winning heroic glory, he is severely wounded and left crippled for life. But he also witnessed a murder that day, and this will eventually involve him and his far more practical sister Augusta in a dangerous adventure as they search for the killer at Karl Theodor’s opulent court in Mannheim and uncover a deadly cabal. His youthful idealism will be forever changed.
Doing the research for this novel was an enjoyable change for me. The period is very rich in cultural achievements throughout Europe. Magnificent palaces and magical gardens were filled with notorious men and seductive women elegantly dancing to the sounds of enchanting music.
The Left-Handed God contains several historical characters: Karl Theodor and his spouse, the powerful Elizabeth Augusta, the young Mozart on tour, and the new medical sensation, Dr. Mesmer, whose healing methods have given us the word “mesmerizing.”
But while the aristocracy played, soldiers died on battlefields and farmers starved working the fields to pay for the splendor. Poorly paid artisans labored in the shadows to create sculptures, porcelain, tapestries, and music to entertain the aristocracy. The rulers’ subjects paid for the costs with their taxes.
This contrast of splendor and suffering suggested a theme for the book. Through the eyes of the two young people we see that the pursuit of perfection is deeply flawed. History helped make the point. The scandal involving Elizabeth Augusta and her theater director happened, and in the garden of the Elector’s summer palace there really is a statue of a left-handed god.
I. J. Parker, August 12, 2013
If you want a taste of the Akidtada mysteries, most of her short stories and short story collections are currently heavily discounted on Kindle. You can find them listed here.