Earlier this month, Titan Books published Age of Exodus by Gavin Scott. You can read my review of this excellent historical thriller here. I’m delighted to present here a guest post by Gavin Scott in which he discusses the books that inspired him the most, that liberated his imagination and opened the doors of perception.
In 1960, when I was ten years old a mysterious boy appeared at my primary school in Hull and gave me to a heavy, cloth-covered volume published by Ernest Benn and Co: The Short Stories of H.G. Wells. I cannot remember the boy’s name, and I sometimes ask myself who he really was, but it was a book that for me opened the Doors of Perception. I began with a story called The Stolen Bacillus, which starts out as a scientific thriller and ends as riotous comedy. Then I read A Deal in Ostriches and found the payoff was even funnier, which led to the delights of The Truth about Pyecraft and his extraordinary weight reduction formula. Then Jimmy Goggles the God, and the mysteries of The Moth, and on, and on… Collectively, Wells’ stories liberated my imagination, and it has never, I think, been entirely recaptured by mere everyday reality.
I discovered Jules Verne around the same time, inspired – no, desperate – to read 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea after seeing the Disney movie starring James Mason as the tragic, haunted Captain Nemo. At my urging my parents bought the book for me for Christmas 1960 and I remember coming down secretly to read it before it was officially handed over on Christmas Day. If Wells freed my imagination, Verne taught me how to send it racing along the great, streamlined canals of scientific research.
And then, of course, there was Arthur Conan Doyle, whose Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, in John Murray’s evocative paperback edition, drew me into the foggy streets of 1890’s London through prose that made me feel as if Dr. Watson’s pipe-smoke was swirling hypnotically around me as I read. To science and the imagination were added the allure of mystery and detection, and I read and re-read the entire Holmes canon on the ship that took my family from England to New Zealand in 1961.
Not long after we arrived amid the fields and orchards of Hawkes Bay, the pleasures of detection were supplemented by the delights of pell-mell, helter-skelter action, as experienced in John Buchan’s great thriller, The Thirty Nine Steps. And not just action – but terrific nature writing which evoked, with great precision, the green glens of the Scottish lowlands where the chase took place. From then I traveled with Richard Hannay through the forests of Germany, the dangerous alleys of Istanbul, and the austere northern beauties of The Island of Sheep.
In 1962 at a church bazaar in the little village of Havelock North I discovered P.G. Wodehouse’s, Jeeves and Wooster stories, in those thick-paged volumes with their alluringly cartoon covers produced by Herbert Jenkins Ltd. As well as comic timing, Wodehouse not only taught me plotting – he is a master of narrative construction – but also the incredible richness of which the English language is capable. His prose incorporates the cadences of Shakespeare, Milton, the Bible, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ethel M Dell and the British Foreign Office in a series of gloriously baroque word-cathedrals.
Shakespeare, Milton and the Bible are also to be found, of course, in the next great author into whose world I entered: J.R.R. Tolkien – together with the sturdy rhythms of Icelandic sagas and Anglo-Saxon chronicles. I found The Lord of the Rings during the early lonely weeks after I got a scholarship to a boarding school called Wanganui Collegiate, which gave me a good education in a somewhat demanding environment. Over the next three years whenever I needed to escape from it all I needed to do was open one of those volumes with Sauron’s eye staring out of the grey cover, and find myself in Middle Earth – and particularly among the wooded hills between Hobbiton and the Buckland Ferry – on a quest of my own.
The final early literary influence to whom I want to pay tribute has fallen from fashion these days, but is still, in my view a font of wisdom and insight into the human heart. I came across C.P. Snow’s Strangers and Brothers novels when, graduating from my boarding school at 17, I volunteered for a New Zealand government program to teach English to Iban, Chinese and Malay kids in a jungle school in Sarawak. It was an extraordinary experience, but again, like Wanganui Collegiate, a demanding one, and there were times when the perfect antidote was not just to accompany Snow’s hero, Lewis Eliot on his rise through the English class system but to bask in the judicious humanity of Snow’s own wise, forgiving company.
That, I think, is what those early literary experiences inspired me to want to create – worlds, both physical and psychological, into which readers would want to enter when reality becomes just a little too much. And to which both they – and I – can return whenever we wish. That, at any rate, is what I believe lay behind the gift of the mysterious book when I was a child, and it is certainly what the Duncan Forrester adventures aspire to now.
Gavin Scott’s third historical detective thriller, The Age of Exodus, was published by Titan Books on 11 September. It features Scott’s archaeologist hero Duncan Forrester, the creation of Israel, Ernest Bevin, and a Sumerian demon. With its two predecessors, The Age of Treachery and The Age of Olympus, it is available from Amazon and other outlets in paperback, on Kindle and as an audiobook, read by the author.