In David "D.V." Bishop's debut historical thriller, City of Vengeance, former soldier-turned-officer of the criminal court Cesare Aldo uncovers some pretty sordid activities as he investigates a couple of murders in 16th century Florence. But surely nothing as shocking as the most infamous case that the ex-New Zealand Herald journalist covered during his time as a high court reporter in Auckland in the late 1980s.
"I covered the first Peter Plumley-Walker murder trial, which was eye-opening in more ways than one," he recalls. "The evidence about the teenage dominatrix and the services she offered was shocking to many readers in pre-internet days. Best of all, my reports were on the front page every day, instead of being buried on the court page. It went on for more than a month, which was highly unusual for a murder trial at the time, as most only lasted a few days. By the end, there were multiple TV cameras outside the front doors of the courtroom, which simply didn't happen in those days. Sex and murder are a potent combination."
Sex and murder also lie at the heart of City of Vengeance, as Aldo juggles the fatal beating of a cross-dressing courtesan with the stabbing of a Jewish moneylender while also contending with an unscrupulous fellow member of the Otto di Guardia e Balia, who blackmails him about his homosexuality, which was then illegal in Florence. "Aldo's sexuality places him outside the law, meaning he is always in danger," says Bishop. "This makes it harder for him to trust anyone with his secrets."
Born in Cambridge but raised in Auckland, Bishop spent two years at the Herald before moving to London in 1990. Admitting that he "never meant the move to be permanent and still plans to come home," within six months of arriving in the UK he had secured a position assisting on the launch of the Judge Dredd Megazine, a spin-off of the British science-fiction comic 2000 AD, showcasing its most popular character, the titular Lawman of the Future. "Within a year, I was editing the Megazine," says Bishop, who was also appointed editor of 2000 AD itself in 1995. "2000 AD is an anthology comic that has helped nurture the career of almost every major comic creator in the last 44 years including Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore. I spent five years editing it before I quit to go freelance as a writer and relocated to Scotland."
Having already written several tie-in novels featuring both Judge Dredd and Doctor Who while still editor of 2000 AD, Bishop subsequently spread his net as wide as he possibly could, penning all manner of licenced books, audio dramas, computer games and comics including cult crime fighter The Phantom. "Having grown up reading The Phantom comics in New Zealand, I jumped at the chance to write for the Ghost Who Walks," says Bishop. "I've written nearly 50 issues of The Phantom, including his first adventure set in New Zealand."
Eventually tiring of writing other people's characters, Bishop embarked on a master's in screenwriting in 2005 at Edinburgh Napier University, where he is now programme leader for creative writing. Inspired by a single sentence in a book by historian John K. Brackett on the Florentine justice system in the late Renaissance period that he stumbled across in a London bookshop in the late 1990s, City of Vengeance has been a long time in the making. "It suggested the way Florence enforced laws was roughly comparable to a modern police force," says Bishop. "They had officers and constables who enforced laws and investigated crimes, and they paid informants, interviewed witnesses and interrogated suspects. Of course, they had access to weapons of torture if answers were not forthcoming, so that's rather different from today. But other elements we think of now as due process were present 485 years ago."
With Aldo drawn into a conspiracy to assassinate the Duke of Florence Alessandro de' Medici, Bishop weaves several real-life incidents and historical figures into his fictional plot. "I opted for the Hilary Mantel approach to historical fiction, observing the timetable of history and resisting the urge to tidy up its messiness," he says. "There were years of research before I started writing, but even as I was drafting the novel, I kept discovering new facts that threw a spanner into my plot. So, I reworked and rewrote to respect history, doing my best to turn those new discoveries into intrinsic parts of the novel."
While the follow-up to City of Vengeance is due early next year, Bishop hopes to eventually start another series set a lot closer to home. "I'd love to write a series of crime novels set in New Zealand featuring some of the Kiwi Gothic style found in Ronald Hugh Morrieson's books," he says. "But I suspect that will have to wait until I move back to New Zealand."
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City of Vengeance, by D.V. Bishop (Pan Macmillan, $38) is out now.