Interview with David Ebsworth about his book The Assassin's Mark,
a thriller set in the Spanish Civil War - and with Esperanto too!
David Ebsworth is the pen name of writer, Dave McCall, a former negotiator with the Transport & General Workers’ Union. Following his retirement, he began to write seriously in 2009. His debut novel, The Jacobites' Apprentice, was critically acclaimed by the Historical Novel Society who deemed it "worthy of a place on every historical fiction bookshelf." But he's here now to talk about his new novel, The Assassin's Mark.
Anyway, over to you, David. Maybe you can tell us a bit about the book?
Well first, thanks very much for welcoming me to the newsletter. It's a great privilege to be here. As you say, my second novel is called The Assassin’s Mark. It's set in 1938, towards the end of the Spanish Civil War, and follows the trials and tribulations of left-wing reporter Jack Telford, stuck on a tour bus with a very strange mixture of other travellers as he tries to uncover the hidden truths beneath the conflict. But, in the words of the book's blurb, Jack must contend first with his own gullibility, the tragic death of a fellow-passenger, capture by Republican guerrilleros, a final showdown at Spain's most holy shrine and the possibility that he has been badly betrayed. Betrayed and in serious danger.
What genre does your book fall under?
Historical thriller with a generous amount Agatha Christie and a splash of Rick Stein, seasoned with a pinch of the picaresque.
And a dash of Esperanto too, it seems. What made you think to include Esperanto in the plot?
It seemed perfectly reasonable that Telford, having studied in Manchester during the 20s and been President of the University's Esperanto Society, should have easily been able to use the language to communicate with his Marxist guerrilla captors. But my own Esperanto was rusty to say the least and so it was with considerable trepidation that I took up the EAB's incredibly kind offer to review an early draft. Corrections were subsequently made and the book was finally published.
You say your Esperanto was rusty. Does that mean you'd studied it yourself at some point?
I studied languages at A-Level back in the sixties - Spanish and French. But I had an uncle who was a very keen trade union member. An internationalist. He had an old Teach Yourself Esperanto book, yellow and black cover. He lent it to me. I don't think he ever got it back but I worked my way through the course. He was always keen to point out that while Esperanto might not have an ethnic cultural background, it was certainly rooted in a social and philosophical culture. I guess I forgot most of the grammar but managed, I hope, to hold on to some of the principle.
Where did the idea come from for the book?
I was researching a novel about the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War and came across a paper on the Battlefield Tours that Franco launched – mainly for British tourists – before the war was even finished. It was too good a story to ignore. The paper was written in December 2005 by Professor Sandie Holguín from the University of Oklahoma. It was based on documents discovered in the Mandeville Special Collections Library in San Diego. They included brochures published by the National Spanish State Tourist Board which Franco had felt confident enough to establish early in 1938. Those brochures were circulated widely by travel agencies across Europe and there were soon bookings pouring in to secure places on the tours.
Franco bought some school buses from the Chrysler Corporation, trained a team of guides and, in July 1938, while the war was still raging, the first of the tours took place. The cost was £8 for a nine-day tour, including three meals a day, accommodation in first-class hotels and incidental expenses. Franco used the tours as a straightforward propaganda tool, to tell the Nationalists’ version of events, and also as a visible sign to the outside world that he was winning the war. There were around 42 tours in 1938 and 88 tours each year between 1939 and 1945. Estimates of participants vary between a minimum of 6,670 and a maximum of 20,010. They came from various European countries but a lot of them were from Britain.
What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
C J Sansom’s Winter in Madrid; Dave Boling’s Guernica; Rebecca Pawel’s Death of a Nationalist; Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls.
What else about your book might pique the reader's interest?
The Spanish Civil War is badly neglected by English-language fiction writers so, at one level, I wanted the novel to be informative as well as entertaining. I’d like it to be a “must” for all those who already have an affection for Spain and maybe want to learn a bit more about the country’s history and culture – while still being able to sit on a beach with a good pot-boiler and need to keep “turning the pages.” So, apart from the fictional aspects, the novel also gave me an opportunity to describe the bitter struggle of the Republican armies of the North and the way in which the Nationalists managed, for so many years, to masque the truth of war crimes like the bombing of Guernica. But it wasn’t easy. We know so much about the conduct of the Civil War now but, as an author, you can only tell the story from the perspectives and culture of the period in which it’s set.
For me, that late-30s culture could not have been complete without reference to Esperanto and I am eternally grateful to yourself, Tim, and EAB for helping me to give the language an important profile within the novel's pages. Congratulations to the Association on its continuing success. Vivu Esperanto!