The Argentinian Virgin: Background

The Argentinian Virgin is my ninth published novel and the fourth in a series of murder mysteries that otherwise have little in common. Each is set in a different period and you’ll look in vain for any equivalent of Inspector Rebus or a gifted amateur detective such as Lord Peter Wimsey. Rather they are stories in which the main protagonist, usually the narrator, has a once in a lifetime encounter with murder, and struggles to find a solution as you or I might do. If you’d like to know more about my general approach to writing murder mysteries,
to read about Writing Whodunnits click here

The book before the present one was The Strange Death of a Romantic,
(to view Other Books click here), which I completed in 2000, and after only a short break I started on its successor. My publisher at that date was Nick Webb of Simon & Schuster, and my agent was the late, great James Hale.

I’d enjoyed writing The Strange Death of a Romantic because the period of the story, the thirties and forties, and the setting in Italy allowed me to go on holiday in my head while writing. For me this was an important consideration, because I have to live with the long process of writing, and it explains why in general I don’t write books with a very contemporary theme or use a grittily realist technique. The Argentinian Virgin seemed in my terms a logical next step from its predecessor because it offered a Mediterranean background and the action took place in 1941 with some excursions into America of the 1960s. Both time and location were congenial.

I’ve always been an avid student of history and I was aware that the summer of 1941 provided an unusual scenario, namely a point in the Second World War when the United States was still at peace and Americans were still able to visit France, even though it was under Nazi domination. To some extent this territory of uneasy neutrality has been visited in film, namely in Casablanca, but I’m not aware of any novel, and certainly of any murder mystery that has explored its possibilities and it was this comparative novelty that caused me to devise the broad outline of the plot and its central enigma: the true identity and purposes of the two Malipiero women: Teresa and her daughter, the Argentinian Virgin of the title.

The Argentinian Virgin is, in part at least, a roman noir. It seemed to me a logical approach given the mise en scène. The genre is in keeping with the period, and, although one ordinarily thinks of hard-boiled detectives pounding the streets of Los Angeles not rich young people spending a holiday on the Riviera, the character of Teresa Malipiero, in her role as a femme fatale, has clear affinities to other women of terrifying drive and sexuality such as Barbara Stanwyk in Double Indemnity, and stakes out the dark territory the reader is invited to enter. If this aspect of the book interests you and you’d like to read more,
to read about Film Noir click here

That said, The Argentinian Virgin is also – perhaps predominantly – a love story. The narrator announces the fact in the very first sentence and repeats it in the final chapter, and indeed the plot and the motives of the characters are incomprehensible unless it is recognized. The relationships between all the major characters purport to be based on love. Tom’s three American companions and the narrator, all profess to love him. Teresa Malipiero loves her daughter and each in her own way loves Tom. The narrator loves Hetty. Tom’s friends Ben and Maisie Benedict love each other. Above all Tom Rensselaer falls head over heels for Katerina Malipiero and it is love that drives him towards his tragedy. As events unfold over the summer, the real nature of these relationships is stripped bare and, for all that”Lucky” Tom Rensselaer is the most handsome, talented and admired man of his generation, we discover what Maisie means when she calls him”the loneliest man in the world”. If you’d like more explanation of this, to read about Love and Dancing click here

The third element of the book lies in a moral dilemma of which Tom Rensselaer is acutely aware, and which the narrator is also finally forced to confront. We live in a world where bad things happen to good people: a world in which much suffering is handed out undeservedly and apparently at random. How do we protect ourselves from being the innocent victims of fate? In such circumstances are we justified in redirecting events so that the consequences of life’s impersonal cruelty fall on someone else? After all, if you and I are equally innocent, does it matter in an overall moral sense if you suffer rather than I? Can I therefore cause misfortune to fall on you rather than me? In such a case, am I still a good person? The plot of The Argentinian Virgin turns on precisely this dilemma and the decisions made by the characters whether to save themselves by causing others to suffer or to bear their own misery. For more about The Argentinian Virgin and the Problem of Evil click here

Although I had a clear idea of the plot and the characters, and little difficulty in producing a first draft of The Argentinian Virgin, from a technical standpoint the book was to prove one of the hardest to write. The principal problem was to master the narrative voice, which was one I hadn’t tried before. In essence I had to resolve the difficulty that the novel straddles two genres: the roman noirand the love story. The former suggested that the style should follow the sparse prose of Hammett, Chandler or Ross Macdonald; but the latter required something more, a touch of the lyricism of F Scott Fitzgerald who had handled similar themes of glamorous youth doomed by fate and its own character. Put like this, the scale of my ambition seems frankly silly, and only the reader can decide if I’ve been successful. Whatever the case the book went through a series of revisions as I tried to balance these two elements.

Meanwhile in the outside world two things happened, neither of them to my advantage. My publisher, Nick Webb, who was a committed fan of my work and had shown enormous faith in bringing out the three preceding novels, left his job in a corporate reorganization and I no longer had a sponsor. Then my agent, James Hale, who had become a dear friend, sadly died. The result was that I was left with an unsatisfactory work in progress and with few supporters to encourage me, or offer constructive advice and, in Nick’s case, take a chance on the book.

The progress of revisions was slow. I’m not a writer who considers he has an important vision, nor am I stubbornly attached to the beauty of my own text. Indeed I’ve always felt that my books have been improved by the comments of others, and in no case more than the present. James Hale disliked the first draft. He considered the language overblown for the reasons explained above. I produced a second draft with which he was content, but he died before finding a publisher. During the next few years, as I searched for a new agent and also worked on two non-fiction projects, I revisited the text of The Argentinian Virgin and produced new revisions. The thrust of the changes was always towards paring down the prose. I made no structural alterations.

In due course, to my great good fortune, Andrew Hewson had pity on me and became my agent, and I also received continuing encouragement from Nick Webb and Rosie Buckman, who had sold foreign rights to some of my earlier books. It was of inestimable value and I shall always be grateful to them. Andrew brought a fresh eye to the problem and he had two important and constructive criticisms. He said he thought the book was too long, though how it should be shortened he left to me. And, specifically, he wanted me to cut several passages in which I’d inserted scenes from the script written by Tom Rensselaer for a failed movie project, The Veiled Woman. This requires an explanation because it doesn’t appear in the final text except by indirect mention.

In writing a novel, the author is obliged to adopt one or more points of view from which to describe a scene or the interior world of his characters. Sometimes the point of view is abstract, and the author, like God, knows everything. Sometimes it’s limited to the perspective of one or more of the characters. The Argentinian Virgin is told in the first person from the viewpoint of Pat Byrne, a young Irish novelist, who passes the summer with Tom Rensselaer and his friends, and who is a witness to what happens and its aftermath. I kept strictly to this limited perspective and it has two consequences. The first is that the narrative is partial and not necessarily true: I don’t mean that Pat is dishonest, but his account is coloured by his own powerful feelings about events and people. The second is that there are some scenes that are denied to Pat because he wasn’t present.

The device of The Veiled Woman was an attempt to address the second problem. In particular I wanted to describe encounters between Tom and the two Malipiero women at which there were no other witnesses. My idea was that Tom, embittered and disillusioned by the events of the fatal summer, translated his feelings into a film script in which we are able to see his version of what happened and fill in some of the narrative gaps. It also gave me an opportunity to show more of Tom’s talents (we would see him first hand as a writer) and, importantly, it would underline the novel’s affinity to film noir. The script was sent by Tom to Pat, and so it was available for Pat to use in his own narrative.

I hadn’t questioned this device and it had survived numerous revisions until Andrew Hewson challenged it. I think he was right, and following his criticism I cut all the direct quotes from The Veiled Woman. However I did retain the notion that Tom had written such a script and that Pat had access to it, and in this indirect form it’s still mentioned in the text and is expressly and implicitly the source the source of Pat’s account of some scenes he would otherwise know nothing of.

As I say, Andrew had two criticisms, and in the next revision following his reading, I covered both. In addition to cutting the film script, I did a thorough pruning of the prose. Adjectives, adverbs and literary tropes went to the guillotine as if it were an especially bad day during the Revolution. It was at this point that I felt I was sacrificing text to which I was emotionally attached. However, it’s a point of successful writing that the book is more important than the author and I ignored my feelings and went ahead. The result of the cuts was a text about twenty percent shorter than the previous version.

With one important exception I’d now arrived at the published text. The exception was two chapters covering an excursion made by narrator, Ben, Maisie and Hetty to Nice, leaving Tom and the Malipiero women to their own devices back in S Symphorien. The purpose of this trip was to create a space in which Tom’s obsession with Katerina could develop. In themselves the events in Nice contribute little to the plot and for this reason, as part of the cuts suggested by Andrew though on my own initiative, these two chapters also disappeared. However, I remained unhappy with this decision. Although the events in Nice do not drive the plot, they provide an occasion for an encounter between Maisie and the narrator, in which Pat obtains an insight into the state of relations between Ben and Maisie, and she explains more of her history and Tom’s character in ways that contribute to understanding the outcome of events. After a long reflection, these two chapters went back into the text, and it’s this version that you have if you care to read it.

I hope these few notes help you enjoy The Argentinian Virgin – always assuming you care to read it.

If you would like to read a sample, click here

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