Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Some Wounds Never Heal: An interview with historical thriller author Tim Ashby

Today, I'm talking with Tim Ashby. Tim's had a varied career including working as a counter-terrorism analyst and assisting in privatization projects in Central and Eastern Europe.

His novel, Devil's Den, is a nested historical thriller taking place in the 1920s but also including elements from the American Civil War.


1) Tell us about your book.

In Devil’s Den, the 1923 murder of a Civil War veteran leaves a trail of conspiracy, cover-up and corruption stretching from the Battle of Gettysburg to the halls of the Harding-era Congress and the fledgling Bureau of Investigation (precursor to the FBI). Someone is killing elderly Civil War veterans and BI agent Seth Armitage must discover what links the victims in order to find the killer, unaware that the investigation is being manipulated by the Bureau's corrupt director Harry M. Daugherty (real-life Attorney General in the tainted Harding Administration) and a shadowy member of the Senate. Providing a Machiavellian counterweight to the plot is the BI's ambitious assistant director J. Edgar Hoover. The case draws Virginia-born Armitage, haunted by his memories of World War I France, to the site of the bloody battlefield where his grandfathers fought for the Confederacy. Armitage uncovers a conspiracy that goes to the highest levels of government. Devil’s Den shows the absurdity of Prohibition, the violence and racial injustice of the resurgent Ku Klux Klan, and the unparalleled corruption that pervaded the Harding government. As such, the "Devil's Den" of the title works on two levels, referring both to the rocky corner of the Gettysburg killing fields and Washington of the Roaring Twenties.

2) When people think of thrillers with political elements, they tend to think of more modern settings, not the 1920s. Even the core canon of the hard-boiled detective genre is a bit more contemporary than your setting. What drew you to this time period?

The decade of the1920s was a time of great social and technological change, and was a fascinating “bridge” between America’s (and the world’s) agrarian past and the “modern” era. The decade is filled with famous and infamous characters, as well as a number of real “history’s mysteries” which my hero, Seth Armitage, will investigate.

3) The juxtaposition of the 1920s and Civil War elements is unusual. Why did you choose to intertwine the Civil War in your plot?

My family has strong ties to the Civil War and northern Virginia (where scenes of the book are set). I was influenced by childhood stories from relatives whose parents and grandparents served in the conflict. The interlocking conspiracies in Devil’s Den – separated by 60 years – are based on real events. Many Civil War veterans were alive in the 1920s, and some were still active in the US government and business.

4) Often when doing historical research, authors stumble upon something they didn't expect. Did you have any experiences like this?

I had not previously grasped the magnitude of corruption within the Harding administration, or the national extent and power of the Ku Klux Klan - which was not confined to the Old South. I was also struck by the rapid growth of new technologies. We think that we live in an era of rapid technological change, but between 1918 and 1923, telephones, radios, motion pictures, and automobiles were adopted at exponential growth rates. Closed cabin passenger and cargo airplanes were also in use – I feature one in Devil’s Den!

5) Even if one ignores the over-the-top technology one occasionally sees on some television police procedurals, it's hard to escape the association of forensics and advanced data mining techniques with investigation. Did you find it challenging to explore investigation in this story absent many of the technologies and procedures now taken for granted by law enforcement?

In Devil’s Den, I show the resistance to new forensic investigatory techniques. For example, my protagonist, Seth Armitage, an advocate of using fingerprints, clashes with a rural sheriff who considers such methods akin to witchcraft. Throughout the book, I demonstrate the Bureau of Investigation’s use of 1920s “leading edge” forensics techniques. Regardless of what one may think of J. Edgar Hoover – and he is portrayed as a Machiavellian character in the book – I give him credit for being a staunch advocate of such investigatory technologies.

6) Hartley declared that "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there." That being said, it's often striking how little we moderns do differ from our ancestors. Although no one can deny that striking changes have taken place in the United States over the past ninety years, there are many aspects that seem to have changed little if not at all. In what ways do you think 1920s America was the same, if not very similar, to modern America?

As I have discussed on my author blog at www.timashby.com, xenophobia was widespread in 1920s America and it seems to be returning today. In the USA of 90 years ago, young people were similarly fascinated by technology, cars, airplanes, fashion trends, movie stars and sports.

7) People often tend to grow attached to the protagonist in mysteries and thrillers. Should we expect a sequel?

Yes. Devil’s Den is intended to be the first in a series. The sequel, In Shadowland (the title is from a popular 1925 son), is my current work in progress.


Thanks, Tim. If you'd like to see more from Tim, please check out his website  http://timashby.com/.

Devil's Den can be purchased in physical or electronic form from Amazon or physical form from Barnes and Noble.


Jody Rein said...

Excellent interview, Mr. Beard!

J.A. Beard said...

Thank you, Jody.