Saylor, Steven 1956- (Aaron Travis)

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Saylor, Steven 1956- (Aaron Travis)

PERSONAL:

Born March 23, 1956, in Port Lavaca, TX; son of Lyman Harrison Saylor and Lucy Lee Saylor; became registered domestic partner of Richard K. Solomon, March 15, 1991. Education: University of Texas at Austin, B.A., 1978. Hobbies and other interests: Furniture making, bicycling, exploring the American West, the classical world.

ADDRESSES:

Home—Berkeley, CA. Agent—Alan Nevins, Renaissance Agency, 8523 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90069. E-mail—[email protected]

CAREER:

Writer.

MEMBER:

Mystery Writers of America.

AWARDS, HONORS:

Robert L. Fish Memorial Award for best debut short story in the mystery genre, Mystery Writers of America, 1993, for "A Will Is a Way"; Lambda Literary award for gay men's mystery, 1994; Critics' Choice Award, 1995; Ellis Peters Historical Dagger award nominee, Crime Writers Association, 2004, for The Judgment of Caesar.

WRITINGS:

MYSTERY NOVELS; "ROMA SUB ROSA" SERIES

Roman Blood, St. Martin's (New York, NY), 1991.

Arms of Nemesis, St. Martin's (New York, NY), 1992.

Catilina's Riddle, St. Martin's (New York, NY), 1993.

The Venus Throw, St. Martin's (New York, NY), 1995.

A Murder on the Appian Way, St. Martin's (New York, NY), 1996.

The House of the Vestals (short stories), St. Martin's (New York, NY), 1997.

Rubicon, St. Martin's (New York, NY), 1998.

Last Seen in Massilia, St. Martin's (New York, NY), 2000.

A Mist of Prophecies, St. Martin's Minotaur (New York, NY), 2002.

The Judgment of Caesar: A Novel of Ancient Rome, St. Martin's Minotaur (New York, NY), 2004.

A Gladiator Dies Only Once: The Further Investigations of Gordianus the Finder (short stories), St. Martin's (New York, NY), 2005.

UNDER PSEUDONYM AARON TRAVIS

Big Shots, Masquerade (New York, NY), 1993.

Beast of Burden, Masquerade (New York, NY), 1993.

Slaves of the Empire, Masquerade (New York, NY), 1996.

OTHER

A Twist at the End: A Novel of O. Henry, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2000, published as Honour the Dead, Robinson (London, England), 2001.

Have You Seen Dawn? (mystery), Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2003.

Roma: The Novel of Ancient Rome, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 2007.

Also author, under the pseudonym Aaron Travis, of short stories anthologized in Flesh and the Word, edited by John Preston, Dutton (New York, NY). Contributor, under his real name, to books, including Hometowns: Gay Men Talk about Where They Belong, 1991, A Member of the Family: Gay Men Write about Their Families, and Friends and Lovers, all edited by John Preston, Dutton (New York, NY), and to The Year's Best Mystery and Suspense Stories 1993, edited by Edward Hoch, Walker & Co. (New York, NY). Contributor of short stories and essays to periodicals, including Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Threepenny Review, San Francisco Review of Books, and Frontiers. Former fiction editor, Drummer.

Saylor's work has been translated into German, Spanish, French, Czech, Russian, Finnish, Norwegian, Portuguese, Polish, Greek, Magyar, Serbian, Swedish, Turkish, Danish, Korean, Indonesian, and Dutch.

SIDELIGHTS:

Steven Saylor once told CA: "In my twenties my muse was overwhelmingly erotic, and I wrote a great deal of fiction under the pen name Aaron Travis; stories under that pen name have been reprinted in John Preston's Flesh and the Word anthologies for Dutton, and almost all of the Aaron Travis oeuvre is currently being brought back into print as mass market paperbacks from Masquerade Books. During the same period that I was producing stories as Aaron Travis in the 1980s, I also served for a couple of years as fiction editor of the decidedly subcultural magazine, Drummer.

"My first trip to Rome in the late 1980s reignited my collegiate interest in the classical world; at the same time my muse began to take a turn toward the genres of mystery and intrigue. The result was my first novel under my own name, Roman Blood, a historical whodunit set in the Roman Republic. It is narrated by an invented sleuth, Gordianus the Finder, and based on Roman orator and philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero's first murder trial and the defense oration that made him famous. The next novel in the series, Arms of Nemesis, takes Gordianus to the Bay of Naples at the time of the Spartacus slave revolt. The third novel of the series, Catilina's Riddle, examines the famous conspiracy of Roman politician Lucius Sergius Catilina at the time of Cicero's consulship.

"Together these novels are part of my ‘Roma Sub Rosa’ series portraying the last decades of the Roman Republic before it became ruled by the Caesars. To draw exact parallels to our own time would be fatuous, but I will say that delving into the unremitting nastiness of Roman politics does provide an uneasy insight into the continuing and worsening plight of our own republic. Somehow, immersing myself in a milieu even more nakedly greedy and unscrupulous than our own gives me a curious comfort, and I sometimes think that writing Roman Blood was the only way I kept my sanity during the degrading spectacle of the George Bush-Michael Dukakis presidential campaign. The cruel absurdities of the Bush presidency provided more inspiration, specifically for Catilina's Riddle, which I hope will be my absolute last word on the subject of politics; exposing Cicero's chicanery and hypocrisy over the course of a 500-page novel was a grueling experience.

"The ‘Roma Sub Rosa’ series has become something of a family saga, with the books set several years apart and the characters growing older and experiencing various changes. To fill in the years between the novels, and to use specific historical material that lends itself to fiction, I also write short stories in the series, in which Gordianus solves minor mysteries and in which I can explore various byways of ancient Roman life. These stories have been published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and in the Armchair Detective. The first, ‘A Will Is a Way,’ won the 1993 Robert L. Fish Memorial Award given by the Mystery Writers of America for the best debut short story in the genre and was also selected for The Year's Best Mystery and Suspense Stories 1993, edited by Edward Hoch.

"In the last few years I have been writing a series of autobiographical essays for John Preston's anthology series for Dutton, including Hometowns: Gay Men Talk about Where They Belong; A Member of the Family: Gay Men Write about Their Families; and … Friends and Lovers. Any reader who is really curious about intimate details about the author may consult these essays."

"Steven Saylor has so effectively created an alternative fictional universe in his ‘Roma Sub Rosa’ series … that fans of his novels may be tempted to imagine that every day the author wakes, dons a toga, opens dense historical texts about ancient Rome in the original Latin, and plucks from them those little nuggets of believ- ability … that he uses to transport readers to the scene of the crime," wrote Clay Smith in an Austin Chronicle Web site feature on the popular mystery author. The novels and story collections that comprise Saylor's series have drawn both rave reviews and an enthusiastic popular readership. To quote St. James Guide to Crime and Mystery Writers contributor Robin H. Smiley, each of Saylor's books "is firmly grounded in the classical sources of the late Roman Republic's chaotic history, a time that led to the fall of the republic and the beginnings of the Roman Empire. Saylor has an affinity not only for the politics of Rome, but for its social and cultural milieu. He is so much at home in Ancient Rome he seems to have lived there."

The novels form a chronological series that begins when protagonist Gordianus the Finder is thirty years old and continues episodically through his adulthood until his children are grown and entering their own careers. The stories combine real historical detail with fictitious plot devices involving Gordianus and his wife and children. A central character in several of the books is the famed lawyer Cicero, who often engages Gordianus to do some sleuthing in reference to prominent court cases. Gordianus thus finds himself in the political hot seat to the point that his life is threatened. Sexual intrigue enters the series too, especially in The Venus Throw, which a Publishers Weekly reviewer described as "a talky, absorbing brew of Rome's decay."

In a Publishers Weekly piece on A Murder on the Appian Way, the critic noted that Gordianus "is put in the delicate position of having to solve a crime and keep his own counsel amid the scheming and duplicitous rulers of Rome." Helped by his "unusual and morally sturdy character," Gordianus mingles with such historic notables as Pompey, Caesar, and Mark Antony without ever losing his integrity or focus. The Publishers Weekly reviewer concluded that A Murder on the Appian Way is "a sophisticated political thriller that also brings [Saylor's] readers up to speed on their Roman history." Times Literary Supplement reviewer Mary Ritter Beard also appreciated Saylor's historical perspective, noting that A Murder on the Appian Way "offers a devastating expose of Cicero himself" and "is a good instance of the novelist doing the historian's dirty work." Though Beard felt that Saylor's insistence on accuracy sometimes adds a tedious quality to his novels, she enjoyed his "compelling" plots and his "striking talent for historical reconstruction."

New York Times Book Review correspondent David Dawson commented that Saylor's "skill and wry confidence" contribute to the authenticity of his Roman settings. Saylor's work, the critic concluded, "represents the best of two genres: a faithful and breezy historical novel and a compulsively entertaining whodunit." Smiley observed: "The details of Gordianus's personal life add a great deal to ‘Roma Sub Rosa.’ With each book, there are changes and growth in the character; there is also a strong sense of the passage of time. This continuity gives the series a resonance and a growing richness, but it also poses a potential problem. Shortly, Gordianus will be simply too old to withstand the physical demands of his profession. Nevertheless, these … novels are so fine that, taken by themselves, they place Saylor in the forefront of the American historical mystery novelists of his generation."

Though The House of the Vestals is a volume in the "Roma Sub Rosa" series, it is not a novel but a collection of short stories, each based on a historical mystery. Critic Alan Massie observed in the Times Literary Supplement that the short form poses problems for mystery writers because it doesn't allow "sufficient complication, too often inviting an ending that is neat and contrived rather than convincing." Saylor doesn't entirely avoid this difficulty, Massie wrote, but "although the stories collected in The House of the Vestals are less satisfying than [his] full-length novels, they are agreeable, entertaining tales which provide glimpses of a slice of life that is both authentic and … unusual."

Saylor's next offering in the series, Rubicon, finds Gordianus investigating a murder that occurs in his own garden. The victim is a relative of and courier to Pompey, the Roman consul, and the investigation is complicated by a civil war that is sweeping through the Roman republic, with Pompey at the center. Writing for Publishers Weekly, a critic noted that "finely shadowed characters and an action-packed finale make this a praiseworthy addition to a series that deserves wide attention." Library Journal reviewer Jane Baird found Rubicon "an excellent blending of mystery and history." Contributing to the novel's strength, remarked Emily Melton for Booklist, is "the depth and realism of detail and ambiance, the superbly crafted plot, [and] the sense of excitement and adventure."

Last Seen in Massilia, based on the 49 B.C.E. siege of Massilia (now Marseilles) during the civil war between Pompey and Julius Caesar, finds Gordianus trapped in the plague-ridden city, which he had secretly entered to get information about the fate of his son, Meto. There, Gordianus witnesses a death that may have been a murder. As he investigates, he unearths various treacheries, and battles for his own survival. This is "one of the best" in the "Roma Sub Rosa" series, exclaimed Connie Fletcher in Booklist. "Saylor presents a vivid tableau of an ancient city under siege and an empire driven by internecine strife," wrote a Publishers Weekly contributor.

Saylor risked another departure from his successful Roman mysteries with A Twist at the End: A Novel of O. Henry, a historical mystery featuring the writer O. Henry as its protagonist. Based loosely on a series of unsolved ax murders in 1880s Austin, Texas, the novel reveals some unsavory details about O. Henry while also providing, according to a Publishers Weekly contributor, "a hard look at racial bigotry and politico-economic deceit." The reviewer, hailing the book as both "cracking good historical entertainment" and an "effective morality play," predicted that it could be Saylor's "breakout" novel. Texas Monthly contributor Anne Dingus, however, expressed a different view, finding the novel unconvincing and "uninspired." Though Liam Callanan in the New York Times Book Review also leveled some criticism at the novel, suggesting that the story is almost overwhelmed with detail and that the protagonist "is the story's least convincing aspect," the critic found the book ultimately "fascinating and provocative."

Saylor returned to the "Roma Sub Rosa" series in 2002; between 2002 and 2004 he added three books to the series: A Mist of Prophecies; The Judgment of Caesar: A Novel of Ancient Rome; and A Gladiator Dies Only Once: The Further Investigations of Gordianus the Finder. In A Mist of Prophecies, Gordianus is left to investigate the murder of Cassandra, a famous Roman seer who died exclaiming she had been poisoned. A long cast of famous historical characters, including Marc Antony and his lover Cytheris, Caesar, Cicero, and the widow of Clodius appear at Cassandra's funeral, and all become suspects in the prophet's murder. With such a complicated web of suspects, the plot takes several turns before reaching its peak, but a reviewer for Kirkus Reviews remarked that it is "worth waiting for the payoff." In a review of The Judgment of Caesar, a Publishers Weekly contributor commented: "Perhaps this superb historical novel will be the breakthrough Saylor richly deserves." In this installment, the setting shifts to Alexandria, Egypt, where Caesar is acting as ambassador between Ptolemy and Cleopatra, who are fighting for the throne of their country—though Caesar wants it for himself. Gordianus is ordered to Egypt as all three rulers want his help, but his investigative skills are put to use after an attempt is made on the lives of Caesar and Cleopatra, who have formed an alliance. In 2004 Saylor was short-listed for the Ellis Peters Historical Dagger award, granted by the Crime Writers Association, for the novel. A Gladiator Dies Only Once is a collection of nine stories, all of which trace the career of the sleuth, as well as his relationships—political and personal.

In 2003 Saylor once again departed from his popular series and released the novel Have You Seen Dawn? A reviewer for Publishers Weekly observed: "The deservedly large and devoted following of Saylor's outstanding ‘Roma Sub Rosa’ historical mysteries is likely to be disappointed with his latest effort, a contemporary serial killer story." The novel's heroine, Rue Dunwitty, leaves her home and job as an analyst in San Francisco and returns to her grandmother in Amethyst, Texas. After learning that a number of girls have gone missing in the town, she is quickly involved in the searches for the missing teenagers. The twin of the most recent girl to go missing haunts Dunwitty, and she delves deeper and deeper into the case. Connie Fletcher, reviewing the book for Booklist, concluded: "Far too much attention is given to the kind of daily life trivia that is riveting in the ‘Roma Sub Rosa’ books…. The plot itself, however, is compelling."

Saylor's expertise in Roman history, which has been featured in two television documentaries for the History Channel, was demonstrated in the epic story Roma: The Novel of Ancient Rome. The fictional work relies heavily on factual events and characters, and follows generations of a Roman family through feast, famine, war, and other notable incidents over a millennium. Despite the novel's length at 576 pages, a Publishers Weekly contributor remarked that it "moves at a sprightly clip and features some vibrant personages." The reviewer found the text "solidly anchored in fact and vividly imagined." Writing for Library Journal, Mary K. Bird-Guilliams commented that Roma "should prove appealing to history and political buffs who enjoy comparing our current events with ancient Rome." "Saylor's gift for dramatic narrative brings alive familiar tales from Roman history," noted a critic for Kirkus Reviews.

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

BOOKS

St. James Guide to Crime and Mystery Writers, 4th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.

PERIODICALS

Booklist, September 1, 2000, Connie Fletcher, review of Last Seen in Massilia, p. 7; January 1, 2003, Connie Fletcher, review of Have You Seen Dawn?, p. 856; April 15, 1999, Emily Melton, review of Rubicon, p. 1484.

Kirkus Reviews, April 1, 2002, review of A Mist of Prophecies, p. 458; February 1, 2007, review of Roma: The Novel of Ancient Rome, p. 96.

Lambda Book Review, November-December, 2004, Jameson Currier, "Author Steven Saylor Was Short-listed for the 2004 Crime Writers Association Ellis Peters Historical Dagger Award for His Novel The Judgment of Caesar, Recently Published by St. Martin's Minotaur," p. 64.

Library Journal, April 15, 1999, Jane Baird, review of Rubicon, p. 146; June 1, 2004, Rex E. Klett, review of The Judgment of Caesar: A Novel of Ancient Rome, p. 108; May 1, 2005, Rex E. Klett, review of A Gladiator Dies Only Once: The Further Investigations of Gordianus the Finder, p. 66; February 1, 2007, Mary K. Bird-Guilliams, review of Roma, p. 64.

New York Times Book Review, October 18, 1992, David Dawson, review of Arms of Nemesis, p. 34; July 30, 2000, Liam Callanan, review of A Twist at the End, p. 18.

Publishers Weekly, February 27, 1995, review of The Venus Throw, p. 89; April 8, 1996, review of A Murder on the Appian Way, p. 58; April 12, 1999, review of Rubicon, p. 57; March 27, 2000, review of A Twist at the End: A Novel of O. Henry, p. 54; August 14, 2000, review of Last Seen in Massilia, p. 332; August 16, 2002, review of A Mist of Prophecies, p. 45; January 20, 2003, review of Have You Seen Dawn?, p. 55; May 10, 2004, review of The Judgment of Caesar, p. 40; May 2, 2005, review of A Gladiator Dies Only Once, p. 179; November 27, 2006, review of Roma, p. 27.

Texas Monthly, April, 2000, Anne Dingus, review of A Twist at the End, p. 30.

Times Literary Supplement, May 8, 1998, Mary Ritter Beard, review of A Murder on the Appian Way, p. 23; December 10, 1999, Alan Massie, review of The House of the Vestals, p. 22.

ONLINE

Austin Chronicle,http://www.auschron.com/issues/ (November 3, 2000), Clay Smith, "Author Literatus."

Steven Saylor Home Page,http://www.stevensaylor.com (October 1, 2007).