Tolkien, Simon 1959-
TOLKIEN, Simon 1959-
PERSONAL: Born January 12, 1959, in Oxford, England; son of Christopher and Faith (an artist) Tolkien; married Tracy Steinberg (a shop proprietor), c. 1983; children: Nicholas, Anna. Education: Trinity College, Oxford, B.A., 1981; also obtained credentials to practice law.
ADDRESSES: Offıce—c/o Author Mail, Penguin Books, 80 Strand, London, England WC2R 0RL. E-mail—[email protected]
CAREER: Solicitor in the English courts, 1984-94; barrister in the English courts, 1994-2002; writer, 2000—.
AWARDS, HONORS: Debut of the Year, British Mystery and Thriller Club, 2003, for The Stepmother.
Final Witness, Random House (New York, NY), 2002, published as The Stepmother, M. Joseph (London, England), 2002.
Final Witness has been translated into Dutch, German, Japanese, Italian, French, and Polish.
WORK IN PROGRESS: Another legal novel.
SIDELIGHTS: Simon Tolkien faced a difficult literary challenge when he made a New Year's resolution to be a writer in 2000. As the grandson of famed "Lord of the Rings" author J. R. R. Tolkien, Simon Tolkien knew that his grandfather's legacy would provide challenges as well as benefits. What boost he might gain from name recognition would be offset by expectations based upon his grandfather's reputation. Fortunately for the younger Tolkien, he decided to write a legal drama, resolutely set in the real here-and-now, and based upon his experience as an English barrister. Tolkien's debut novel, Final Witness, was published in America late in 2002 and received warm reviews based not upon its author's famous name but rather upon the book's own merits.
Final Witness is a courtroom whodunit that flashes back and forth from trial testimony to the events that precipitated the trial. At the story's center is a father-son relationship that is strained to the breaking point. Thomas Robinson, the sensitive son of a mostly-absent politician father, witnesses his mother's murder by armed robbers. The crime looks like a random act of violence, but Thomas swears he recognizes one of the killers as an associate of his father's mistress and trusted assistant, Greta Grahame. Greta pleads her innocence, and Thomas's father marries her, effectively casting Thomas to the four winds—or worse, into mortal danger. As Carol Memmott described the plot in USA Today, "'He said, she said' is the name of the game as Thomas and Greta are pitted against each other for Sir Peter's affection and loyalty."
Published in England as The Stepmother, Final Witness earned generally positive reviews in America. Memmott wrote: "Rumors of nepotism and influence should be thrown out with the trash. Simon Tolkien . . . has written a novel, and it stands on its own as a worthy addition to anyone's mystery collection." Noting that the action unfolds "in a world far, far away from Middle Earth," a Kirkus Reviews critic stated: "Tolkien knows his way around a courtroom, that's for sure." A Publishers Weekly contributor called the novel "absorbing . . . fast paced and crisply plotted, with Tolkien elegantly piecing together the different perspectives and introducing unexpected twists." In Booklist, Mary Frances Wilkens characterized Final Witness as "a wonderful story of family, relationships, and suspense . . . touching and enchanting."
English critics were particularly interested in Tolkien's novel because its theme of parent-child estrangement mirrors Tolkien's own strained relationship with his father. Nevertheless, Tolkien insists that the work is completely fiction, not even based on any court cases he has worked on or heard about. A reviewer for the London Sunday Telegram stated that the book need not be read as a veiled autobiography, but the overtones are unmistakable. "As a courtroom drama, The Stepmother passes the first and most important test: it makes you desperate to find out what happens in the end," the reviewer observed. "But what the story makes painfully clear is how desperately Tolkien needs some explanation of what has happened in his own life, with his own father, and how much he longs for the possibility if not of reconciliation, then at least of resolution." A contributor to the Rocky Mount Telegram maintained that what Tolkien achieves in Final Witness is "a breathtaking dissection of what makes us human. . . . The novel is full of characters so real that the reader cares about them."
Tolkien has fond memories of his grandfather, who died in 1973. "I spent a lot of time with him on a one-to-one basis," he told the Indianapolis Star. "He lived in a seaside town. We did lots and lots of word games. We skimmed stones in the sea and walked on the beach. I asked him endless questions about 'The Lord of the Rings.' He was patient and very nice about it. We had a lot of fun together." Nevertheless, the literary legacy Tolkien faced was rather intimidating. Although he kept a diary for years, he practiced trial law in England and never wrote so much as a short story before conceiving the plots for two novels—Final Witness is the second. Tolkien told Publishers Weekly: "Part of my decision to write was the sense of being excluded and wanting to make something of my own. I'm more comfortable now. I don't want to be just the grandson of a legendary man, and now I've got something of my own."
Tolkien plans further courtroom-based novels in the future. He is in semiretirement from his own duties as a barrister. He told Publishers Weekly that he is very aware of his American audience and tries to craft his novels so that they explain the differences between the American and English legal systems. He said, "What I wanted to do was write an English book about the English justice system, in a way the American audience would find . . . attractive."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, October 15, 2002, Mary Frances Wilkens, review of Final Witness, p. 363.
Indianapolis Star, March 23, 2003, "Being a Novelist Did Not Come Easy to Simon Tolkien, Grandson of the Legendary 'Lord of the Rings' Author."
Kirkus Reviews, October 1, 2002, review of Final Witness, p. 1424.
Publishers Weekly, September 30, 2002, review of Final Witness, p. 45; January 27, 2003, Edward Nawotka, "Talkin' to Tolkien: Author's Grandson Publishes First Fiction."
Rocky Mount Telegram, March 2, 2003, "Simon Tolkien Pens a Good Detective Novel."
Sunday Telegram (London, England), February 23, 2003, "Simon Tolkien, the Grandson of J. R. R. Tolkien, Has Just Written His First Novel."
USA Today, January 6, 2003, Carol Memmott, "New Tolkien Has Ring of Truth."
BBC News,http://news.bbc.co.uk/ (February 28, 2003), "Simon Tolkien."
Simon Tolkien Home Page,http://www.simontolkien.com/ (June 12, 2003).*