Today I am featuring the work of Joan O’Hagan who passed away in 2014. However, her work lives on in the books that she wrote in the 1980s and 1990s and a new novel published in October. Here is her daughter Denise to introduce us to her work.
Hi, I’m Denise, editor and daughter of the author. I’ve edited many books, but tackling my mother’s manuscripts was the most challenging of all, not least because of her temperamental nature. Her first book was published when I was a teenager and, used to the persistent click-clack of typewriter keys, I thought nothing of it. It was only later, wearing my ‘editorial’ hat, that I came to appreciate her accomplishments. The writing process was harder and less forgiving then – no cut-and-paste or control ‘z’, so if you made a mistake you had to retype the page, or chapter. I sometimes wonder if the rigour involved in this style of writing obliges us to think more clearly in the first place…
A Roman Death is a historical thriller set in Ancient Rome at the time of Caesar’s assassination. First published by Macmillan in 1988, and translated into Japanese and Swedish, it was her most acclaimed novel. This new edition contains her latest amendments and includes a Foreword by Steven Saylor.
Jerome & His Women is an historical fiction about the irascible St Jerome, the man behind the creation of the Latin Bible. Controversial even in his day, my mother was endlessly fascinated by this man, as I came to be also. I edited this with her during her last years under difficult circumstances, and was honoured to be short-listed for the inaugural Rosie Award.
Let’s take a look at the books and one or two of the reviews.
Historical thriller set in Ancient Rome. In 45 BC, Julius Caesar is at the height of his power. Lucius Scaurus, the young, good-looking fiancé of a high-society girl is poisoned at the couple’s own pre-wedding banquet. In the trial that follows, Roman society is shocked when the girl’s mother, Helvia, is accused of not only of murder, but of incest. Cicero comes to Helvia’s defence, but the killer’s identity remains a mystery until the final twist – or two.
‘Poison, poetry (both high-minded and salacious), marriage for money, marriage for love, gang-rape, cowardice in battle, scheming slaves, conniving aristocrats, malicious matrons casting magical curses, and (as if all this were not enough) a previously unknown oration by Cicero – there’s so much going on, so expertly conveyed ...’ — Steven Saylor
‘An absorbing story, with fully drawn characters, a fascinating place and period, all given vibrant life in the author’s best work so far.’ — Kirkus Review
‘An original setting, carefully researched and vividly portrayed.’ — The Times Literary Supplement
‘Religious beliefs and superstition in the ancient world play a key part in Joan O’Hagan’s novel about mayhem in Rome … The identity of the killer, in this excellent classical puzzle that is also a classic whodunit, is revealed in a splendidly contrived shock ending.’ — Gerald Kaufman, The Listener
‘Who put the poison in Lucius’s wine, what truth in the scabrous accusations? Cicero for the defence; an unusual treat, don’t miss it.’ — Christopher Wordsworth, The Observer
One of the early reviews for the new edition.
If you are upset by discussions of poisoning by aconite, or by descriptions of multiple anal rape, or by sympathetic portrayals of incest, this is probably not a book for your reading list. I, on the other hand, greatly enjoyed it.
It is 44BC, and we are in Rome. The Republic has been suspended. Caesar is Dictator for Life. The streets know at best a fragile peace – a peace maintained only by keeping the proles from doing anything by themselves. This aside, life goes on as normal. Lucius Scaurus is an aristocratic bag of scum. His main achievement in the Civil War was to stay alive by running away from battle. He is beautiful. He is amoral. He is not terribly bright. He and his family are short of cash. So a marriage contract is negotiated with the upstart Fufidius clan. It is the usual matter of trading social prestige for money.
Then Scaurus falls dead. The doctor swears it is aconite poisoning, and that he must have been fed the poison at a dinner given by his prospective father-in-law. The young man’s father goes into a rage of grief and anger. He has Helvia, the wife of the girl’s father, charged with murder.
It all looks rather grim for Helvia. She is known to have opposed the marriage. There is evidence that she tried magic spells against the young man. She was at the dinner. She had means, motive and opportunity.
Cicero is brought in to handle the defence. He has no doubt his client is guilty, but does his usual job in court of making the worse sound the better reason.
How the trial ends I leave to you to find out. Equally the matter of who did poison Lucius Scaurus. All I will add is that this novel puts you in late-Republican Rome. You are dropped straight into an alien moral environment – or perhaps it is not so alien. You can see and smell the streets. You are given a seat at the counsels of a ruthless and cynical ruling class. You do not see the murder of Caesar – this gets one sentence at the end of a chapter. But you do see how the murder is used to advance a family feud.
So I give the novel five out of five. My only regret is that it was first published in 1988, and I wholly missed it until the present republication by Black Quill Press. But I will certainly now look out more by Joan O’Hagan. Author Richard Blake Amazon
Read more of the reviews and buy the book: https://www.amazon.com/Roman-Death-Joan-OHagan-ebook/dp/B075KRVVYG
Jerome & His women
Rome, 382 AD. The Empire is fragile, the pagan beliefs that sustained it are fading. One man stirs up controversy like no other – Jerome.
When the Pontiff, Damasus I, commissions Jerome to translate the Bible into Latin, it is a political masterstroke. Jerome’s Vulgate displaces the many alternative biblical texts and is the quintessence of Christianity as a world religion, with Rome at its centre. He is assisted by a circle of aristocratic, educated women who risk their lives in the pursuit of their ideals. Chief among them is the attractive young widow Paula, who is as devoted to Jerome as she is to his cause. Rumours soon circulate as his enemies try to dispose of him once and for all…
Joan O’Hagan was a crime writer, and author of the internationally acclaimed A Roman Death. Thanks to meticulous research, a wicked imagination, and over thirty years of living in Rome, she breathes new life into an ancient saint and his world, drawing us irresistibly into a highly-charged life of danger and intrigue, while reminding us to question our own values.
One of the reviews for Jerome & His Women.
Who was Jerome? Saint Jerome was born Eusebius Sophronius Hieronymus about 347 BCE in Stridon, Dalmatia (in what is now known as Croatia) and died in 420 CE in Bethlehem. Jerome was commissioned by Bishop Damasus I of Rome to undertake a new and definitive Latin translation of the Bible from Greek by 390 CE. The focus of this novel is on Jerome’s relationships with the Christian community in Rome, specifically his patron Paula and a number of other Roman women.
The setting of this novel, the fourth century CE, was a time of upheaval for the Roman Empire. In addition to a series of internal riots and external threats, the spread of Christianity with the worship of a monotheistic God was replacing pagan beliefs and gods. In Rome, Jerome was surrounded by ‘his women’: a circle of well-born and well-educated women. These women included the patrician widows Lea, Marcella and Paula, together with their daughters Blaesilla and Eustochium. By concentrating on these women and Jerome’s dealings with them, Ms O’Hagan paints a picture of a complicated man: at times introspective and at other times argumentative. Jerome was critical of the secular clergy of Rome and, shortly after the death of Damasus I, he was forced to leave his position. It was alleged that he had an improper relationship with the widow Paula. Eventually he and Paula travelled to the Holy Land where they built two monasteries and a hospice.
I found this novel fascinating, partly because I know so little about this particular aspect of Christian history. Ms O’Hagan brings to life Jerome’s women, with her descriptions of how they chose to turn their back on luxurious Roman life, instead selling off their property and possessions to donate to the poor and to the Church. These women then chose, with varying degrees of success, to live celibate lives of prayer in poverty.
Ms O’Hagan started work on this novel in the 1990s, and completed it shortly before her death in 2014. I think it is a tribute to her writing skills that the research she undertook to write this novel never weighs the narrative down.
I am always on the lookout for books by Australian women, and when Joan O’Hagan’s name was mentioned, I added her to my list. Now I’ve read ‘Jerome and His Women’, I’ll be looking for her other novels.
Read the reviews and buy the books: https://www.amazon.com/Joan-OHagan/e/B001KDEZXE
About Joan O’Hagan
Joan O’Hagan (1926−2014) was a published author of crime fiction, and author of the critically acclaimed ‘A Roman Death’ (1988). Her last work, ‘Jerome & His Women’, released in 2015, brings to life the life and times of St Jerome, and is a testament to her enduring fascination with the ancient world as well as her imagination.
Born in Australia, she lived in New Caledonia, England and Italy before returning to Australia in 1997. Her publications include:
‘Incline and Fall: The Death of Geoffrey Stretton’ (Angus & Robertson, 1976).
‘Death and a Madonna’ (Macmillan 1986, Doubleday 1987)
‘Against the Grain’ (Macmillan 1987, Doubleday 1988, Mondadori 1988)
As well as the two books featured today.
‘A Roman Death’ (Macmillan 1988, Doubleday 1989, Tokyo Hawakawa Publishing 1990, Legenda 1990).
‘Jerome & His Women’ (Black Quill Press, 2015).
Author website and social media contacts.
Author website: https://www.joanohagan.com/
BQP website: https://blackquillpress.com/
Author Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Joan-OHagan-602676883093459/?ref=bookmarks
BQP Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/blackquillpress
Thank you for dropping by today and please leave a comment before you go.. thanks Sally