Monday, August 25, 2014

Dominic Selwood: Turning History Into Thrills

By Nancy Bilyeau

I learned about the fiction of Dominic Selwood by reading a piece of riveting nonfiction--an article in the Daily Telegraph titled "How a Protestant Spin Machine Hid the Truth About the English Reformation." (Read it here.) In the nearly 10 years I've been researching England's break from Rome, the backdrop to my historical thrillers, I'd come to many of the same conclusions about Henry VIII and Cromwell's actual agenda as this writer. I "etroduced" myself on twitter, and soon learned that apart from being a historian and former criminal solicitor, Dominic too was writing fiction. His thriller, set in modern times, is called The Sword of Moses.

I downloaded the novel and proceeded to not get much sleep for the next two days. Every spare waking moment, far into the night, I read Dominic's page-turning thriller. First of all, it's extremely well plotted and very scary, with an archaeologist protagonist named Dr. Ava Curzon recruited by American intelligence to find the African militia who've stolen the Ark of the Covenant from its Ethiopian hiding place. In the story, Ava comes up against brutal warlords, devious intelligence officers and modern-day power players who hold beliefs that are ancient and highly dangerous. She must contend with those who seem to believe in the values of the Knights Templar and the Nazis, and others desperate to obtain the most prized relics of all time. Having researched the world of relics for my first novel, The Crown, I know what a pull they can exert on any writer! Dominic's deep knowledge of the Ark and the Bible--and many other topics!-- is put to fascinating use in his book.

Dominic kindly agreed to subject himself to my questions. I hope you will enjoy getting to know this successful novelist. As of this week, The Sword of Moses ranked No. 4 on amazon U.S. in the list of all bestselling historical thrillers.

Is it true that your interest in the Crusaders began in childhood, when you explored the island of Cyprus? What was it that most intrigued you?

In the 1970s, Cyprus was one big, undiscovered, archaeological site. There were no tourists or ticket offices. Not many people visited. So you could just wander freely around classical Greek and Roman temples, medieval castles and churches, and unidentified abandoned ancient buildings near sleepy villages. You would be completely alone, and it was utterly magical. The Greek and Roman remains were always imposing and mysterious. But it was the more intimate Crusader ones that really fired my imagination the most. One I used to visit a lot was Kolossi, a crusader castle where the air and trees were full of cicadas, bees, and the aromas of hot stone, honey, mimosa, and wild rosemary, I can still close my eyes and smell it. What fascinated me then, and still does today, was what it must have felt like for its European inhabitants, to be in the eye of a cultural storm, with so much progress and knowledge coming out of the collision between such radically different civilizations.

Dominic Selwood

  Your first book, Knights of the Cloister, was a straight history book on the Knights Templar, and you blog regularly for the Daily Telegraph on quirky history. How much of a change was it to write The Sword of Moses?

I’ve always been obsessed with the past, and that fuels all my writing. I have to know exactly what things were like, what caused them, and how people felt about it all — whether it’s the rise of Christianity in pagan Rome or the first deployment of chemical nerve agents in World War I. I love the fact my history writing and my fiction are both detective work into the past. The research needed for both is very similar — finding topics that fascinate me then working them into something fun (hopefully!) to read. The big difference, of course, is that straight history is all about solving existing puzzles in our world, whereas writing fiction is about making new puzzles in an imaginary world. They’re both addictive!

Do you think there are public misconceptions about the Knights Templar, and if so, why do you think they formed?

There are definitely misconceptions about the Knights Templar. For me, the most prominent is when people twist the genuine history to align the Templars with modern groups — like seeing them as new age gurus, extremist fundamentalists, white supremacists, Protestant knights, or any other absurd anachronism. They were a medieval religious order whose values could only ever have come out of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Some people willfully distort the history. But on the whole I think the great majority of misconceptions are down to people being misled by writers and TV/film makers who press the Templars into whatever dramatic mould they need for the occasion.

Were the Knights Templar purely victims of the Pope at the time and the French king, or did they in any way contribute to their downfall?

That’s a great question. The French king was undoubtedly a vicious, nasty, insincere, and ruthless man. The pope was his puppet — too weak to stand up to him — and the Templars made the tragic mistake of assuming the pope would protect them. The imprisonment and tortures they faced were horrific, and it’s no wonder many of them confessed to the absurd charges the king of France brought in order to destroy their order and steal its wealth. But, at the same time, the broader evidence shows unambiguously that a number of Templars did hold some highly odd beliefs, and they indulged in some deeply peculiar rituals. The king of France was cunning, and he took these small sparks of controversy and famed them up into a raging fire that eventually consumed the whole order.

The first headquarters of the Knights Templar, on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

How would you describe the connection between the Knights Templar and the Freemasons?

 The pope closed the Templars down in 1312. But the key thing is that you then have to wait until 1599 for the earliest records from a freemasonic lodge (Lodge of Edinburgh No. 1). That leaves a gap of 287 years, which is about one and a half times longer than the Templars officially existed! There is, sadly, no firm evidence of any historical link spanning this period, but there is enough information in the public domain about Freemasonry to know that there are some striking and unexplained similarities between Freemasonry and the Templars. So I would describe the connection as ‘unproven but tantalizing’!

Grand Lodge of Scotland, Freemasons Hall

How did you go about researching The Sword of Moses and what was the most surprising thing you learned?

I’m familiar with a lot of the places, organizations, objects, books, and so on covered in The Sword of Moses, so it was more a question of reminding myself of details as I went along, either by walking around locations or double checking the historical facts. Of course, the process is never as clean as you think it will be, as checking up on one fact invariably leads to getting distracted by all sorts of connected facts. The joy is that you never know where these tangents will take you, and often it is to somewhere much more interesting than the place you started! One thing that did really surprise me when I was looking into eugenics for The Sword of Moses was that in the 1910s, no less a person than Sir Winston Churchill (who is still a massive national hero in the UK) was an avid supporter of sterilizing people he called “feeble minded”. Although this kind of racial selection horrifies us now, it is shocking to realize that it was a trendy idea in the early twentieth century. Reading deeply about it was a reminder to me of how society’s values really do change in big ways, often in quite a short period, and also of how selective we are in what we choose to remember about people or events.

How do you think working as a barrister informed your thriller writing?

There are definite similarities between courtrooms and thrillers. They are both carefully managed dramas in which the ultimate resolution only comes at the end, after running down dozens of blind alleys. My years as a courtroom barrister focused mainly on criminal trials, which regularly ran high on emotion, while getting sidetracked by imperfect information and often outright deceit. In that environment, you learn quickly that people’s motivations for evasion, deception, or silence can often be for reasons that are unconnected to the main focus of the case. I was lucky to have these experiences, as when planning a thriller many characters’ real motives lie unseen and unsuspected, driving the drama and only becoming fully clear at the end.

What was the inspiration for The Sword of Moses?

I have always loved adventure stories and history books, above all other genres. When I was growing up, I hoovered up every adventure story I could find. I was at a boys’ boarding school, and I suppose it was a way of dreaming about the tantalizing world beyond the school gates. The masters who ran the school were the generation which fought the Second World War, so the place buzzed with stories and rumours of what they had done in Europe, north Africa, the Middle East, in submarines, fighter planes, and artillery divisions. There was always such a sense of mystery about their prior lives. It was heady stuff for young boys, and, as no TV was allowed, adventure books were endlessly passed around the dormitories. There was also a wonderful quiet, wood-panelled library with old encyclopaedias, where I used to love looking up things I had read about — places, weapons, intelligence services, all of it. For me the two went hand in hand: adventure and history. So, more than anything, The Sword of Moses was inspired by my lifelong love of adventures based on odd, but true, historical facts.

  I was fascinated by the histories of biblical objects of great power. Why do you think these legends and theories have such a hold over us as readers?

People usually sacralize objects that have been in contact with what they revere. This is not only true of religious people and relics. For instance, I was wandering around Charles Darwin’s house-museum the other day, and I was struck by how excited people got at being close to his possessions. (I can only imagine what the atmosphere must be like at Gracelands!) The biblical objects in the book — the Ark of the Covenant, the Menorah, and the Spear of Destiny — are some of the most hyper-sacred objects in Jewish and Christian history. In the case of the Ark and the Spear, billions of people believe they have actually touched the divine, which puts them into a supernatural league all of their own. They’re magical objects, really, and I think our collective fascination with them is that, on some level, most of us want magic to be real.

Page from the Morgan Bible, 13th century: David brings the Ark to Jerusalem

I found the Middle East sections of The Sword of Moses very evocative. Did you decide from the very beginning to set part of your novel there?

In the last decade and a half I have visited the Middle East a lot, and I’ve just moved back to London after living over there for the last few years. In that time I’ve watched how the Middle East has attracted increasing global media coverage because of the terrible wars that have been blighting it. But at the same time, it’s becoming somewhere an increasing number of foreigners live and work, and it’s now on people’s radar in a way it never was in previous decades. So I felt I could legitimately and realistically place Ava into a job in the Middle East, and it’s perfect for her — exactly the sort of place an adventurous kick-ass biblical archaeologist would wind up today.

Why were the Nazis—and those who hold similar beliefs since World War Two—so obsessed with the occult?

Well, not all Nazis were obsessed with the occult. Hitler was infatuated with certain objects, like the Spear of Destiny. But it was his deputy, Heinrich Himmler, who was the real occult fanatic. As he personally ran the SS as a state within a state, he was free to use the SS as a testing ground for his fantasies. Hence the SS insignia and mythology were infused with his obsessive occultism, as was the Ahnenerbe occult research institute he founded at the secret and mysterious Wewelsberg castle – which will be familiar to anyone who reads The Sword of Moses. Why Himmler’s obsession with the occult was so strong is partly the age he lived in, and partly his own character. Crackpot, and often very dark, esoteric, religious ideas about race circulated wildly in Europe between the wars, and one particular strand, known as ariosophy, came to obsess groups like the Thule Gesellschaft and people like Himmler. Once the war was over, the legacy remained, and has spawned a fascination with trying to understand what it all meant to the Nazis.

The Sword of Moses is your first novel, and I found the suspense quite intense. How easy was it for you to plot this novel?

I loved every minute of writing the book, of getting into the characters’ world and seeing the action unfolding. But I think a lot of the fun came because I knew exactly where each scene was going before I started it. When I began the book, I forced myself to plot it out in the minutest detail before I even began the first word of chapter one. Devising the plot felt like simultaneously playing several games of chess (a game I am hopeless at). But it was an amazing thrill when the plot started to come together, and it set me up to just relax and really enjoy the actual writing free from plot worries.

Tell us about your second novel, please!

I cannot say too much, but I am really loving working on it. Ava is back for her next adventure, and she finds herself up against some extremely dangerous people. A lot of action takes place across Europe and the Middle East, and Ava again has to draw on her deep knowledge of biblical mysteries as well as all the mental and physical skills she learned in MI6. It’s going to be just as adrenalin-charged as The Sword of Moses, and I really hope people are going to enjoy it as much!

To learn more about Dominic Selwood, go to his website.


Nancy Bilyeau is the author of an award-winning trilogy of historical novels set in 16th century England, the protagonist a Dominican novice. The Crown and The Chalice are on sale in North America, the United Kingdom and Germany.


  1. This book sounds like a fascinating read !

  2. Sounds great. I actually just bought the Kindle version for 99 cents.