B.R. Snow’s Review of Robert Carter’s A Deadly Playground
One of my favorite writers, Robert Carter, is back.
And he’s back with a vengeance.
Those of you familiar with Mr. Carter’s work will remember that he has already delivered outstanding historical fiction set in a wide variety of settings including; revolutionary France, India, and China among others.
Mr. Carter’s latest book, The Deadly Playground, is the first installment in what I hope will be a long run of terrific books about a British family of means, the Barrington’s, and their extended circle of friends and acquaintances. Set in 1912 against the backdrop of the impending World War, the book focuses primarily Jimmy Barrington, the free-spirited son, and his friend, Stanley Walker, a young man of humble background and modest means. When war breaks out with the German invasion of Belgium, Jimmy and Stanley decide to join the Royal Flying Corps. During their initial training their fates take different paths and their days as carefree youths soon become fodder for fond memories and late-night pub tales.
As I was reading, I was struck by the relatively low-tech of warfare in the early 1900s and reminded that it’s only been just over 100 years since aircraft have been available for use in war. Mr. Carter deftly takes us back to those early days when pilots and their gunners were using pistols and rifles to shoot at enemy aircraft. And that’s the sort of thing that Mr. Carter does. He takes on big ideas – in this case, the uncertainty of one’s place in and ability to positively contribute to a world at a tipping point and battered by war – and weaves an intricate narrative using real, and, quite often, the small moments of daily life that resonate and give flesh and bone to his central theme. And Mr. Carter is so gifted at handling these moments, as readers, we find ourselves there, in the moment, with the sights and sounds of canvas wings and barking artillery surrounding us while, as an author, several times I was forced to reread a paragraph and left to wonder, “How the hell did he do that?”
When reading a book these days there is a tendency for us to gravitate to what sort of film, or in the case of The Deadly Playground, miniseries would the book make. That’s all well and good because I can already visualize what this material could look like on screen as well as name a wide variety of potential cast members. But that degree of visualization is only possible because the book is so well written. And the talent required to write a book like this is rare and needs to be appreciated, honored and, yes, even savored.
Mr. Carter’s attention to detail, grounded in meticulous research, is one of his hallmarks. The care and feeding his gives his craft is a trait I greatly admire and all of his fans, a growing group I’m a proud member of, need to thank him again for delivering such a strong work of historical fiction. At times his work with detailed description reminds me of Tom Clancy. It’s not easy making aircraft and weaponry both educational and entertaining. Yet Mr. Carter does a terrific job in these areas because he obviously knows what he’s talking about and he works very hard to get it right.
But there is another writer that Mr. Carter’s work reminds me of. Taylor Caldwell also told grand tales filled with small moments on an epic scale. I have no idea if she is someone Mr. Carter enjoys reading or whether he will find this comparison flattering or worthy of disdain. All I do know is that if he is able to continue developing this series in the manner he has unfurled it in this first volume, I sincerely believe that The Deadly Playground has the potential to become Mr. Carter’s The Captain and the Kings.
Big themes, small moments, great writing.
Don’t miss this one and the ones that follow.
Author Robert Carter Interview
BR – Welcome, Robert. I finished A Deadly Playground recently and really enjoyed it. And thanks for agreeing to be interviewed. Fitting this in around the World Cup was probably tough to do. But I know the Po$$e members will find what you’ve got to say about the book and your writing process very interesting.
RC – Thanks, Bernie. It’s great to be here. And since England went out so early in this year’s Cup, sadly, I do have a bit more time that I had originally planned.
BR – You’ve written several great historical novels that take readers to a wide variety of settings and time periods. What is it about writing historical fiction that is so appealing to you as an author?
RC – History is our memory. I believe everyone should be aware of what has happened in the world, or we are doomed to repeat our mistakes. History is also used by those who are interested in selective memory and self-serving myths, so it’s interesting to review well-known events in a new light. I hope always to leave my readers with a more accurate sense of the times I write about. History is also a wonderful source of “story” as the word “history” implies.
In addition, the more I read, the more biographies I stumble upon, I have found that there are so many people who have done astonishing things – people completely overlooked by history. I like to find those people – to bring their courage and commitment to the reader’s attention. Sir Sidney Smith (Courage) and Frederick T Ward (Barbarians) to name but two, incredible people who changed history and not many people know about them. My personal crusade, if you like.
BR – When reading your work it quickly becomes apparent that you do a tremendous amount of research. Could you describe the process you go through from a research standpoint? I’ve been wondering for a while if you get an idea for a great story and then start researching, or whether you’re a history buff who tends to discover events and then decide, “Hey, that might make a good book.”?
RC – I read generally, and in that process discover stories that interest me and sometimes I think they might make good novels. That is, the template of the drama is real events and the way real people reacted to what happened. After initial research, in which I read more closely around the period / events – everything I can find (for 6 months I read nothing else and steep myself in it). I then look for material that allows me to construct a story within that framework and begin to put together my outline. I do all this before a single word of the novel is written.
BR – As I said here and in my review, your new one, The Deadly Playground, is terrific. For those folks who haven’t read it yet, could you a take a couple minutes to outline the basic storyline?
RC – The story concerns two friends who are attending Oxford University in the summer of 1912. One is a scholarship boy and the other is the sun of the richest man in Britain, from a banking and shipping family. But the world they have grown up in is about to change. War comes and Stanley Walker and Jimmy Barrington decide to do their duty by their country. I wanted to remind the present generation who are often too ready to dismiss people and attitudes of former times that very real threats to freedom and democracy have affected the world much as they do today. The men who rose to the challenge of protecting liberal values have much in common with those who protect those same values today.
BR – The timing of The Deadly Playground was great for me. My new book that should launch this fall is set in the present day but has a ‘near-future’ premise behind it that is heavily driven by the advancements in technology. And when I was reading yours, I was struck by how primitive warfare was back then compared to the weaponry of today, less than 100 years removed from World War I. Did you come across anything during your research that surprised you and made its way into the book?
RC – The driver of new technology is frequently warfare and no more so than in aeronautics. I have always thought it astonishing that the Wright Brothers and the moon landing (both great American achievements) were separated by a mere 65 years. Coincidently both events were in the lifetime of my own grandfather.
Some of my RAF (Royal Air Force) friends fly WW1 aircraft for recreation at Shuttleworth Air show. Who can blame them? When you see a Typhoon fly over, it drives home the realization of just how far we’ve come.
The aircraft in WW1 were made of wood and fabric by furniture makers. The seats made out of wicker. The cockpits were open so the pilots wore heavy coats, huge boots known as fug boots, lined with sheepskin and leather helmets, with NO parachutes. One thing that amazed me was the fact that the designer of the aircraft that fell from the sky over Port Meadow (at the start of the book) was a man called Henri Coanda and he also designed a jet aircraft made back in 1910!
BR – I’ve likened the epic scales and settings of your books to Herman Wouk and Taylor Caldwell. You certainly aren’t afraid to take on really big subjects. Who are some of your favorite authors you like to read and those who influence your work?
RC – James Clavell’s Shogun is a peerless work and strongly influenced my approach to my writing. I read biographies most of the time and I search for them on the internet and in old bookshops. Often I find the real treasure in biographies written about people who are not so well known these days, but who were heroes in their time.
BR – I think that this will turn into a series with long legs and I know you probably don’t want to give away too much at this point, but could you give us some idea of what we can expect to see in upcoming books about the Barrington family?
RC – Some people have kindly said that the Barrington saga stands comparison with Herman Wouk’s Winds of War. This may be premature, but I see what they are saying. Essentially, my story is based on a real family and their interaction with the worlds of high society and high finance.
The USA entered the Great War quite late in the proceedings, but some prominent American citizens were involved behind the scenes at a very early stage. You never read about many of the events that took place in WW1, and in Volume Two of the Quintet, much is revealed about war that was secret at the time. As I said, I’ve read lots of memoirs.
Thanks for inviting me over, Bernie. I enjoyed it.
BR – Many thanks for stopping by, Robert. Again, congratulations on a terrific new book and I wish you great success with it. Hope to catch up with you soon.