Laurie R. King is the bestselling author of 21 crime novels, including a historical series featuring young Mary Russell and her somewhat more famous husband, Sherlock Holmes. Â King lives in California, but her upcoming novel Pirate King is set partly in Lisbon.
It is the unfortunate habit of crime writers to stumble across dead bodies wherever they go.
It began when my daughterâ€™s husband arranged to spend his sabbatical year with Lisbonâ€™s Instituto Superior TÃ©cnico, and I thought, Why canâ€™t I go, too? Not to the Technical Institute â€” Iâ€™m a novelist, not a robotics engineer â€” but to Lisbon. After all, writing equipment is portable, basically a laptop and a chair.
The laptop I could bring with me. The chair was in a short-hire apartment two floors up from theirs, on Rua Santo AntÃ³nio da GlÃ³ria, a brief climb away from the SÃ£o Pedro de AlcÃ¢ntara mirador. In the mornings, I would write; in the afternoons, I would explore the city with my daughter.
And since the series I was working on takes place in the 1920s all over the world, there was no reason why my fictional companions couldnâ€™t join me.
In the story, my character, Mary Russell, gets dragged into a motion picture production about pirates â€” hence the name Pirate King â€” which for various reasons (this is not a solemn book, by the way) heads off to Lisbon and later, Morocco. Which meant that as I was shopping for fruit at Pingo Doce, riding the #28 tram, buying a printer at FNAC, having a bica and pastel de nata at CafÃ© A Brasileira, I was also seeing potential settings for action.
I brought with me a 1923 guide to Portugal, so that I would know what was around for my characters to see. I also brought a Lisbon guidebook by a gentleman named Fernando Pessoa.
Now, I like to use real characters in my novelsâ€”Lawrence of Arabia and General Allenby appear in O Jerusalem, Locked Rooms has Dashiell Hammett, and The Game is built around Kiplingâ€™s Kim. (Well, more or less real characters.) So I thought, why not a poet?
This being a post about Lisbon rather than Fernando Pessoa, all I will say is, if you havenâ€™t been to the Casa Fernando Pessoa, put it at the top of your list. Only two or three of Pessoaâ€™s 72 â€œheteronymsâ€ â€” poetical multiple personalities â€” appear in the novel, but it was a battle to keep him from taking it over entirely.
Fortunately, as I said, this particular book would be a comic novel. (Thus, the riots and military coups taking place throughout Portugal during that time receive little place in the story.) But it was also a book about the silent film industry, and my crew needed a place to rehearse, so I borrowed the Teatro Maria VitÃ³ria. In 1924, the theater was new and dignified, although now it has a rather different personality.
When the picture crew later decides to practice some scenes out of doors, Sr. Pessoa suggests that they move to the adjacent Botanical Gardens, where a certain amount of blood is shed.
But things donâ€™t really heat up until thirteen blond actresses, the makeup woman, the cameraman, and the male lead pile onto a charabanc (thereâ€™s too much equipment for the train) and head to Sintra.
In Sintra, I found an embarrassment of choices when it came to setting scenes in a novel (or a silent film, for that matter.) In the end, because the book is also about pirates (whom Sr. Pessoa adored) I decided that the Castelo de Mouros would do best for the purpose. As I left the top of the hill where that Moorish Castle broods, I saw a thing that confirmed that I was indeed making the right choices: a stone in which is carved a skull and crossbones.
So as you walk through the streets of Lisbon, as you survey the harbor and glance at the castle and think about hopping on the train for a day in Sintra, remember: You are walking in the footsteps of Mary Russell, Sherlock Holmes, and the cast of that great film of the silent era, Pirate King.
The Pirate King book page includes an excerpt concerning Fernando Pessoa: http://www.laurierking.com/