For a crime writer, researching a novel in a foreign land can occasionally feel a little like divining for corruption. Ignored are the safe tourist areas, the well-regulated business sector and exemplary legal system. But one mention of an unsavoury corner of town, or a notorious local scam, and the inner hazel rod starts to tremble.
Last year I went to Malta to research my new book, ‘Sign of the Cross’. Malta is hardly famed for its seedy underbelly – indeed, my great uncle and aunt whiled away their retirement there with barely a pocket picked. Would I find any puddles of depravity?
I’d always wanted to set the second in the Spike Sanguinetti series in Malta. Like many Gibraltarians, Spike, the lawyer hero of the books, has some Maltese blood. The Maltese archipelago saw mass emigration after the World Wars, and as a fellow British colony, with English as its first language and an economy based around a naval base, Gibraltar was an obvious destination. In Spike’s case, his maternal family comes from Malta, and when his uncle and aunt are found dead after what appears to be a bloody domestic dispute, he travels there for the funerals.
One aspect of Malta I knew I wanted to investigate further was the Order of the Knights of St John. I was aware of the Knights’ existence as the one-time rulers of Malta, but as I sat in my hotel room in Valletta, and read more about them, I was amazed by the breadth of their reach. The Knights had started life as Hospitallers, tending to sick pilgrims in Jerusalem during the First Crusade, but by the time that Henry VIII shut down the English chapter, the Order had become the largest ecclesiastical landowner in Britain – St John’s Wood in London still bears its name. Perhaps its most famous contemporary offshoot, the St John Ambulance, was in fact formed from the wreckage of the Order after it was finally chased out of Malta by Napoleon.
The Knights had been gifted Malta as a reward for their assistance against the forces of Islam, and they ruled the islands between 1530 and 1798. During this period, 300 or so would be gathered there at any one time, wealthy Catholic aristocrats from the dominant countries of Europe – Germany, France, England, Spain, Italy – a sort of proto-European Commission guarding the Western Mediterranean and preventing the Ottoman Turks from sweeping across the Continent.
All very interesting, but how to weave this into a contemporary crime novel? The Knights’ pious roots as Christian soldiers did not seem particularly promising. And they’d been exiled from Malta for over two hundred years.
A visit to the Co-Cathedral of St John in Valletta helped me adjust my view, as it was there that I learnt of one less than pious man who’d been admitted to the Order in 1608. Michelangelo Merisi, better known by the name of his home town, Caravaggio, was a murderer, whoremonger and brigand. He was also a master painter. On the run after killing a pimp in Naples, he fled to Malta, and was taken in by the Knights on the condition that he create a series of masterpieces to adorn their new capital, Valletta. The recklessness of this decision would come back to haunt the Order: just a year after arriving in Malta, Caravaggio picked a fight with a brother Knight in a tavern in Valletta, and was thrown into prison at Fort St Angelo, the former seat of the Grand Master. Caravaggio’s escape to Italy, where he died not long afterwards, remains a mystery. Did one of the Knights help him? Here was a corner of history worth exploring.
But that word again: history. I was struggling to make the Knights live and breathe. On my last evening in Malta, however, I met up with a local lawyer, also in a tavern in Valletta. After a few drinks, my friend told me about a case in which the defendant had a good chance of getting off because he was a Knight. I assumed she was joking, but when I asked more, I learnt that the Knights were making a comeback in Malta. A branch of the Order based in Rome had leased back Fort St Angelo from the Maltese government; new Knights were being selected from local worthies. The Order was once again becoming a force in Malta – and where there is power, there is always potential for corruption.
Sign of the Cross by Thomas Mogford is published by Bloomsbury
© Thomas Mogford, April 2013