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robert gilbert

C. C. Humphreys is the author of several historical novels, including A Place Called Armageddon, Vlad: The Last Confession and Plague, which won the Arthur Ellis Award for Best Crime Novel. A veteran actor, Humphreys has appeared on stage and screen around the world. His latest novel, Fire, was published by Doubleday Canada this month.

Why did you write your new book?

Contractual obligation. Also because – and you'll have to excuse any subsequent fire analogies – the subject was burning me up. Though I've written it as a standalone thriller, some of the characters from Plague reappear. It looked as if they were going to live happily ever after, having survived serial killers and pestilence. In the world of C. C. Humphreys, there is no happily ever after.

Which fictional character do you wish you were?

Is it cheating to name one of my own? It's just that, with Jack Absolute, I created my fantasy alter ego. A baronet's son who is also adopted Iroquois – and so as comfortable with a tomahawk as he is with a small sword. A man who can ride, dance, shoot, fence, is an excellent cricketer, a whiz with a billiard cue. Devilish with the ladies, he can compose an erotic sonnet and break a fiendish French code while leading a cavalry charge. He is everything I palpably am not. If all that is cheating, how about Philip Marlowe? Then I'd get to live in my trench coat and fedora in black and white 1940s Los Angeles, while cracking laconic, taking the punch, drinking cheap whisky, sniffing cheap perfume, all while trying to maintain some shreds of decency. How I love a tarnished knight!

What's more important: The beginning of a book or the end?

I'd have to say the beginning. When I teach, I lay out the top five objectives in writing. The first for me always is: "Keep the reader reading." There are so many other distractions out there. Hold them to the page with "I have to know what's going to happen next!" If you don't hook a reader with the beginning, what hope have you that they'll stick with you to your magnificently crafted, exquisitely poignant end?

What's the best sentence you've ever written?

This refers to my previous above. It is the first sentence of my first novel, The French Executioner, and so I hoped it would hook people into reading that book and then all the ones I'd subsequently write – if they liked this first one enough to buy it! It might be grammatically dubious – can one be "too dead?" – but I think it does the job: "It was unseasonably cold for a late May night, but the gibbet's former occupant was too dead to care, and his replacement too unconscious."

Would you rather have the ability to be invisible or time-travel?

Time travel! It has always been my greatest fantasy, which is why I chose a career that lets me get as close to it as I can. I get so immersed in my tales, I sometimes feel I am the character at those pivotal moments. But to be there when they really happened? When Hamlet first played at the Globe? When Harold fell at Hastings or Wolfe and Montcalm on the Plains of Abraham? Of course there is the fear of changing history by one's presence – or is that the real lure? To be the British sniper in the trenches at the Somme with Hitler in your sights? To have an iPhone and record the Sermon on the Mount? I know: I'll take my machine back just a couple of weeks – and alter one million "Leave" ballots to "Remain." Can I both travel and be invisible?