Renaissance scholar and former private investigator Leslie Silbert has parlayed her experiences into a thriller that moves back and forth between the sixteenth century and the present day. Bestselling author David Morrell calls The Intelligencer “a fascinating blend of Renaissance espionage and modern intrigue,” and the acclaimed historical novelist, Sharon K. Penman, warns that it is “dangerous…for once you pick it up, you cannot put it down.”

Leslie graduated from Harvard in 1998 with a degree in the History of Science. She’d spent the spring of her junior year abroad, reading Elizabethan drama at Oxford, and was so taken with the subject—particularly the playwright and spy, Christopher Marlowe—that she chose to enter Harvard’s graduate program in her field in order to further immerse herself in the Renaissance. Taking a blend of history, history of science and literature courses, she focused on sixteenth- and seventeenth-century ideas about curiosity and the pursuit of forbidden knowledge. At the heart of her research was the question: What type of knowledge was the most dangerous to pursue back then and why?

A year later, she decided the academic track wasn’t for her and applied for positions with some P.I. firms. As she tells it, “I loved school—for me, it’s hard to beat books and professors—but I got a little restless, liked the idea of taking my interests into the real world for a while…pursuing secrets myself instead of just reading about other people doing so. And when I interviewed with a former CIA man who’d once headed up the clandestine service, well, I knew that’s who I wanted to work for, to learn from.”

At the moment, Leslie’s finishing her second novel, Killing Caravaggio, which delves into the mysteries of the artist’s tumultuous final days: his imprisonment by the Knights of Malta, his dramatic escape from their isle, and the so-called natural death long suspected to have been murder. Like The Intelligencer, it interweaves stories of spies, swashbucklers and sinister skullduggery separated by centuries, with Kate Morgan and other familiar present-day characters reappearing…a few months after you last saw them. Leslie’s delighted by those of you expressing impatience for Killing Caravaggio, and promises to have the first couple of chapters and Image Gallery posted on this site as soon as possible.

Frequently Asked Questions

1) The Intelligencer transcends several genres—it’s part spy thriller, part historical novel, with a splash of mystery thrown in. How do you describe it to people?

I say that it’s designed to keep you entertained while you’re curled up on a rainy night or in an airplane, but also that I wanted to do something beyond pure escapist fiction. My hope is that when you finish it, you’ll feel like you learned something about an intriguing era and consider your time well spent.

2) What do you do as a P.I.? What kinds of cases have you worked on?

This is the hardest question for me to answer because by definition the work is confidential. Every case I’ve had, somewhere out there is a client who would not enjoy hearing me blab about their private business. Not to mention the fact that I’d get fired! But I can say that one of my favorites involved art that had been looted in World War II, my most emotionally wrenching involved a suspicious death, and my most tedious (yet ultimately rewarding) was an environmental case that involved tracking down and collecting evidence against those responsible for dumping nasty noxiousness where they shouldn’t.

3) Which tempted you first, private investigation or writing fiction?

It’s hard to say. Both interests sparked somewhere in grade school. I was a serious Nancy Drew addict as a kid, and fantasized about doing what she did—the sleuthing that is, not kissing her blah boyfriend Ned. I also remember starting to write a Sidney Sheldon-ish novel in the seventh grade. I don’t remember too much about it, other than the fact that there was a dashing but menacing Swede named Sven von Blixen. Though I didn’t get past the first few chapters, the interest in writing thrillers lingered. The intent to actually sit down and do it, however, didn’t resurge until after college. I was standing in line at a grocery store browsing the shelf of bestselling paperbacks. I picked up a few and began to read. I forget what they were, but let’s just say they weren’t among the greatest out there. I was thinking, “Man, I could do better than this.” And then I had one of those moments where you step back and ask yourself, “Are you gonna go through life saying things like that, or are you actually gonna do it?”

4) Like you, the heroine of The Intelligencer works for a P.I. firm in New York City under the guidance of a former CIA officer, and also has studied Renaissance history and literature. How much of your own life have you written into Kate Morgan?

An embarrassingly large amount! We also have similar interests and senses of humor, as well as past experiences and relationships. I confess I took the easy route here. I was completely new to fiction writing when I started The Intelligencer. I hadn’t taken any creative writing classes, read any how-to books, or had practice of any kind since a short story I wrote in the eighth grade. It was daunting, so I followed one of the few adages I’d heard over the years: Write what you know. Instead of wondering if my main character was two dimensional, or spoke in a consistent voice, I could just think: What would I say? I have, however, made Kate much cooler than I am. Most notably, the company I worked for did not double as a clandestine U.S. intelligence unit. So my contribution to global justice was and remains—unfortunately—quite limited.

5) Why the Renaissance? What fascinates you about that period?

I like that so many different kinds of exploration were taking place then. In England, for example, the first official secret service was formed around the same time that the first telescopes were turned on the heavens, and all the while, English ships were sailing in far off places into uncharted waters. I like how dramatically the sense of “what we know” was changing.

6) While doing field work as a P.I., was anyone ever suspicious of you?

As far as I know, no one was suspicious of me…as a P.I. What’s funny is that I have generated suspicion and been escorted off property, but that was as a writer, when I was being entirely straightforward—you know, using my real name, asking questions with no hidden agenda, etc.

I was doing research for The Intelligencer in London. There’s a heist scene that takes place at the end of the novel, and I wanted it to feel as authentic as possible. So I went to the location—it was royal property, mind you—and I was out in a garden checking things out. A woman walking her dog came by and I said, “It’s so beautiful here. The local college kids must sneak in all the time for late night trysts.” And she replied, “Oh no. The Royal Park Police drive around and release their dogs at various times throughout the night.” That seemed like good enough information, but I had the time and decided to be extra thorough. So I went up to one of the guards and said, “Hi, I’m Leslie Silbert. I’m writing a spy novel, and I’ve got a scene where two characters break in here. Could you tell me…” As I began asking my series of questions, the guard frowned. “I’ve never heard of you. How do I know you aren’t planning to break in yourself?” I tried telling him about my novel and my publisher, but it didn’t do any good. He thought I was lying and asked me to leave!

7) The historical storyline in The Intelligencer focuses on the murder of the famous playwright, poet, and spy Christopher Marlowe. How did you come to choose Marlowe as your subject?

One spring morning a number of years ago, I was sitting in a Renaissance drama class listening to a lecture on Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus, when a friend of mine leaned over and whispered, “You know, he was also a spy.” I had a million questions, but my professor was looking right at me, and he was giving an awfully compelling lecture, so for the next forty minutes I sat there quietly, thoughts racing about Marlowe and his dangerous pursuits—of God’s secrets in his intellectual life, and state secrets in his real life. Both of which were deadly at the time. Remember, this was an age when certain intellectual efforts were crimes punishable by death. After class, when I learned that Marlowe had been killed under mysterious circumstances, that in all likelihood he was murdered for one of his dangerous pursuits, I was hooked.

8) Did your graduate work give you enough background for this novel, or did you do extensive research following school?

I began delving into Marlowe’s life in grad school, then continued researching afterward until the last page of The Intelligencer was written. There is a lot we don’t know about Marlowe’s final days, but I wanted to make sure that what we do know would be accurately portrayed in my novel. Envisioning the historical record as a puzzle with missing pieces, I used my imagination to fill in the blank spaces, not alter accepted facts. I also consulted professors and grad student friends, and had several read chapters or the full manuscript, because I wanted to make sure my Marlowe felt plausible to people who are considered experts on the subject. And then there were the other Elizabethan characters to consider: Queen Elizabeth, Walter Ralegh, the Earl of Essex—countless pages have been written about all of them. So yes, I did a lot of research!

9) Since you’re a Marlowe buff, did you find it difficult to figure out what an average reader might find interesting?

Yes, absolutely! That’s why I enlisted friends and family to read multiple drafts and draw little sad faces wherever their interest started to lag.

10) Which author has had the greatest influence on your writing and why?

I’d have to say Tom Stoppard, because his play, Arcadia, inspired the structure of The Intelligencer, as well as the rest of my series. When I first saw Arcadia in 1997, I was captivated and awed at how Stoppard deftly interwove stories separated by centuries. Years later, as I prepared to start writing my first novel, remembering Stoppard’s play convinced me to try creating a similar structure.

I had a series in mind at the time, featuring a young woman working for a boss similar to mine. I was excited to give a P.I. story the aura of authenticity I had yet to encounter in popular culture. I was new on the job, but it didn’t take long to realize how wildly unrealistic Charlie’s Angels had been. As I mentioned earlier, I’d also been kicking around the idea of a novel about Christopher Marlowe. But as I wanted to sell my first one, and knew that at the time, historical fiction wasn’t the most commercial of genres, I decided to table Marlowe and write a modern-day page-turner. Then, when Arcadia popped up in conversation one day, it hit me. I could do both—tell a story about Marlowe’s doomed final days as well as one featuring the twenty-first century heroine I had in mind. The chapters would alternate, and the mysteries would intersect and unfold together.


©2005 Leslie Silbert. All rights reserved.
Author photograph by Sigrid Estrada.
Website design by Chris Costello.