1879: Inspirations 5

Continuing our series of books and documentaries that have inspired the 1879 product line, let’s get to this month’s selection.


Eastern Approaches, Sir Fitzroy Maclean

While not in period for 1879, this book is nonetheless invaluable to both player and GM. Maclean tells the true story of his own adventures in the British Foreign Service and military, starting out as an attache’ in Moscow. Being the most junior on the staff, Maclean grew bored, and decided to test the assertion that travel in Russia was difficult for foreigners. He acquired a working knowledge of the language, learned how to dress appropriately, studied how the lower classes moved about, and one day took his accumulated leave, went to the train station, bought a cheap ticket for cash, and boarded with the peasants. His stories of how he traveled, alone and often unnoticed, across the Russian Empire give valuable details for the spy, the diplomat, the adventurer party wanting to move quietly. There’s enough encounters and adventure hooks just in this section of the book to keep an 1879 campaign going for months. The second part, talking about Maclean’s time in North Africa with the SAS during WW2, similarly provides a treasure trove of detail for a military 1879 campaign. The technology is more advanced, but the tactics and situations are similar enough, and the day to day routines of an army in wartime have not varied significantly over the past thousand years. In the third part, Maclean goes to Yugoslavia, and works with the partisans under Tito. This introduces a massive cast of characters and demonstrates well how a government can be built during and after a war. Primary sources are preferred in any research. Here you have the autobiography of a man who was a spy, a soldier, a guerrilla, a diplomat, and an all around adventurer, someone who fits many of the tropes of steampunk fiction. I lucked into this book many years ago, found it on the bargain table out in front of a Waldenbooks, and found it thrilling at the time. I’ve gone back to it many times since. Of note, Peter Hopkirk cites it as a significant influence on his own work in his definitive book on British 19th Century intelligence operations, The Great Game, which I’m reading now. Put Eastern Approaches on the top of your TBR pile.

King of Heists, by J. North Conway

George Leonidas Leslie came about as close as anyone in America ever has to being a true supervillain. He had a secret identity – two, actually, one as a high society raconteur and rare book collector, living off the proceeds of selling the family brewery that he inherited, one as an IRS field agent under which he married a woman and maintained a household. Then there was his third identity, as the most successful bank robber in the United States. Leslie started out as an architect. As Geoff Manaugh said in A Burglar’s Guide to the City, burglary is the most sincere form of architectural criticism. Leslie realized that he had the knowledge and skills to successfully infiltrate a bank and make off with its holdings, and he had an idea of how to open the safe undetected and quietly, a vast improvement over the drills, cold chisels, and explosives usually employed. He made friends in high and low places, and embarked on a career as a criminal mastermind that, well, I’ve spoken about before in a previous blog entry. This is the story of how one man set the nation on its ear, changed people’s views about banks and security, and planned the biggest heist ever successfully carried off. A pity he wasn’t there to see it done. In the alternate world of 1879, he is, but that’s a story that will have to wait until the New York sourcebook: The Corrupted City is released. In the meantime, read King of Heists.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, by John le Carre’

It’s not often I put a work of fiction on this list, but perhaps I ought to more frequently, especially when there’s works like this out there. One of the definitive novels of the spy genre, TTSS carefully builds a complex network of people, their histories with one another, their relationships, their secrets, and the gnawing suspicion that there’s a mole in British intelligence at a high level. In this atmosphere of distrust, George Smiley, recently retired, is called back to sort out whether there is a mole, an enemy agent who has infiltrated the agency under deep cover and worked their way up in the organization before beginning to report to their true superiors. If such a person does exist, how to flush them out, expose them with definitive enough proof that action can be taken? Half measures won’t be enough – an accusation will destroy the person’s career whether or not they’re guilty, so Smiley has to be absolutely sure. How he works through the connections, the traces of evidence, and finally mousetraps the enemy agent is a brilliant work of spycraft, and inspiration for any espionage campaign based on how real-word spies operate. I’d highly recommend the rest of the series as well. Remember le Carre’s rule: Constitutional scrutiny of intelligence organizations is largely an illusion. If they’re good, they fool the outsiders, and if they’re bad, they fool themselves.


14 Diaries of the Great War

In my endless quest for primary sources, I ran across this series, that goes directly to the diaries and correspondence written during the First World War. It tells the story of how the war began, how the fighting evolved, and how it finally ground to a bloody, expensive end. The effects on the home front are covered with personal details, as civilians suffered privation from rationing and supplies being cut off, the loss of their homes when blasted out of them by artillery, and the inevitable grief when the letter came: regret to inform you. Dramatic readings of the actual words of people who lived through the War bring it home in a way that a fictionalized dramatization just can’t. The detail here will appear in Britain, as the casualties from the Samsut War return home, and in settlements too close to the war as the lines shift. Strong stuff, and well done.

The Great British Story: A People’s History

Any attempt at a comprehensive history of a nation with such a long and complicated past is going to be troubled from the very start. There’s material that must be cut to fit the run time, topics that are difficult or uncomfortable to explain that may go over the side in favor of better ratings, and issues of presentation that I’ve discussed previously in the History of Scotland with Neil Oliver. All that said, this makes a valiant attempt at compressing such a massive topic into eight episodes. The presenter, Michael Wood, puts up with the usual indignities, such as crawling down a hundreds-year-old sewer to see the medieval underpinnings of a village. There’s a considerable amount of attention paid to the common folk, which is in keeping with the premise of the series, that this is the story of the British people, not their crowned heads. The Levellers, Diggers, and Chartists get more coverage than usual. and women’s roles in history receive, if not the attention they really deserve, a good deal more than they usually get. While this series doesn’t get top marks, part of that is simply the scale of what they’re trying to cover. As an overview of how Britain came to be what it is now, and the stories of many of the average people along the way, it does a good enough job that I’m willing to recommend it.

Danger UXB

This isn’t a documentary, but a drama series revolving around a young ordnance disposal officer in WW2. It opens with Lt. Brian Ash, a newly minted officer with all of ten weeks’ military training and none at all in defusing bombs, being assigned to replace an officer who was just blown up by a bomb he was trying to disarm. Over the course of 13 episodes, Lt. Ash learns how to keep bombs from exploding, works with officers from the Navy, assists a brilliant if erratic professor (your classic British odd duck) in developing new methods of disarming ordnance, nearly meets his end in a chance mishap with a mine set under a pier, and proves he hasn’t lost his nerve by tackling one more bomb. The portrayal is considered by many to be the most accurate version of ordnance disposal ever brought to the screen. Based on the memoirs of Major A. B. Hartley, M.B.E, RE, and with Lt. Col. E. E. Gooch, RE (AER), Rtd., on set as advisor, the technical details are precise, the setting historically accurate, and the characters thoroughly believable. This series, and Rat Patrol, served as inspiration for Danger UAD, the Samsut demo scenario premiered at GenCon three years ago. Watch this for the atmosphere, the characters, the challenges of life during wartime, and the technology, much of which is in reach of 1879‘s steampunk time period.

Tally Ho!