The Black Owls and Zuleika Dobson

My most recent novel, The Black Owls, an Oxford Nightmare (A-Argus Books, Sept., 2013), is a tribute of sorts to a book first published more than a hundred years ago–Zuleika Dobson, or an Oxford Love Story, by Sir Max Beerbohm.  Zuleika is a broad satire of life at the University of Oxford around the beginning of the last century.  Beerbohm took as his principal conceit that the appearance of a beautiful young illusionist–visiting her grandfather, the Warden of Judas College– inspires the Duke of Dorset–first among all the students at Oxford–to promise suicide if she would not have him, an oath that quickly spreads to the rest of the (all male) student body.  While this premise works its way through boat races, club dinners and even a performance by Zuleika herself, Sir Max–an 1890 alumnus of Merton College, Oxford–chronicles the beauty, traditions and peculiarities of his beloved Oxford and its denizens.  The book appears on nearly all of the lists of great novels of the 20th century.  I highly recommend it.

The Black Owls is also set at Oxford late in the last century when terrorism–revealed by our ever more ubiquitous media–began to be a common concern.  Its plot revolves around a more serious proposition than Beerbohm’s–a bomb has been planted in Oxford and the hero has seven days to find it–but I’ve tried to treat Oxford as the beautiful, unique place it is.  The cover of the book is an aerial view of the University’s heart, Radcliffe Square.  Allusions to Zuleika are many–the title, the epigraphs, the jewelry worn by Lady Guinevere Markham, others.  One of the characters, Pamela Smythe-King, a former porn star, bears a striking resemblance to Zuleika, and there’s even an anagram to discover.  Dorset makes an appearance, and another fictitious college, this one called the College of the Prophet Muhammad, plays a large role.

I like to think that The Black Owls is a thoughtful thriller that raises serious questions as well as entertains its audience, and I hope that Zuleika Dobson adds a whimsy that readers will appreciate.


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