British explorer inspires Ridgefield writer’s new book ‘The Mirrored Palace’

Camels, caravans, wanderings in the desert, the mysteries of the Hajj, a raid on a harem guarded by eunuchs and leopards, a lost manuscript and widow burning books, spies and love and death — there are enough sweeping scenes and riverbend plot twists in “The Mirrored Palace” for a Hollywood screenwriter.

That might be because it was written by one.

Drawn on episodes in the life of 19th-century British adventurer, explorer, writer, linguist scholar and diplomat Sir Richard Francis Burton, “The Mirrored Palace” is the third novel by David Rich.

A Ridgefielder for some 25 years, Rich worked decades — both in California and Connecticut — writing for the West Coast movie machine. He has 34 full-length screenplays “and countless drafts of those” to his credit, along with TV episodes, TV pilots and “three unproduced plays.”

His new novel, published in mid-December by Adelaide Books, takes on a character of cinematic scope.

“Burton has been on my radar since [my] college days when I saw the BBC mini-series based on his books ‘White Nile’ and ‘Blue Nile,’ ” Rich said. “There have been movies about Burton, too, but they never seemed to get at the character, at least not in the way I saw him.”

Burton lived from 1821 to 1890, spoke 25 languages and 40 dialects, served in British Army and as a British diplomat, wrote original works and many translations, including such Eastern works on love and sex as “Kama Sutra” and “The Perfumed Garden.” He was the rare Westerner who managed, in a pilgrim’s disguise, to visit Islam’s most holy city, Mecca.

“All the skills attributed to him in the book are true,” Rich said. “He was a champion swordsman, rider, marksman, knew more than 30 languages.

“Burton on the Hajj fascinated me but I couldn’t see how to do it until I read his niece’s account of his tragic love affair with a Persian woman,” Rich said.

“When her parents discovered the affair, they killed her. I thought about how Burton might deal with that — he’s the guy who translated ‘The Thousand and One Nights.’ This sounded like a tale worthy of that book.”

Then came research.

“Once I read the niece’s account, I went back and re-read Burton’s journal of his Hajj and a couple of biographies of Burton, read a little bit of his wife’s writing and then began the novel,” Rich said.

Among the pleasures of reading “The Mirrored Palace” are passages that Rich has pulled straight out of Burton’s writings, and has his characters read — sometimes aloud to each other. Rich’s reader drinks directly from Burton’s mind and literary skills:

“Scarcely had the first smile of morning beamed upon the rugged head of the eastern hill, Aub Kubays, when we arose, bathed and proceeded in our pilgrim-garb to the Sanctuary. We entered by the Bab al-Ziyadah, or principal northern door, descended two long flights of steps, traversed the cloister, and stood in sight of the Bayt Allah...

“I may truly say that of all the worshipers who clung weeping to the curtain, or who pressed their beating hearts to the stone, none felt for the moment a deeper emotion than the Haji from the far-north. It was as if the poetical legends of the Arab spoke truth, and that the waving wings of angels, not the sweet breeze of morning, were agitating and swelling the black covering of the shrine. But, to confess humbling truth, theirs was the high feeling of religious enthusiasm, mine was the ecstacy of gratified pride.”

Rich’s own writing is another of the book’s pleasures:

“Though I had no dreams to condemn me my colored robe had been stripped away and I was to be cast into the pit. A guard, one of four, gestured for me to sit. I could not see the bottom and imagined it had none. Has anyone been rejected at the river Styx? Certainly not on the basis of merit.

“If you were sent back would life, no matter how miserable, seem like heaven? Survival, I knew, was not a matter of motivation or determination, and no, it wasn’t destiny either. I would struggle against death as long as I could, as all men would. Each to his own limit. Survival balanced on the thin edge of chance.

“A guard took my right arm, another my left, and they meant to lower me inside. I thought that was a gentle approach for a nasty punishment, So did Bashir.

“In his hissing, thin and always surprising voice, he said ‘Drop him.’ The guards didn’t hesitate.

“When I recovered and looked up his face filled the space blocking the light of the moon, and though I couldn’t make out his features, I could feel his nasty slit eyes and sneering lips radiating a midday hatred.

“He said, ‘We roast English pigs and let the vultures eat them.’ ”

Asked if he had any thoughts on the book not by prompted an interviewer’s questions, Rich responded with six words:

“I hope I did Burton justice.”