Friday, September 14, 2007

Why historical crime fiction should go heavy on the history — or not

I've picked up a number of historical crime novels but finished few, probably because of the clashing demands of genre and setting. If the plot is compelling, the togas, horse-drawn carriages and imperial messengers become a distraction. If the historical period is compelling, I think, "What's all this stuff about a murder?" I'd rather go the source and read Gibbon or Tacitus.

When I do enjoy a historical crime novel, I ask myself what the author did to hold my attention. Carlo Lucarelli strips his De Luca novels of almost all historical detail. Instead, he lets the paranoia and confusion of story convey the atmosphere during the decline and fall of Fascist Italy.

Peter Tremayne, on the other hand, stuffs his Sister Fidelma novels so full of detail about the sights, sounds, laws and languages of seventh-century Ireland that the sheer joy of observing and learning becomes part of the fun. He talked about his technique a few years back in an interview in Solander: The Magazine of the Historical Novel Society:

"Accuracy is the first principle. My characters can do nothing that is not consistent with the time, place and social system. I would say that I have probably done the bulk of general background research during the many decades I have been writing of this period of Irish history. When it comes to the setting of each individual novel, I will only write about places I know – places that I’ve been to. Spirit of place is very important to me. On the technical side, I have to ensure that any law that Fidelma quotes can actually be verified in the ancient law texts. This is something that happens as I go along. An argument on law might arise in the story … then I have to start checking my library to see what the interpretations are."
I've read the first Sister Fidelma novel, Absolution by Murder, and I'll read at least one more before offering further thoughts on the subject. For now, it's time once again to play A question for readers.

Today's questions: Carlo Lucarelli is a stripped-down minimalist when it comes to historical detail. Peter Tremayne is a beefed-up maximalist. Which approach do you prefer in historical crime fiction? Why? And what influences your choice?

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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25 Comments:

Blogger Linkmeister said...

I haven't read enough historical crime fiction to have a real opinion. I have read a ton of Louis L'Amour's Westerns. One of the things L'Amour prided himself on was the accuracy of his descriptions of his settings as they were during the time period he was portraying. This made for oddities like footnotes in early pages of the novels; he'd describe a ridge in Southern California and then footnote it "where Mulholland Drive is now." (Note that that's a fabricated example.)

I found that if I was familiar with the location as it was in the 20th century, the footnotes were at least interesting and often useful.

I suppose it would be useful to know upon reading the Duke of Clarence was drowned in a butt of malmsey whether this was a common method of execution. (Apparently not unprecedented.)

September 15, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Perhaps that attention to detail is what made Louis L'Amour stand out among writers of Westerns. I suspect that the situation in historical crime fiction might be a bit different, though. Many readers and viewers, at least in North America, have such strong images of the West that they can accept it almost as readily as they would a familiar and contemporary setting. An author, therefore, need not worry as much about how much detail to put in (though I suppose I might have special appreciation for an author who helped me distinguish between different parts of the American West, who disabused me of the idea that, say, everything between the Mississippi and the Pacific looks the same, except for those fancy rocks that turned into monuments.)

As it happens, the Peter Tremayne has a character drowned in a wine cask in Absolution by Murder, the novel that spurred my post.

September 15, 2007  
Anonymous Steve Lewis said...

I don’t know if this qualifies me as a minimalist or not, but after thinking about the question for all of, say, five minutes, here’s what I think the ideal historical mystery should be.

It’s one that reads to me as though it were actually written in the time period that the story takes place. If it’s one that’s far enough removed from the present time or locale, it can “translated” into current everyday language. I don’t mind that.

But modes of transportation, to take one aspect of a story as an example, should view hansom cabs, trolley cars or ox carts as if they were everyday objects that the characters see and use every day, with no overly elaborate descriptions of them, and better yet, with no description at all.

There’s nothing worse to me to read a mystery taking place in the US in the 1940s in which characters continually comment on the headlines and discuss them but having no reason for doing so. A war was going on, yes, and there were shortages. But even though things like these were part of everyone’s life, for the most part people managed to keep it in the backs of their minds and lived with them, much as people in everyday life do today with the occupation of Iraq.

Even more annoying is when characters (still talking about the 40s) stop and mention what radio show they happen to be listening to, just to provide verisimilitude and no other reason (and then get it wrong).

If you were to read a mystery written in the 1940s and compare it with a mystery written today taking place in the 1940s, from my point of view you shouldn’t notice any difference.

Another problem, as far as I’m concerned, is that of political correctness, in which all of the characters are enlightened as much as we’d like to think our ancestors were. More than likely, they weren’t.

For me, I guess I’d have to say that the mystery comes first. But while I’m approaching the question from that direction, whether there’s a mystery or not, a work of historical fiction works for me only if the time and place are right, and I’m taken back to that other world as if I were actually there.

No “Mulholland Drives” in my westerns, thank you, even though it was a made-up example. Although I might appreciate the information, it would jar me out of the story in nothing flat.

Speaking of westerns, though, I’ve recently been watching a few old B-western movies and vintage TV westerns on DVD. For the life of me, I cannot understand how farms and ranch houses could ever be built in places where there is never ever anything but rocks, hills, dirt and sagebrush. Grass? Almost never.

You gotta have all of those rocks up in the hills for the gunfights, though. I understand that.

September 15, 2007  
Blogger barbara said...

Hi Peter,
Just browsing tonight through your very interesting posts.
Thank you so much for your links to the Irish mystery writers.
Although I 'am not as well read as you are, and am still discovering this genre, I have read many historical novels here in France.
The historical style, and everything that seeks to recreate stories in time periods is called "l'Ecole de Brive".And these people are maximalists,and having read many of these novels and enjoying them, I would be more of a maximalist when it comes to my choice of detective stories .

Sorrying to be answering your question on the Paris area vineyards a little late .
See the following link :
http://www.commanderie-montmartre.com/index.php?base=/base/&nom=vignoble

This will tell you all about the vineyards in the Paris area.I don't know if there's a translator button to understand it.
It is by the Commanderie de Montmartre, that is an association for the wine producers around Paris.
There are several producers around Paris, but I only perosnally know of the location of one in Bagneux.

Take care and au revoir.

September 15, 2007  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

Peter it is all about atmosphere. Lucarelli conveys the feeling of desperation and fear with his minimalist approach.
David Liss and Michael Gregorio as two examples give you a bit more detail but their characters are people of their time, with all the appropiate prejudices and attitudes. These three authors succeed because they don't spend most of their time regurgitating history books. Any information they contribute just slides naturally into the story.

September 15, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Thanks for the thoughtful comments, all. I'll reply to each separately, since each deserves an answer of its own.

Steve, you're a lying so and so. You obviously thought about the question for at least ten minutes. To my mind, you nailed a number of the major problems of historical mysteries, a number of the tricky situations with which authors must deal. Each could be the subject of a separate post, and I suspect some will be.

"It’s one that reads to me as though it were actually written in the time period that the story takes place. If it’s one that’s far enough removed from the present time or locale, it can “translated” into current everyday language."

Like a number of your nine or ten commandments, this raised the question of how the author navigates the tension between setting the story firmly in its period, and hitting the reader over the head with it. In the first Sister Fidelma book, Peter Tremayne has some of the speakers use a slightly formal tone without resorting to archaisms. But the Fidelma books are an easy call. Seventh-century Ireland is certainly remote enough for the dialogue to be "translated" into something like current everyday speech. But how close to the present does one need to get before the author ought to have characters talk as they did then? I'd say the eighteenth century, for reasons I may explain in another post. With respect to hansom cabs and the like, the same general problem: How does the author convey the flavor of the time without hitting the reader over the head?
***

"If you were to read a mystery written in the 1940s and compare it with a mystery written today taking place in the 1940s, from my point of view you shouldn’t notice any difference."

Did you have James Ellroy in mind here, by any chance? This point is problematic. Granted that the 1940s are reasonably close to our own time, it's still inevitable that styles and sensibilities will change over time. I'd say that perhaps a casual reader should notice no difference between a mystery witten in the 1940s and one written about the period. Such difference will inevitably there for an attentive reader to notice.

I mentioned Ellroy. The jailhouse beating of the Mexican prisoners in L.A. Confidential probably is faithful to its time, but I don't think there were too many scenes like that in crime fiction written at the time.

An interesting point about Westerns and their settlements in isolated places. The West had to get settled somehow, and there were white settlers in the West before the Good Lord gave the air conditioner to Phoenix, Arizona.

OK, I'll reply to the rest of your points later. Your fault for posting such thorough, to-the-point and well-thought-out replies. Thanks again.

September 15, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Barbara, thanks for the information about l'École de Brive. I'll look into these writers.

Thanks also for the wine link. I got interested in the question when I read Fernand Braudel's Identity of France. He cited Roger Dion's Histoire de la vigne et du vin en France, which I bought and whose opening chapters I have read. I now know something about the origins of French wine grapes among the Greeks and about Parisian vineyards in the Middle Ages. I have not worked my way up to contemporary times, though.

Uriah, I haven't read Michael Gregorio, but we have discussed David Liss. I am in awe of the research he must have done for The Coffee Trader and, more than that, of home he managed to set the story so thoroughly, gracefully and unobtrusively in its time.

September 15, 2007  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

The point about Western settlements that needs to be remembered is that it's the Hollywood western that puts them there. Many of the actual novels have conflicts about land use (sheep v. cattle, water, mineral rights) which are hardly sagebrush-filled spots.

Even Monument Valley (site of the most famous movie western scenery) isn't all that far (175 miles north of Flagstaff) from great grazing land in Northern Arizona and Southern Utah.

September 15, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

That's a good point to make. The farming vs. grazing conflict has been part of human history since agriculture began, and I know that includes American history.

I had a British tour guide in Tunisia who was talking about the conflict between the Phonecian conquerors of Carthage and the natives who were there before them in precisely those terms. She illustrated the lasting nature of such conflicts by bursting into a song from Ohlahoma! about how "the farmer and the cowboy can be friends."

You mentioned Monument Valley, which, of course, has John Ford's name all over it. Where is the early action of The Searchers set? Where did that settler family live?

September 15, 2007  
Blogger Jim's Words Music and Science said...

I call for no rules. It depends on the writer. Wordiness with some is eloquence with others. I do however buy into your point about a fundamental weakness with historical crime fiction: much of it is (or seems) very weak, or you have to be willing to become steeped in a different world through reading many volumes to get the hang of it, and that isn't worth the effort if the details are forced and boring.

I like historical fiction (HFi, to coin a term) a lot. If the crime is a historical one (an actual crime), then less forcing may be required vs. inserting a crime into a distant time (like the 60's!?). Good HFi is often suspenseful and full of mystery (even if we know the outcome!), but it isn't necessarily crime fiction, per se.

I like your Ellroy counterpoint about the possibility that books written recently can be more honest about the past than contemporary fiction of that day.

I'll offer Walter Mosley as another key example. How else are we going to learn about the Black experience in LA or Houston in the late 40's/early 50's? There are not many other options that I am aware of that ring true (I'm sure I'm uninformed, but I'm also sure that it was hard for African Americans to publish mainstream books at this time). Jim nearlynothingbutnovels

September 15, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

I normally shy away from genre debates: What's crime fiction? Who's noir? Who's not? But one cannot avoid the question when discussing historical crime fiction simply because the label "crime fiction" carries with it such a load of expectations. These expectations can clash with other expectations a reader has upon seeing that a story is set in a given historical period.

I don't presume to call my observations a critique of historical crime fiction a "weakness," though, at least until I've read a lot more than I have.

Walter Mosley is probably another good example. Read the Easy Rawlins stories that have earlier settings, and you might think them indistinguishable from work written in the 1940s or '50s. But I don't think too many authors were writing work like his back them.

With respect to your point about the wearying need to steep one's self in a given period before reading historical crime fiction set in that period, Peter Tremayne saves the reader that trouble, at least in the first Sister Fidelma novel. The novel has a few stylistic lapses, but considering how much historical information he conveys, the story moves surprisingly well. You get your background and your mystery in one handy package.

If you like HFi, have you read David Liss? I can't recommend The Coffee Trader highly enough.

September 15, 2007  
Anonymous Steve Lewis said...

I’ve taken another five minutes to absorb your points and counterpoints. Everyone’s. Peter, you really asked an interesting question.

I think I’d like to rephrase one of the things I said, which taken out of context, I disagree with, and even in context, it doesn’t say what I intended.

I said, “If you were to read a mystery written in the 1940s and compare it with a mystery written today taking place in the 1940s, from my point of view you shouldn’t notice any difference.”

Although I don’t say it in this sentence, what I was talking about here were the background details. The modes of transportation, the newspaper headlines, the radio shows, the little hit-them-over-the-head gimmicks writers use to convince the reader that the story is taking place in the 1940s. I think there are, well, subtler ways of doing this.

Now the author has to have a reason for writing a story in the past. History is not static, even though when I was in grade school I certainly thought it was. Facts and dates. That’s what history was. (They tried to change my mind in college, but being a math major at the time, I wasn’t having any of it.)

As part of their intent in writing a work of historical fiction, authors may want to show what really happened, things that aren’t in textbooks but should have been. And here, as Peter and others have pointed out, is where a book written in the 1940s is going to differ from a book written now but taking place in the 1940s. Ellroy and Mosley are top notch examples.

The reason why authors like these are successful at what they do is that the details of life in the 1940s and 50s are in their books, but they’re details, the background, and they stay in the background, and this is what allows the focus to stay on the major story, the one they really to tell, and be convincing about it.

There’s another fine line that can be easily crossed here, though, one that I alluded to in my earlier comment. If I read a western in which any white man cares about the fate of the buffalo or the American Indian, or laments the passing of the frontier, generally speaking, I don’t believe it, not for a minute. It’s nice to think that our ancestors thought that way, but I don’t think so. Women being given the right to vote? It was to laugh. Visionaries like this were a rare breed back then – which is not to say that they didn’t exist, and stories can be written about them – and have been. The keyword is rare.

Too much present-day hindsight in a novel taking place in the past is a sure-fire recipe for disaster, as far as I’m concerned. To write a novel to take a present-day look at the past, though, that’s a different story. Talk about fine edges, though. Any writer of historical fiction has to walk a narrow path indeed, doesn’t he or she?

September 16, 2007  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Modern-day sensibilities can't be put into HFi without alarming the critical reader, I agree. There were some buffalo hunters who did recognize very late that they were killing their own way of life, but I don't think they mounted a protest about it; they just found another way to make a living.

I will throw in one historical note, though: Steve, you say "Women being given the right to vote?"

Wyoming was the first territory in the US to do so, in 1869. Where did I first read that fascinating piece of history? In a Louis L'Amour novel.

September 16, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Once you put it that way, I can speak up for my new friend Peter Tremayne again. Absolution by Murder has lots of “foreground” historical detail, as one might expect in a book set in so remote and unfamiliar period. But the background detail is also effective. He’ll make frequent references to an Irish character’s rough but comprehensible grasp of the Saxon language, for instance, which is credible considering that the setting is a council with delegates from Ireland and the Saxon lands.

“Now the author has to have a reason for writing a story in the past.”

A reason other than just the fun of writing about the past, you mean? If so, you’re right, I’d say. Tremayne, again, chose an interesting background: The Synod of Whitby, with its religious as well as political rivalries providing plausible conflicting motives for murder. One nice touch: Tremayne never refers to the site of the council by the anachronistic name of Whitby. Instead, he uses its older Celtic name throughout.

”There’s another fine line that can be easily crossed here, though, one that I alluded to in my earlier comment. If I read a western in which any white man cares about the fate of the buffalo or the American Indian, or laments the passing of the frontier, generally speaking, I don’t believe it, not for a minute. It’s nice to think that our ancestors thought that way, but I don’t think so.”

Though I haven’t seen the movie, I’d suspect then you found, say, Dances With Wolves a sweeping and historically accurate portrayal of the political beliefs of Kevin Costner.

September 16, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Linkmeister, did women and voting figure prominently in the story? That would be interesting as a piece of historical color in a novel set in the nineteenth century, challenging and even more interesting as a major plot element.

September 16, 2007  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Regrettably, not as a plot element. I don't remember which book it was in, but I suspect it was an aside.

In one of the Sackett books L'Amour writes about Denver and some of its early characters; he mentions David May, who founded the store which became the May department store chain (and has undoubtedly been swallowed up by Federated by now).

If I were a writer I'd consider using the conflict between women voting in 1869 and hidebound newcomers to the territory as at least a subplot, now that you mention it.

September 16, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Well, as long as he intergrated it gracefully into the story, it would make a good aside.

I now feel an urge to read more historical crime fiction to see if I know what I'm talking about in these comments.

September 16, 2007  
Blogger Juri said...

I've read tons of American paperback westerns and I should say that amongst the best-known writers in the field L'Amour is the most overappraised. Whatever his eye for the detail is, it doesn't account for the undeveloped characters and subplots and coincidences and such.

I'm with Steve here. No unnecessary dropping of names, unless it's a plot thing or something to do with the theme of the book.

As for Ellroy, he wrote about the fourties, fifties and sixties as how he sees they were and I'm ready to believe lots of cops beat lots of Mexicans in jails during that time.

September 17, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

I'm also ready to believe Ellroy about police treatment of Mexicans during the period. The point I was making when I invoked his name in my reply to Steve was that even though a scene such as the jaihouse beating in L.A. Confidential may have been accurate for the time in which it was set, no writer from that time would have written such a scene. That's a compliment to Ellroy. He didn't just rip off the atmosphere and the details of the period, he penetrated to its essentials in a way writers from the period never did.

September 17, 2007  
Blogger Jim's Words Music and Science said...

And I had better read Coffee Trader.

"Owen Glendower" by John Cowper Powys is first-rate HFi (I think HiFi is taken), though it takes a moment or two to read (it is huge).

Haven't read L'Amour in a long time, but always liked him.

My comment in your next post describes a book from Japan based on a true event from the 60's, but it didn't work for me at all. So maybe I overestimated the value of reality to the HFi crime novel.

We take John Lescroart as an example: he wrote some books about Sherlock Holmes' son in France, battling crime. They had some appeal, and worked to a point, but I didn't enjoy them as much as his best "regular" work.

Now I can't remember the author, but he writes about the German occupation of France in WWII and "cooperation" between a French and German detective. These can be excellent. They are historical, if recent. The tension between the protagonists provides a lot the background, not a detailed history of the war. You probably know the ones I mean!? Jim
http://nearlynothingbutnovels.blogspot.com

September 17, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

J. Robert Jaynes is the author of those books.

With respect to reality and its opposite, I'd say historical fiction need not be strictly authentic, or rather that authenticity ought not to be its goal. But it does need to be convincing. It does need to create the impression that it could be authentic.

September 17, 2007  
Blogger Jim's Words Music and Science said...

Merci and danke schoen. Thanks for your prolific and enjoyable posts. Jim
nearlynothingbutnovels.blogspot.com

September 18, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

De rien and bitte schoen!

September 18, 2007  
Anonymous Ann said...

Have you tried the children's series The Roman Mysteries by Caroline Lawrence? Great stuff, for the age range. It's Famous Five meets Nancy Drew and the Roman setting is wonderful, with lots of history in disguise.

September 19, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Ann, I don't know the books, but I just took a look at a Caroline Lawrence Web site. I like the titles, and I like the period she writes about. Since I've been reading some historical crime fiction and some children's/young adults' crime fiction lately, I might take a look at the Roman Mysteries the next time I'm in a bookstore. Thanks!

September 19, 2007  

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