Saturday, November 17, 2007

Historical crime fiction: Does the crime fit the time?

I pondered the question of what makes good historical crime fiction recently after reading Ariana Franklin’s Mistress of the Art of Death, as I had from time to time previously with respect to other books.

I realize now why the book worked: the crime fit the time. It’s 1170, and the Jews of Cambridge have been accused of murdering children. England’s King Henry II, for whom the economically active Jews are a source of tax revenue, wishes to clear them, if possible, and he sends for the book’s title character, who sets the investigation in motion.

Humans have likely been killing one another forever, so an author who sets a story in a time other than his or her own has one big question to answer: Why one period over any other? Why set a story in 1170 rather than 1270, 1370 or 1970? Franklin set hers at the time and in the place where the slander arose that Jews killed Christian children for ritual purposes. Henry’s motive for wanting to solve the case is not just plausible, but plausible historically.

I can think of one other author whose historical crime fiction similarly seems perfectly suited to its period: Carlo Lucarelli. What about you, readers? What historical crime fiction is not just a good read, but could not have been set in any other period?

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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9 Comments:

Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

CJ Sansom and David Liss are fine historical crime writers, and their stories fit their chosen period beautifully.

November 18, 2007  
Anonymous Maxine said...

It is a while ago since I read them, and I didn't even read very many of them, but the Brother Cadafel series by "Ellis Peters".
And whlie I think of that, how about Umberto Eco's Name of the Rose? From memory of the book, that had to be set at a time when monks wrote out books by hand, and when herbs were ground up to make medicines on-site, etc.

By the way, Peter, a bit off-topic but I did not enter your Nesbo competition because I already have the book. Have not read it yet but it won't be long, I hope.

November 18, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Uriah, you know how highly I think of Liss and that I have trouble thinking of The Coffee Trader as a crime novel because the story is so rich in other ways. But yes, the crime, manipulation of shares, makes perfect use of a phenomenon of the time, the beginning of commodities trading. C.J. Sansom's name has come up now and then, but I haven't read his work. Where should I start? (I do see that he has a professional background that seems tailor-made for writing historical crime fiction: He was a lawyer who earned a doctorate in history.)

Maxine, you know how highly I think of The Redbreast. I hope you enjoy it, also. I know the Brother Cadfael books by reputation, of course, but I haven't read them, either. How do their crimes fit the times in which the books were set? (I think they are set in or not far from the twelfth century as well. Is that correct?)

And if you think you were off-topic, C.J. Sansom's name sticks in my mind for a reason you would probably never suspect. There is a Sansom Street in Philadelphia, inevitably mispronounced, and sometimes even misspelled "Samson." This used to grate on my nerves, but I grown to accept it as a charming regional peculiarity.

November 18, 2007  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Odd snarky thought: No one could write a crime novel about Cain and Abel due to the dearth of suspects.

November 19, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Nah, that might be a good idea. Do the parents have an alibi for the time of the killing, such as not being alive? And had the concept of mystery even been invented, or, perhaps better, created then?

November 19, 2007  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

The reader would be howling "It's the serpent, you idiot!"

November 19, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Unless someone figures out it's a conspiracy and suspects that the Man Upstairs, the Big G, is pulling all the strings.

November 19, 2007  
Blogger Julia Buckley said...

My mom would suggest that the Brother Cadfael mysteries by Ellis Peters are appropriate only for their time.

November 19, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

That may be a double-edged comment from your mother. I'd quiz her further to find out whether she likes the books!

If she likes them, in what way would she say the books are appropriate for their time?

November 19, 2007  

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