Saturday, January 19, 2008

Bad girl, bad boy and a question for readers

Why do authors turn to historical crime fiction? I imagine writers so bursting with erudition and good stories that they need outlets livelier than journals, dissertations and monographs. I like to think such is the case with Peter Tremayne and Lindsey Davis. Both are scholars, the first of early medieval Ireland, the second of early imperial Rome, and scholarship marks their series about Sister Fidelma and Marcus Didius Falco. (The staff at Fishbourne Roman Villa near Chichester in England, a moving and spectacular monument of the Roman world and a scene of one of Davis' books, praises her work.)

Carlo Lucarelli was a scholar, too, working on a thesis with the mid-1960s-Dylanesque title "The Vision of the Police in the Memories of Anti-Fascists" when he "ran across a strange character who in a certain sense changed my life." He abandoned his thesis, and that character became the inspiration for Commissario De Luca, protagonist of Carte Blanche, That Damned Season and Via delle Oche. It's easy to read the dizzying administrative mess of De Luca's Fascist and post-Fascist Italy as commentary on a more current version of the country. And then there is David Liss' stunning The Coffee Trader, the most thorough and convincing work of historical illusionism I have ever read.

But erudition, social criticism and coffee are not the only inspirations for historical fiction. Another is good, old-fashioned dirty fun. I received a note on an unrelated topic this week from Mary Reed, who, with Eric Mayer, writes a series about John the Eunuch, a high official in the Byzantine court of Emperor Justinian and Empress Theodora. Why, I asked her, had she and Mayer chosen this particular period?

"What happened," she replied, "was Mike Ashley asked us to write a short story for one of his early Mammoth Book historical-mystery collections, but the snag was we had only about three weeks to deadline. As it happened, Eric was interested in the Byzantine period and had a number of books about it, so we thought ... hmmm ... research material to hand, and nobody is working in that field (now, of course, it is beginning to get rather crowded in there), lots of colour and scandal, and so we wrote the first story about John."
Readers, I can tell you that if you ever have a deadline to meet and a desperate need for dirt, you cannot do better than sixth-century Constantinople. Procopius, the great early-Byzantine historian and scandal-monger, inspired several of Reed and Mayer's books, and it's no wonder. The avowed subject of his Secret History is "the folly of Belisarius, and the depravity of Justinian and Theodora."

I'll leave you to read the salacious details yourself. Suffice it for now to note that Reed and Mayer have had "a lot of fun with reference to the business with the geese and Theodora."

And now, readers, it's your turn. What makes a historical period ripe for treatment in crime-fiction form?

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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19 Comments:

Blogger Linkmeister said...

For one, the number of larger-than-life characters who inhabited the period. Examples: Alan Grant's cerebral exoneration of Richard III in The Daughter of Time; Jack the Ripper and the Sherlock Holmes pastiches about him. Heck, there's probably some crime fiction set in Napoleonic-era France.

January 19, 2008  
Blogger Peter said...

That makes sense. Procopius' Justinian and Theodora were larger than life, all right, just as the buildings Justinian had built were larger than any other buildings. He did things on a grand scale.

January 19, 2008  
Blogger Kerrie said...

One of the popular periods seem to have been the reigns of Stephen and Maud - I'm thinking in particular of Ellis Peters who was a historian of sorts and of course created Brother Cadfael.

And there are the Tudors, particularly Henry VIII whose dissolution of the monasteries seems to have been such a dreadful business. C. J. Sansom's DISSOLUTION and other books spring to mind here.

In both cases I think these authors were like the ones you mentioned in your post - historians who turned to crime writing.

I think the reverse is also true - the crime fiction writer who becomes interested in a particular period and because as authoritative a historian as any.

January 19, 2008  
Blogger Peter said...

Perhaps periods of unrest attract crime writers. Ariana Franklin has started a series set in the time of Henry II, whose job it was to get England in order after Stephen and Maud. His reforms are a significant background to the first book, Mistress of the Art of Death.

Franklin was a journalist and not a scholar before she turned to crime fiction, I believe.

January 19, 2008  
Blogger John McFetridge said...

Didn't Dashiel Hammett say something about detective fiction being a way to get a poor man (the detective) into a rich man's house through the front door?

Detective fiction is one of the best ways to look at different parts of the same society, following the detective into parts of town that many people wouldn't want to go, or wouldn't be allowed to go. So, for historic detective fiction, it's a great way to see the whole of a historic society and the way it works day to day. Might as well put all of that research to good use.

January 19, 2008  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Heh. My (pre-Henrys) British history knowledge is sorely lacking. I had to Google "Stephen and Maud" to find out what y'all were talking about.

January 20, 2008  
Blogger Peter said...

John, that might explain why Justinian and Theodora appealed to crime-fiction authors on a tight deadline. Procopius had preceded them through those forbidden doors. All they had to do was follow, laugh, leer, gape and take notes. Justinian's reign has the added attraction of being full of conquest, military action, and big news on the legal and architectural fronts.

I'll be interested in seeing what the novels are like. I have two on hold at my local library.

January 20, 2008  
Blogger Peter said...

Linkmeister, I had a vague idea of the order of British monarchs from having read the early volumes of Hume's History of England a few years ago. I can thank crime fiction for my immediate knowledge of the Stephen-Maud-Henry succession, however.

I read Ariana Franklin's novel Mistress of the Art of Death for a reading group, and subsequent discussion turned to Henry and the two rulers who had preceded him: Stephen and Matilda, or Maud. Henry's judicial reforms figured in the novel's action and also marked an advance from his two unruly predecessors. The novel, in fact, got me interested in reading more about him. He was an admirable and formative figure in many ways -- the originator of the English jury system, I believe -- and I might not have known this but for a crime novel.

January 20, 2008  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

I have just started reading R.N. Morris who has resurrected Dostoevsky's detective Porfiry Petrovich in 1860s Tsarist Russia. He seems to have an excellent feel for the period, and is able to make social comment without it being too forced.
Boris Akunin and his detective Erast Fandorin have been involved in four adventures of which I have read two.Fandorin is a Russian Sherlock Holmes and the books are pastiche like with references to Tolstoy and others.

Turkish Gambit was set around the Siege of Plevna during the Russo -Turkish war of 1877, while Murder on the Leviathan was a Christie/Conan Doyle style murder mystery.

I think that this period is used because the author has so many more written sources for background than the distant past. This applies even more to those who choose the twentieth century for their "historical" mysteries, such as Max Allan Collins, and Stuart Kaminsky.

January 20, 2008  
Blogger Declan Burke said...

Peter - At the moment I'm reading Kelli Stanley's NOX DORMIENDA, set in Roman Londinium and featuring a Chandleresque PI, Arcturus ... terrific fun. It's due out later this year and well worth your consideration.

January 20, 2008  
Blogger Peter said...

Uriah, you may recall my discussion of Boris Akunin here. Murder on the Leviathan is such a delightful pastiche of older crime-fiction styles that I think literary high-jinks rather than history as his main interest. But if historical fiction is fiction set in the past, then he's in. Certainly the widespread availability of sources for a period is a good spur to historical crime fiction. In an interview to which I linked when I wrote about Akunin, he offers an amusing comment about how he built his protagonist from various models in Russian literature.

Declan, thanks for the heads-up on Nox Dormienda. My Latin's a bit rusty, but the title seems to evoke night and sleep, which certainly ties it to noir. And the author offers some interesting comments about fiction and the past. That and the colorful door on the author's Web site. remind me of the TV series Rome. What do you think of the book?

January 20, 2008  
Blogger Heather said...

Peter, I see you wrote that perhaps periods of unrest attracted authors and that is exactly what I was going to comment. Angst of any sort makes for a good mystery.

Heather
www.thelibraryladder.blogspot.com

January 22, 2008  
Blogger Peter said...

Heather, that's certainly the case in some of the relatively little historical crime fiction I've read. The world of Carlo Lucarelli's De Luca is pure unrest and confusion. You've read what I had to say about Mistress of the Art of Death. And, while I don't think of David Liss' The Coffee Trader primarily as a crime novel, its criminous aspect certainly relate to upheavals, in this case economic (the introduction of commodities trading).

Philip Kerr sets his Berlin Noir stories in a period that defined angst and chaos for the modern world. Even Peter Tremayne's first Sister Fidelma novel is set against the background of the meeting later known as the Synod of Whitby, a seminal event in Western Christian history. Tremayne uses this as an effective background to the story.

January 23, 2008  
Blogger Lauren said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

January 23, 2008  
Blogger Lauren said...

Second attempt here.

Written sources can be great for authors, but...it's probably worth noting that even when a historical period is truly fascinating, there's a distinct challenge for crime writers (and fiction writers in general) to create a story with something new to say if one of the characteristics of the period is a flowering of works of art, including really good literary accounts.

I'm thinking in particular of Frank Tallis here - while I do like his Doctor Liebermann books, I've been struck of late by the fact that many of his descriptions and scenarios come across as echoes of other writers of the period. Turn of the century Vienna was by no means underwritten at the time, and it's one heck of a challenge to outdo some of those writers. The latest book in particular had such echoes of Robert Musil as to make me wince (Musil is acknowledged very generously in the afterword, but still...)

Perhaps those with an academic knowledge of Austrian history aren't the target audience, but it think it points out the larger problem with some historical periods. I think it's the middling-ly popular eras that are most problematic, since the obscure can be illuminated (as in many of the Akunin stories), while the mammoth (like WW2) are generally broad enough to encompass a lot of stories. (Though I've never been entirely sure what Marsh's Alleyn was doing in New Zealand during the war!)

Finally, I'm also slightly nervy about the morality of certain times. I think you can have fun with ancient Rome, whereas in settings like postwar Germany (and to a lesser extent Italy) and the Balkans today, there's an awareness of recent tragedy that can't be ignored. To take a rather crass hypothetical example, your not-mean policemen can't wander down the mean streets of Berlin in 1946 and investigate a rape or murder in a vacuum, given the chaotic political situation, the widespread public suffering, and the general tolerance for a discourse where Germans are portrayed as victims.

Lucarelli does this well, IMO, but Berlin Noir has always irritated me. (However, the fact that the author isn't German may help. I just don't like Bernie very much!)

I'll be interested to see how Death in Breslau handles the period when I get hold of it (I've been trying to get my rusty Polish up to scratch, but I suspect I'll go for the German translation - cheaper than English and available now). Breslau/Wroclaw has a very fraught history, and I'm rather intrigued by the concept.

Sorry for the length - this is a topic I've pondered before!

January 23, 2008  
Blogger Peter said...

Apologies are never called for when a comment is well-thought-out and to the point. It’s funny you should mention Musil. Once or twice I’ve thought I detected echoes of the opening to The Man Without Qualities in crime novels.

I’d agree with you about postwar Germany. I’ve never been able to get far into J. Robert Jaynes’ novels, and the disclaimer with which he heads each leaves me uneasy and, I think, betrays some unease on his part. Lucarelli avoids this by throwing himself wholeheartedly into an atmosphere of moral ambiguity.

I had not heard of Death in Breslau before. That looks a potentially epic-scale crime story.

January 23, 2008  
Blogger Peter said...

" ... there's a distinct challenge for crime writers (and fiction writers in general) to create a story with something new to say if one of the characteristics of the period is a flowering of works of art, including really good literary accounts."

This seems at least distantly related to Alfred Hitchcock's expressed preference for adapting popular fiction rather than great literature. Great literature, he said, is too much the property of its creators.

January 23, 2008  
Blogger Lauren said...

A quick peruse of the internet regarding J. Robert Janes made me very slightly queasy - "It is seven days before Christmas in 1942 and France is under German occupation. Jean-Louis St.-Cyr of the French Surete National and his partner Hermann Kohler of the Gestapo have just arrived in Provence to investigate what seems to be a "local" murder..." The complexity of the occupation just makes that scream WRONG WRONG WRONG to me. (And another description of Kohler as a renegade member of the Gestapo is even worse!)

Now that I've recovered my equilibrium, I'll say that Hitchcock could well have had a point. Not that dealing with the classics is impossible - it just requires more skill. And perhaps an awareness that the audience has certain expectations that may not have been raised had the author been used Victorian pulp as an inspiration rather than Dickens.

I've often wondered who historical crime writers see as their audience - is it the Musil-recognisers? Those who can quote slabs of Livy? Those for whom the idea of Kant as a detective brings a chuckle? (Critique of Criminal Reason) Or is tripping over such fractious individuals merely a hazard of historical writing? It's one thing to have the facts relatively accurate - surely a matter of professional pride - but particularly in an age of the internet and visual culture, how much knowledge should be expected from the average reader? (I read somewhere that since the mass media descriptions have become fewer - in 1812 you'd need to describe a kangaroo, whereas now everyone has a bouncing image in their head.)

Reading about exotic places and eras is a bonus of non-local, non-current crime, but should the reader be clueless or have boned up first? (I ask because in what I might rather grandly term my academic capacity I can't really approach much European fiction with a blank canvas.)

I fear I've slid away from the original topic, but the discussion is fascinating.

January 23, 2008  
Blogger Peter said...

What I don't like is Janes' disclaimer, which is something like "I don't condone the activities of these times -- in fact I deplore them. But there were `regular' crimes in occupied France; all I ask is who solved them." This edges uncomfortably close to self-congratulation, as if he is bravely taking on an unpopular but imperative task. The moral dubiousness is just one more reason to feel queasy.

Hitchcock did make a fine movie from a Joseph Conrad novel, so he didn't obey his own prescription all the time.

I suspect there are several overlapping audiences for historical crime fiction, one of them being those for whom the idea of Kant (or Freud or Jung) as detective brings a chuckle. Titles like Critique of Criminal Reason don't attract me in the least. Another might be the types of readers who would have enjoyed splashy historical costume dramas in the past. Then there are normal folks like me.

I would say that historical crime fiction ideally ought to appeal to an intelligent but ignorant reader, while also avoiding wince-inducing inaccuracies. And your point about mass-media descriptions is very well taken. My man Donald Westlake had an incisive comment a few years ago that thanks to the mass media, everyone knows what a train is like and is comfortable with stories set on trains, though few readers had ever been on one. (Hey, Westlake said it, not me, but his general point is well taken.)

Historical fiction written in the 20th of 21st centuries should be written for readers of its own time, rather than the time in which it was set. If the author wishes to integrate the lavish descriptions of 19th-century writing as a facet of setting, say by interpolating a newspaper account in the body of the story, so be it. But the story itself ought not to be written in an obtrusively 19th-century style Instead, it should create an illusion that is written in such a style. Gwendoline Butler and Boris Akunin do this well, though in different ways.

January 23, 2008  

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