Sunday, January 18, 2009

Historical periods and historical crime fiction

I've just started The Snake Stone, sequel to Jason Goodwin's Edgar-winning novel The Janissary Tree.

The first chapter takes clever advantage of the tension in historical crime fiction between the need to portray a historical period and that to tell a story. Goodwin does this through something like a cinematic jump cut, alternating between narrating a crime and painting word pictures of Istanbul.

The Istanbul is that of 1838, a perhaps unprepossessing date in that city's long and celebrated history. Why 1838 when Goodwin could have chosen the fourth, sixth, fifteenth, seventeenth or any number of other celebrated centuries in Constantinople/Istanbul's past? I asked Goodwin that question at Bouchercon in Baltimore, and, if I recall correctly, he said he chose the period because it let him portray the Ottoman Empire in decline.

Expanding on his remark, I'd say that if Goodwin really wanted melodrama, he could have set his stories at the very end of the Ottoman Empire in the aftermath of World War I. Without knowing much about Ottoman history, though, I'd say the nineteenth century let him choose a period when the empire had declined from greatness but could still maintain the outward air of grandeur. The dramatic possibilities this offers are reflected especially in the character of Palewski, the Polish ambassador and friend to the protagonist Yashim, one of the most endearing sidekicks in all of crime fiction.

So much for 183os Istanbul. What are your favorite periods and settings for historical crime fiction? And why?

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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20 Comments:

Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

The 12th century in order to learn about a period I know very little. [Ariana Franklin's books]

The 1920s and 1930s because of the relevance to today's problems.

January 19, 2009  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

I forgot the next book in the series The Bellini Card is even better with more Pawleski.

January 19, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'd forgotten the simple desire to learn as a reason for reading fiction set in a given historical period. I read Ariana Franklin's first novel because it was on the agenda of a book group I was in. I enjoyed the novel, and I learned something about the period. I developed an appreciation for Henry II's accomplishments, for instance.

There are three in the series, as far as I know: The Janissary Tree, The Snake Stone and The Bellini Card. Have you read all three?

Pawlewski is a superb character and a fine example of how a quirk of history can fire a novelist's imagination. He was inspired by the Ottomans' hosting of a Polish ambassador even though Poland no longer existed during the period in question. I'm glad to learn I have more Pawlewski in store. What a marvelous character. What potential he has to be a sidekick, an adventurer, a conscience, a plot device, a Greek chorus, even.

January 19, 2009  
Blogger Philip said...

Peter, I do agree that Palewski is a fine creation, and I like your perception of him and Poland, dismembered, as an analog of the Ottoman Empire, recent amputee and with more of the same in the offing. I still approach historical crime fiction cautiously, but I must say that the field has developed far better than I anticipated. Post-Ellis Peters, my fear was that the historical bandwagon would be leapt on by hacks with an eye on "the main chance of things", little historical knowledge, and less genuine interest. There have been some such, but in general it is striking how much expertise and sound research has been brought to the table, though I still tend to look at the dish with suspicion before I nibble.

Having said that, there is one thing that bothers me about Goodwin's first two novels, perhaps not so much an historical error -- Goodwin knows his field very well indeed -- as perhaps an accident in construction. The reforms under way in the OE are referred to often, but the extraordinary man responsible for them, Mahmud II, is largely offstage and the connection is never really made. Brief appearances and references to this vital man rather give the impression of a fat, indolent, alcoholic potentate preoccupied with having his feet rubbed. I can't think Goodwin intended this, so it is all a bit odd, and very unfair, especially as this image is rather reinforced when Mahmud is on his death bed. He died of TB, by the by, and if I were to venture a guess, however idly, as to what preoccupied him then, I should say it was getting into Abdulmecid's head the imperative need to institute the next stage of reform, the Tanzimat, post-haste, as he indeed did that same year. I thought Goodwin chose his period rather well, I must say -- the decline of power, the tensions of reform, rising nationalism and rebellious outposts -- he's given himself a lot to work with.

January 19, 2009  
Blogger Loren Eaton said...

The first chapter takes clever advantage of the tension in historical crime fiction between the need to portray a historical period and that to tell a story.

This sounds interesting, because the conflict between providing color and action often ruins historical works to my way of thinking.

January 19, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Philip, thanks for the lesson in late-Ottoman history. Perhaps Goodwin chose to build the books the way he did, The Snake Stone especially, as a reaction against "Great Man" historical thinking.

I mentioned Ariana Franklin. If I recall correctly, her novel Mistress of the Art of Death includes in an end note a brief appreciation of Henry II's reforms. I wonder if Goodwin does (or could have done) something similar.

Early in The Snake Stone there is much discussion of changes in dress from tradition to Western and of the odd mixtures that resulted. I'll keep my eye out for discussions of more substantive reforms.

January 19, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Loren, I like to think Goodwin constructed the short opening chapter the way he did precisely as a way of meeting that challenge inherent in historical fiction.

January 19, 2009  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Whether accurate or not, I find Elizabeth Peters' Amelia Peabody books interesting for their depiction of Egypt in the late 19th-early 20th century. I've recently been enjoying Laurie King's Mary Russell books for their portrayal of 1920s England.

January 19, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

If you like Elizabet Peters, have you read any of Michael Pearce's Mamur Zapt novels?

January 19, 2009  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

No. Apparently I should, huh? ;)

January 19, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I've read one of the books, and it seemed to offer a rich picture of early-twentieth-century Cairo. Here's an article about the series.

I also read The Thief and the Dogs by Naguib Mahfouz recently. Its Cairo is more recent, but the writer was pretty darn good.

January 19, 2009  
Blogger Martin Edwards said...

The Victorian and Edwardian era has produced most of my favourite history mysteries, maybe because it's far enough away to seem very strange, and yet the societies are not totally unrecognisable compared to our own.
I haven't read Jason's books yet, but having enjoyed talking with him at Bouchercon, I'm looking forward to catching up with them.

January 19, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Jason Goodwin has a true love for Istanbul and its food. This makes a decided mark on his novels.

Yes, I think the Edwardian era's clothes are recognizably close to ours, for one thing, though how much this comes across on a printed page is questionable. A few months ago I read a delicious mystery that partakes of both the Victorian and Edwardian periods: Peter Lovesey's Bertie and the Seven Bodies. I hope to read more about that rakish Prince of Wales. Not only is the period of the story different from but recognizably close to our own, so is the period of the countryhouse mystery at which Lovesey pokes such affectionate fun.

January 19, 2009  
Blogger Martin Edwards said...

Bertie and the Seven Bodies really is a fun book: shades of Agatha and And Then There Were None.

January 20, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

To poke fun at Christie-style mysteries even while rendering them a nicely executed tribute is a tough thing to do. The book could easily have degenerated into pastiche or spoof or silliness. And then I think of the grittier Peter Diamond mysteries, some of the best disgruntled-cop stories ever written-- Man, Peter Lovesey is a superb crime writer. What a deft touch he has.

I have "Bertie and the Crime of Passion" in my to-read pile. I hope it will be as good as "Bertie and the Seven Bodies."

January 20, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And, to make explicit what I hinted at above, one might say "Bertie and the Seven Bodies" is a historical mystery in two senses. In setting, it's a portrait of the Victorian/Edwardian era. In form and manner, it's a portrait of the Golden Age of British mysteries. It works well on both counts.

January 20, 2009  
Blogger Helen Tilley said...

A series set in Ireland that is well worth investigating is by Peter Tremayne.

January 21, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I've read Absolution by Murder. Tremayne's Sister Fidelma is quite a character, and the series is a good argument for reading historical crime fiction to learn history. I learned some interesting facts about seventh-century Ireland from the books, facts that would interest many contemporary readers. Few writers can love the periods about which they write as much as Tremayne does.

January 21, 2009  
Anonymous Karen C said...

Have you read any of Jenny White's books set in 1880's Istanbul - Magistrate Kamil Pasha is her central character and he made the second book (The Abyssinian Proof) for me.

January 21, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

No, I had not heard of Jenny White until now. The 1880s are pushing matters quite close to the end of the Ottoman Empire. That could make matters interesting.

I'm on a bit of an Istanbul kick, so I might investigate those books. Thanks.

January 21, 2009  

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