Thursday, January 22, 2009

History lessons

I enjoy fretting about possible tension in historical crime fiction between the history and the mystery. When should an author tell, and when should he teach? And, when relating the history of a setting unfamiliar to readers, should an author try to conceal his or her didactic intentions?

Jason Goodwin wades into the historical fray, fists full of zesty historical facts. And they work as story-telling, too. It helps that Goodwin's chosen setting may be the most colorful, central, cosmopolitan city that man has ever built: Istanbul/Constantinople. It helps that the city, a bridge between Europe and Asia, a jewel of art, a focus of commerce and intrigue for many centuries, a seat of the classical, then the Byzantine, then the Muslim world, was full of people from elsewhere — people who might well be eager for any scrap of information they needed to understand the complicated city in which they were trying to make their way.

Thus, Goodwin turns a greeting into a lesson on Byzantine iconography:

"`Yashim — the angel!' Grigor opened his arms wide across a desk piled with packets and papers done up in purple ribbon.

"The angel was Grigor's little joke, not one that Yashim particularly shared. As Grigor has once explained, Byzantine iconography represented angels as eunuchs. Angels stood on the threshold between men and God; eunuchs between men — and women. Both were intermediaries, dedicated to serve."
Or, on yet another facet of the city's colorful history:

"`Viking, Yashim. You've heard of the Vikings, surely? ... They scuffed Europe into what we call the Dark Ages. Most notable product, after widows: Russia.'

"Yashim was leaning forward, listening intently. Now he shook his head. `What do you mean, Russia? Or is it a Polish joke?'

"Palewski looked pained. `Not at all. The Vikings didn't just sail across oceans. They used the Baltic rivers, too. ... Up the Volga, down the Dnieper. The Black Sea. Constantinople. Easy. ...'

"`And that's the origin of Russia?'

"`Broadly speaking, yes. ...'"
And then, in an acknowledgement that must have made Goodwin smile as he wrote it, "`History lesson over. I don't know that it's been any good. Sun's gone. Let's have a drink.'"

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think you've hit the nail on the head, Peter: for any historical writer there's a constant tension between recreating the time, place and people, and telling the story. I think a further tension arises between recreating the people of the period accurately, and creating characters modern readers can identify with.

My own historical novel is set in London in 1902, fairly close in time and place to where I live, but even so I had to bridge the gap between past and present in order for the hero and heroine to not to lose their appeal (some of the more unpopular attitudes and mannerisms which I picked up from journals and periodicals of the time had to be sacrificed).

It's a tough choice, and although I spent a large proportion of my time on research, I try to think of myself as a storyteller rather than an historian. I'll find out if I've found the balance when the reviews start coming in!

January 22, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I may have more questions later about your research, especially about some of the unpopular mannerisms you had to dispense with. For now, though, I note with interest the period you chose. One respondent to my earlier post about The Snake Stone said his favorite historical mysteries were set in the Victorian and Edwardian era because those periods were different enough from our time to be interesting and similar enough to be recognizable. I see from your profile that you live in York. Between York Minster and the ghosts of fellows like Septimius Severus and Constantine wandering around, you might have been tempted by more distant periods.

I like the unabashed zest with which Goodwin embraced the history side of historical fiction.

My most frequent distraction in historical crime fictions is not so much characters' attitudes but a narrative voice that seems too contemporary.

January 22, 2009  
Blogger Matthew E said...

Well, I've heard, or read, Neal Stephenson's ideas about that. I don't know if you've read him or not; he's written a big series taking place in the 1600s/1700s. (Not mystery.) Anyway, he doesn't mind including contemporary flourishes in the dialogue or prose if he thinks it'll help the story in one way or another; he's not pretending that he's not writing the book in the present-day.

What he said about it was, when the Victorians wrote books, they included things in the books that they were particularly concerned with. And we, today, would never include some of those things in the books because we aren't concerned with them. We're concerned with other things. So it's possible to use a Victorian setting or even evoke a Victorian style, but it's not possible to really write like a Victorian. Ultimately, we can only write like people of our time. So we might as well make the most of that.

January 22, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"So it's possible to ... even evoke a Victorian style ... "

"Ultimately, we can only write like people of our time. So we might as well make the most of that."

Yes to the first, yes with caution to the second. It's obvious we can only write like people of our time, but a book set in the Victorian period or the sixth century probably ought not to read jarringly like a product of the 21st. Of course, it ought not to be jarringly faux-archaic either.

January 22, 2009  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

I love the Oh Really As If That Wasnt Bleedin' Obvious narrator who tells us stuff like "of course the Romans were in awe of Greek culture and civilization" or "Britain had been fighting World War 2 for three years before America joined" or "Napolen was exiled to the bleak South Atlantic island of Saint Helena." All of which I've read in the last few months. How stupid do they think we are?

And please American novelists you dont need to constantly explain what a lorry is, or a torch, when your characters are jaunting around England. Most people will figure it out from the friggin context.

Oh and Dan Brown, this one's for you: read a book now and again, mate, but you dont need to show off by telling us everything you read in that book and make sure you can read your notes afterwards eg. "Westminster Abbey where Charles and Diana got married" - no, they didnt.

January 23, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Did Dan Brown really write that Charles and Diana got married in Westminster Abbey? Off the one sentence of his that I've read, I've remarked that he is the worst stylist ever to write English prose, worse even than Bono, perhaps. I may have given him too much credit.

I often invoke context and the wisdom of the reader when arguing against the necessity of "translating" slang from British, Australian or Indian English into American. Give the bloody reader some credit.

January 23, 2009  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Easy mistake to make St Pauls, Westminster Abbey if you're just mentioning it in passing. Oh wait the entire denouement of his book took place in WA? Oh dear.

I like the novelist I was reading recently who felt obliged to explain that "Americans dont understand that there are two different brands (love that word) of Islam, just like Protestantism and Catholicism." Well thank you very much, no I wasnt aware of that because like Dr. Manhattan I've been living on Mars for the last 8 years.

January 23, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

At least those two churches are in the same cities.

Yeah, "brands." That novelist could have written "flavors" or even "handy varieties."

January 23, 2009  
Blogger seanag said...

Although I would like to join you guys on the side of supposing the reading public doesn't need everything spelled out for them, I'm very much afraid it isn't the case. I think the writer's daunting task is to introduce the kind of thing that a good education would already have provided (but hasn't) in a way that isn't condescending to those happy few who have already learned the basics in school, while still making broad facts of history available to people who haven't gotten around to learning about it yet, which, in this day and age is pretty much everything that doesn't involve a celebrity of some kind or other.

January 23, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I had a teacher who once suggested that a journalist should write for an ignorant but intelligent reader. That's may be good advice for a novelist as well, though any writer I want to read would not want to forget the "intelligent" part.

Even elementary facts along the lines of the ones Adrian cites can be worked into the story unobtrusively.

January 23, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Implicit in my standing up for slang is that I don't mind not knowing everything. I enjoy trying to figure out meaning from context.

With respect to historical facts, the subject of Adrian's complaint, I don't see why the situation needs to be all that different. One need not leave the reader in the dark, but one also need not wrote, "Of course the Romans loved Greek culture." One could show examples of that love -- show, don't tell.

January 23, 2009  
Blogger marco said...

Yesterday I've found used copies of Godwin's The Janissary Tree and Bill James' In Good Hands. I had never tried anything by them previously. Of course it may take months before I actually read them...

February 21, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

In Good Hands is from the prime period of James' Harpur and Iles series. I once quoted its opening line on this blog:

"If you knew how to look, a couple of deaths from the past showed now and then in Iles' face."

That's quite a line, I'd say.

Among other things, The Janissary Tree might give you a few simple but tasty recipe ideas. It is by no means a cozy cooking mystery, though. You may recall my recent interview with Mehmet Murat Somer. He said in passing that he found Goodwin's fiction a bit Orientalist. But he also said more than once that he liked the books.

February 22, 2009  

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