Thursday, December 29, 2011

Ronan Bennett's historical crime novel earns coveted DBB rating

I may have found the perfect historical novel.

Ronan Bennett's Havoc, in Its Third Year (2004) answers every qualm I've had about the genre. It's saturated with history without hitting the reader over the head with names and dates.  Its plots and subplots are inextricably bound up with the historical issues at hand (religious and political strife in seventeenth-century England), so there is no tension between history and mystery.

The dialogue has the barest hint of archaism to it, light enough not to be obtrusive, but just enough to remind readers that the story's time is not their own. The protagonist, a discreetly Catholic coroner and civic official named John Brigge, is one of the most admirable characters in all of fiction, at least through the book's first two-thirds or so. There's even a murder mixed in.

I do much of my reading late at night, so I could well rate books by how late they keep me up. Havoc, in Its Third Year receives the first-ever, surely soon to be coveted 6+ rating, for keeping me up past 6 a.m.
***
Bennett is from Northern Ireland and, as he did in his novel Zugzwang, set in Russia in 1914, he works in references to Ireland. Here's my favorite so far:
“Indeed, sir. Many have it that the air of the fens is notorious and unclean, and the life there so uncivil that people say, to describe a fall in the world, that a man goes from the farm to the fen and from the fen to Ireland.”
© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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22 Comments:

Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Ah, yes. That sounds very good indeed. And I like the language, at least in your quote. It sounds authentic. The trouble with most historical novels is that they tend to go overboard on "antique English." When you write 17 th century, as in this case, you want to take a look at Defoe and Pepys, and then tone the whole thing down.

December 29, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I also sometimes find it jarring when dialogue in a historical novel seems too contemporary in tone. I can understand why an author might make that choice; people of the time would likely have spoken in language that sounds just as contemporary to themselves as ours does to us. But it can take a reader right out of the story.

I think Bennett achieves his effect by having characters speak a bit more formally that you or I would. He does not littet the book with thees and thous; it's more a matter of tone.

December 29, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I forgot to mention what will likely strike readers most forcefully about the book: the weather.

We get rain, snow, wind, and cold on every page, and the result is an indelible picture of the era's material conditions. That does at least as much as the factors mentioned above to make the boo coherent.

Material conditions of life in Bennett's seventeenth-century England are probably not much different from that they would have been in the sixteenth, fifteenth, fourteenth, and earlier centuries. And that, in turn, makes me appreciate the great eighteenth century even more.

December 29, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Yes, good point about the weather. I've been known to use it for that special Japanese poetic imagery. Kills a number of birds: realism, theme, and cultural context. :)

Just ordered the book.

December 29, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Aha!

"...shadows of silver in the shifting shades of green. On shore, the green curtain of the forest was broken here and there by a shimmer of gold or a touch of red. It was autumn, the `leaf-turning month.'”

Evocation of the spareness and detailed observation ot Japanese painting as well?

December 29, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

I'm highly flattered! :)

Confession: I did a double take. It looked familiar, but . . .

December 30, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Ha! Did you forget for a moment the fruit of your own literary loins?

December 30, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Yes. I'm ashamed. My first reaction was: Now who the hell is also writing Japanese historical mysteries?

Stupid really. There's absolutely no money in it.

December 31, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'm sure many authors do this. At least you didn't feel the urge to accuse the writer of that line of plagiarism. Or did you?

December 31, 2011  
Blogger Yvette said...

Haven't read this one, Peter. But I did read and enjoy ZUGZWANG. (LOVE that title!)

Just dropping in to wish you A Happy New Year and making a fast exit. :)

December 31, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks, Yvette, and the same to you when you make a repeat entrance after your fast exit.

Zugzwang is a fine book with an wyw-catching title. Since it's a German term used by Russian characters in a novel written in English by an Irish author, one can only guess how Ronan Bennett pronounces it himself and would have readers pronounce it. It's a fine book, but I liked Havoc, in Its Third Year even better.

December 31, 2011  
Blogger Tales from the Birch Wood. said...

I grew out of reading historical fiction relatively quickly. Adolescents tend to love it as a quick way of accessing life in the past, without the horrors of having to read school history books.

Interpreting illusory cause and effect bored me most of all in history class and all the plotting ensures that I continue to see the past as over complicated, an ongoing excuse for avoiding reading crime novels.

January 03, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'm telling you: Try Bennett. This guy is different.

January 03, 2012  
Blogger Photographe à Dublin said...

I'll hot foot it to our local library to get a copy.

Also, there are so many good historical websites one need often look no further.

http://www.theanneboleynfiles.com/10032/7-24-june-1520-field-of-cloth-of-gold/

January 04, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yvette, for "wyw-catching title" above, please read "eye-catching title." The eye-catching typo was the result of a slip one key to the left.

January 04, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

P a D, that will a most judicious course of action. And thanks for that site, a good resource for prospective authors. Not all historical fiction is about such lavish spectacles, though!

January 04, 2012  
Blogger Tales from the Birch Wood. said...

That, cher ami, is why I usually find it so boring...

January 05, 2012  
Blogger May said...

Havoc, in its third year... that is a just a great title.

January 05, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I guess I'm more the grubby peasant who sneers at the spectacle.

January 06, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

May, it's an ominous title well suited to the book. But I don't know precisely what it refers to.

January 06, 2012  
Blogger Tales from the Birch Wood. said...

Peasants don't have to be grubby and the most sensible ones never go hungry.

I often wonder why they get such bad coverage in literature.

I have not given much thought to the representation of Ireland as being a worse place to live than the Fens, but anybody who has some insight might like to share some information.

I've always had that part of England on my list of places to visit. They have a long tradtion of fine craft work there.

January 07, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The Fens are proverbially a source of noxious vapors, are they not?

January 07, 2012  

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