Saturday, January 18, 2014

A hazard of historical crime fiction, and a question for readers

I recently started reading but then put down a historical crime novel. The book’s opening was superb, evocative of the story’s premodern setting, but without dopey signposts to history. No Saxons musing about how quiet it is in Hastings on the pleasantly cool afternoon of Oct. 13, 1066 here.

The novel proposes amusing alternative backgrounds for its historical characters, and it sets up tension between the foremost of those figures and the novel’s protagonist. That protagonist is an amateur sleuth (the novel’s setting predates professional investigators, whether public or private), and his summoning to the murder in question is atmospheric, bawdy, and entertaining. The scene where the body lies is suitably eerie and, again, evocative of its time.

And then comes the detection. The sleuth pauses; something bothers him. He looks at the victim’s hands and finds a clue, either gripped tightly between clenched fingers, or caked under fingernails; I forget which. And I stop reading because I have been yanked out of the illusion that the author has maintained until now, not, strictly speaking, by anachronism, but by a convention I'd seen a hundred times before in modern detective stories.

How might this author have written the scene differently to keep me reading? What extra burdens do writers of historical crime fiction face? 

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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9 Comments:

Blogger Kelly Robinson said...

I think that scene would bother me in an anachronistic way. Cliche aside, the idea that a historically-set mystery must follow modern conventions would irk me. I hate it when a particular setting is used as window dressing for a mystery that could be told at any time.

January 19, 2014  
Anonymous James Benn said...

I'd say a non-fornesic observation would have worked better. Say an understanding of why the victim would have or have not been in that particular place. Personality clues, not forensics.

January 19, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Blogger is eating comments, so let's try this again.

Kelly, the thing is that the character's action was not anachronistic, strictly speaking. I can well imagine a person confronted with a dead body studying the face first and then the hands.

The trouble is that the form of the Western detective story is so firmly rooted in place and time that an author trying to write a convincing murder mystery set before, say, the eighteenth century at the outside, has a mind-numbingly difficult task.

January 19, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Jim, you could well be right. I'll look at the scene again, but I seem to remember the body being examined in detail too reminiscent of modern forensics.

January 19, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I think the author worked hard on the history part of historical mystery, and maybe on the mystery part as well, but forgot to consider how well the two work together.

January 19, 2014  
Blogger Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

I do not know if I have commented before, but I have been enjoying your writing for a while.

A few years ago I did a little series on historical mysteries. My great frustration with them was how under the surface, the set I read were all structured in exactly the same way. It was like their was only a single "mystery" template available and the author's job was to decorate it.

Steve Hockensmith responded with an interesting piece about the different ways he tried to vary his novels, but none had anything to do with the conventions you are talking about.

January 20, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for the comment and the compliment. Is your series on historical mysteries still up? I'd like to read both it and Steve Hockensmith's reply.

I think my frustration with the novel I have in mind in this post is very much of a piece with your complaint.

Hockensmith's Holmes on the Range is a brilliant solution to the problem of how to avoid staleness in historical mysteries. He writes a comedy, a mystery, and a Western at the same time, and he has an eye for less-explored sides of history. In this case, he looked at relations between urban and rural, and roughneck and Brahmin in ways that many people do not. Thanks very much for reminded me of this excellent book.

(Kevin Starr's histories of California similarly note the mix of heartland mountain men and Yankee traders among the territory's early American population. You might enjoy reading Starr.)

January 20, 2014  
Blogger Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

The series begins here and goes on for four more posts.

I did not discover Hockensmith's fine reply for a while, but I finally linked to it in this post - I seem to have spent that week writing about plot.

I read a later Hockenssmith novel, an amusing set-on-a-train mystery.

Thanks for reminding me about Kevin Starr - I have only read his tiny little history of California, not any of his fuller studies.

January 20, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I bought Starr's one-volume history during a recent visit to California. I liked it so much that I have since bought two volumes of the fat, multi-volume set.

You may recall that the one-volume history mentions noir and hard-boiled crime writing and its most distinguished practitioners several times, suggesting its no accident that Chandler's and Hammett's best work is set in California and that both writers lived there.

Thanks for the links. I will follow them up.

January 20, 2014  

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