A Burnable Book gets its time and its crime right
"In Southwerk at the Tabard as I layBruce Holsinger's crime novel A Burnable Book is full of history. John Gower is its protagonist and narrates parts of it; Chaucer is a central personage; John Hawkwood cuts a figure something like Al Pacino's in the remake of Scarface. Richard II and John of Gaunt figure in the book; the Avignon papacy is invoked. So are Wycliffe, Wat Tyler, Boccaccio, and the Bardi family of Florentine bankers. In short, if you missed the Late Middle Ages, read this book, and you'll catch up.
Redy to wenden on my pilgrimage
To caunterbury with ful devout corage,
At nyght was come into that hostelry
Wel nyne and twenty in a compaignye ... "
— Geoffrey Chaucer, Canterbury Tales
Holsinger is a scholar. One expects lots of history from him, and the few examples that I fact-checked suggest that he gets his history right. But he gets the atmosphere right, too. Medieval London is a natural setting for hard-boiled crime, with its lawless precincts just outside the city, its cruel masters and mistreated apprentices, its fetid streets, its premature deaths, its maudlyns plying their trade in Gropecunt Lane, and Holsinger describes it vividly and well..
More important for the reader of crime fiction is that he makes of Gower a credible investigator and hard-boiled protagonist without, however, giving him the anachronistic mannerisms of a Philip Marlowe. (Getting the essence right without slipping into genre cliché has to be one of a historical crime novelist's toughest tasks. The farther back in time the story is set, the greater the pressure on the author to avoid having his or her protagonist do things a modern fictional detective would do. One crime novel with a medieval setting was ruined for me when its otherwise vividly rendered main character turned without warning into Columbo.)
Holsinger gets around this by telling instead of showing. Gower examines in a straightforward manner his role as investigator and in doing so, makes himself both credible in the role and familiar to readers of hard-boiled crime: "If you build your own life around the secret lives of others ... Information becomes your entitlement. You pay handsomely for it; you use it selectively and well."
The book establishes Gower as temperamental kin to every flawed crime fiction protagonist who exists in a morally compromised world, and Chaucer, the liveliest of all great poets, underlines this nicely, challenging Gower not to be such a stuffed shirt in his own writing: "Do you write this way because you see yourself as some white-clad incorruptible?"
© Peter Rozovsky 2014