Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Gwendoline Butler, or Calling all fans of historical mysteries

I've just finished Gwendoline Butler's short story "Bloody Windsor" in The Oxford Book of Detective Stories: An International Selection. It's a stunner, and, with its clipped prose and elliptical narrative, surprisingly modern in tone for a writer described as "Britain's finest practitioner of the traditional mystery." It's also set in late-eighteenth-century England. Here's its opening:

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

"In Paris the tricolor flew, and the crowds sat watching Madame Guillotine receive her passing guests.

"In Windsor all was normal except for a few apprentices and mechanics who held a meeting in Thames Street but were soon dispersed, one or two to the hulks and then on to Australia. The navy was offered as an alternative but few chose it and rightly so, Denny thought ... "

Look what Butler does: She lets the reader know when the story takes place, she makes the reader smile with the allusion to A Tale of Two Cities, and she gets us right into the mind of one of her two protagonists.

I'm most impressed with the first of those achievements. Having set the period scene with such force right at the start, Butler averts the necessity of cluttering the body of the story with period detail. That sort of clutter and constant scene-setting has put me off historical mysteries in the past. I may make another try with Butler's historical novels, which include The King Cried Murder!.

Here are my questions for readers of historical mysteries: Is Gwendoline Butler regarded as an innovator in historical crime fiction? Do my observations about her short story make sense to you? Do they hold true for her novels?

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Blogger Philip Amos said...

The key to giving period detail in historical mysteries is the same as the key to including expert peripheral knowledge (the antiques tips in the Lovejoy novels, e.g.) in some contemporary works: knead it into the dough of the story such that it is part of the flow -- don't come to a thudding halt while you set the scene. For a fine example of how that can be done and a marvellous read, try Elizabeth Redfern's novel The Music of the Spheres, set in the eighteenth century. In essence, what you say about Butler's short story makes sense, precisely because it is a short story. I must say I've never thought of her as an innovator, and I've found her more recent contemporary crime novels strangely weak in style. I enjoyed some of the earlier ones.

August 23, 2007  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for the comment and the recommendation. I should add that I was awestruck by David Liss' The Coffee Trader, though I don't think of it as a crime novel. Liss didn't knead his detail into the dough, his detail was the dough. I suspect that most writers lack the skill, the patience or the time to do the kind of research that Liss did.

Another approach is what Carlo Lucarelli did in his De Luca novels: strip away almost all detail, historical and otherwise, so that the events of the story say what the author wants to say about the chosen period in history.

The problem with me and historical crime novels may be more with me than with the novels. It may be less that the detail brings the story to a thudding halt than it is that I get to easily distracted by what detail that there is. What you say about short stories makes sense, too. I've had the experience of being unable to read novels by one author in the field, a story by whom I had enjoyed greatly.

August 23, 2007  
Blogger Philip Amos said...

I think there is plenty of skill and patience around. It is what is sometimes done with the results that is the problem. Paul Doherty, one of the most popular writers of medieval mysteries, holds a doctorate in Medieval History from Oxford. Unhappily, I find his writing stilted and stodgy, and he makes the fatal mistake of trying to give his characters' speech a period flavour, for want of a better way of putting it. That never works. On the other hand, Peter Tremayne, Candace Robb and Sharan Newman also have backgrounds in medieval studies and do a very good job indeed. Margaret Frazer is not a medievalist, but she is an excellent researcher and writer. Ditto Michael Jecks. I especially recommend Tremayne -- superb mysteries and a pretty good grounding in seventh-century Irish history thrown in. Erudition in the chosen historical period is vital, but it goes for nothing if the writing skills are not there.

August 23, 2007  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'd been thinking about reading some Peter Tremayne, thanks to this engaging interview with him on the Crime Always Pays blog, at

My favorite part of the interview:

Most satisfying writing moment?

"Looking at my royalty statements."

That's another fine list of recommendations. Two more factors militate against my enjoyment of historical crime fiction: My enjoyment of history, and my enjoyment of crime fiction. I want to immerse myself in the history of a given period rather than be distracted with a crime story. I don't want those two strong interests of mine -- crime fiction and history -- to detract from each other.

On the other hand, Fred Vargas' background and erudition in medieval history add much to her contemporary novel Have Mercy On Us All.

August 23, 2007  

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