Our guest this month, Barry Forshaw, author of Historical Noir, examines the growing popularity of historical crime fiction.
The historical crime genre might be said to have begun in earnest with Ellis Peters’ crime-solving monk Brother Cadfael in the 1970s, and Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose in 1980 (with another monkish detective), but it has now taken readers to virtually every era and locale. When I wrote Historical Noir, I tried to deal with the phenomenon right from its inception, with such writers as Josephine Tey, examining the work of such multi-prize-winning authors as C.J. Sansom (with his Elizabethan-set mysteries) to Robert Harris (whose books span the centuries), the late Philip Kerr (wartime Berlin) and such writers as Boris Akunin, Antonia Hodgson, Rory Clements, Martin Cruz Smith and Andrew Taylor (who has tackled everything from Edgar Allan Poe’s 19th-century America to the Great Fire of London), along with virtually every other important writer in this still-burgeoning genre. Happily, my own acquaintance with many writers of the genre afforded me precious insight into the field, and a key question I asked was: did the historical crime genre choose them – or vice versa? Five very different writers gave me illuminating answers…
When I started writing, having I, Claudius on TV helped overcome publishers’ fear of what was then an unfamiliar period – which I chose specifically to be original. I do feel there was intellectual snobbery about the classics, which I hope I helped overcome. The books I’m most proud of? Probably not my two crime series, though they have been wonderful to write, but my more serious standalones – The Course of Honour and Master and God, and my huge English Civil War book, Rebels and Traitors. All the Falcos are different in approach (by design) so it’s hard to pick one out, but I am enjoying writing the Albia series in deliberate contrast. I like taking the mickey out of my own first series, and I love it when my protagonist, Albia, is critical of received opinions about classical Rome. What I am aiming for is to write a good story, and for me that does involve a lot of fun. I hate the way this is sometimes viewed as inferior to misery.
Did I choose the genre? Nobody wanted funny romantic novels with a political slant set in the English Civil War, so by strange chance I have spent half my life mentally inhabiting the first-century Roman Empire. Well, that provided equal scope for funny romantic novels with a political scope – plus sunshine, scandal, sandals and mystery. Fair enough!
After some 40 books of various types, I find that writing historical mysteries – the genre I chose – is the greatest challenge, especially those set in the early medieval period, such as my Crowner John series. Although the necessary research is the most satisfying part of the labour, there is much less detailed information available about the twelfth century compared with later, better-documented periods. Anachronisms have to be avoided like the plague, although often these form traps which may be hard to recognise. For example, one can hardly write that a person was ‘mesmerised’, as Mesmer wasn’t around until the eighteenth century. In The Grim Reaper I had the priestly serial killer leave appropriate biblical references at each scene – until my fetish for accuracy led me to discover that the scriptures were not divided into ‘chapters’ until the thirteenth century and versification had to await the advent of printing! Probably not one reader in a million would appreciate this, but once I knew, I just couldn’t use it and had to find another way round. However, anachronisms can also be in thought and speech, as it’s virtually impossible for us to get into the mind of a medieval man. In this respect, I once had an academic dispute with my copyeditor when I portrayed my coroner, while viewing the execution of a young lad for a minor theft, thinking that there should be a better way of dealing with juvenile delinquents than hanging them! My editor maintained that such a thought would never have crossed the mind of someone in 1194 and that I should avoid projecting my modern attitudes back 800 years!
I have never felt that I have chosen a particular historical period for a crime novel. It’s more the other way round. And it’s not one period, either. History is something of a flirt. For example, my Lydmouth series is set in the 1950s, chosen mainly because I wanted an excuse to look at this oddly invisible decade as a whole. The American Boy, on the other hand, is set in Regency England. It came from an interest in Poe and Jane Austen, and the unlikely fact that they could have encountered each other in the same London street. Then came Bleeding Heart Square, set in 1930s England, followed by three set in the late eighteenth century; one of which, The Scent of Death, took place in New York, the others mainly in England.
Now I’m in the seventeenth century and writing about Restoration England with The Ashes of London and The Fire Court. With the whole of history to play with, I find it hard to restrict myself to a single period. The one thing all my historical crime novels have in common is this: they are set in times and places that interest me – I wrote them partly to have an excuse to find out more. It’s a form of self-indulgence that actually pays the bills.
Historical crime novels aren’t easy to write. True, you can avoid many of the tiresome restrictions that modern technology and bureaucracy place on fiction, but you have to produce something that works both as crime and as history. You have a double chance of failure. And a double pleasure if you get them both right.
Long before I thought of writing a novel I read The Wickedest Age by Alan Lloyd and was seduced by the contrasts of the eighteenth century. It became a mild obsession while I was still working in TV – a time of civility, growing artistic confidence, scientific discovery and a developing consumer culture, but it was also brutal, messy, violent and cruel. I thought it would be both accessible to a modern audience and endlessly strange. I also enjoyed how often my assumptions and preconceptions were overturned by what I read. What better place to set a murder and have amateurs investigate? I feel Westerman and Crowther give me a licence to explore the period – all of its horrors and charms. I find it impossible to choose between my books but I felt I had a very powerful story to tell in Theft of Life, and I’m quietly proud of how it came out.
Island of Bones is another favourite because I love the Lake District and fell in love with the folklore of the area. Writing about the landscape was such a pleasure as well as a challenge. That book also gave me a chance to get to know Crowther better and understand something more about how he became the man he is. I think we are very lucky as readers of historical noir at the moment. There are always passages in the novels of my contemporaries of which I am deeply jealous as a writer, but as a reader I find they just sweep me away. I like the way my contemporaries are using the genre to investigate the lives of the unrecorded, the material culture of their chosen periods and the social shifts or absolutes which throw such interesting light on our own age.
I think the medieval period chose me. I was always fascinated by the politics and violence of the Crusades, and when I started writing I was intrigued by the period immediately after the loss of Acre, during the arrest and destruction of the Templars. In England we had a weak king, Edward II, while in France the royal family was rocked by the adulterous affairs of the King’s daughters-in-law, which led to the end of the Capetian dynasty and ushered in the Valois. It was a time of war, famine and plague, and gave a huge amount of scope for a crime writer.
I suppose two books that do stand out for me are The Mad Monk of Gidleigh and The Death Ship of Dartmouth. The former was based heavily on a local court case, and involved a lot of reference to the existing records. This was the beginning of a period in my writing when I took to actual murders from the medieval period, looking at how homicides affected other people – this was very fruitful in giving me new plot lines. The Death Ship of Dartmouth was intended as a lighter book, with a lot of humour. However, the murder and the impact of death were still strong aspects of the story.
Barry Forshaw is one of the UK’s leading experts on crime fiction and film. His books include the Keating Award‐winning Brit Noir (plus Nordic, American and Euro Noir), Sex and Film and The Rough Guide to Crime Fiction. He writes for various national newspapers, edits crimetime.co.uk, and is a regular broadcaster, panellist and panel chair. He has been Vice Chair of the Crime Writers’ Association. Historical Noir is published on 26 April 2018.
Header image: An Exact Representation of Maclaine the Highwayman robbing Lord Eglington on Hounslow Heath on 26 June 1750. Illustration for Mysteries of Police and Crime by Arthur Griffiths.