Archive for October 27, 2009

I have read all six of the CWA Ellis Peters Historical Award shortlisted books.

My reviews:

With the huge range of historical crime fiction produced from such a wide chronological range it does seem to be rather strange that four out of the six shortlisted books cover the period 194o-1944, and another [If The Dead Rise Not] straddles the Second World War being set in 1934 and 1954.
In fact two books An Empty Death and The Dead of Winter feature the summer of 1944 when London was under attack from the V1 flying bombs, and I was regularly thrown under the kitchen table.
At the risk of being thrown under a table again I would respectfully suggest it would have been more sensible to have a shortlist exhibiting a wider range of historical periods.

Writing successful historical crime fiction is difficult because not only do you have to produce a plot with believable characters, but also to use your research to create the right ambience and historical atmosphere as well as getting the historical facts correct. Unless you are writing alternative history you cannot alter the stance of any real historical characters you use for your novel, but equally pages and pages of dialogue to establish the social conventions of the time can become boring.

The Dead of Winter, by Rennie Airth, was in my opinion the weakest of the six because of the ponderous pace, and the preponderance of stereotypes among the characters. Also why give away the motive in a prologue?

I was not sure about The Information Officer, by Mark Mills, was it a wartime thriller or a serial killer crime fiction novel, and by trying to be both it just missed the mark for me.

An Empty Death, by last year’s winner Laura Wilson, was a very good read with an interesting villain, someone who we really got to know, unlike the almost anonymous killer in The Dead of Winter. But one had to ‘suspend one’s disbelief’ over two key points in the plot, and this eventually spoilt the book.

The Interrogator by Andrew Williams was a great book to read with four interesting main characters and a plot that included a murder as well as the tension of solving a wartime conundrum. The book was also nominated for the CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger, which it failed to win, and because the story was more about anti-submarine warfare and British naval codes than the murder I don’t think it will win the Ellis Peters.

We are now left with two very good contrasting books by Shona MacLean and Philip Kerr. I have discussed the Bernie Gunther books at great length and if you click and scroll down you can read all the posts here.

Shona MacLean has written a wonderful novel that brilliantly evokes the atmosphere of Scotland in 1626. The Redemption of Alexander Seaton has been meticulously researched and the reader is drawn back in time so successfully that you constantly expect the baillie and his men to batter down your door and drag you off to appear in front of the kirk session.

Shona MacLean’s book is a slower read that requires more concentration and because I like Bernie Gunther and the technique of the split story [Germany 1934, Cuba 1954] I would just pick Philip Kerr’s If The Dead Rise Not by a smidgen.
I have a suspicion though that the judges will pick The Redemption of Alexander Seaton by Shona MacLean.