Archive for October 18, 2011

My reading schedules, as well as my attempts at keeping up with reading several excellent blogs, have been thrown into turmoil by my recent illness and family commitments. But even though I have a mountain of Scandinavian and Italian contenders for the 2012 CWA International Dagger on a my shelves, and also piled up on the floor I have decided to try and readthe CWA Ellis Peters shortlist. 

The winner will be announced on the 30 November so perhaps I can read most of the shortlist and give opinion before then. 

I have always thought that historical crime fiction is the most difficult  of all sub genres to write successfully. The author not only has to produce the normal expectations of a good crime story; plot, characters, dialogue and a crime to be investigated, but also achieve a sensible balance between the mystery part of the story and the historical detail.

Too much history might swamp the crime investigation, but not enough historical facts, or inaccurate period dialogue and atmosphere will spoil the experience for the reader. 

I recently saw a clip from the popular TV series Downton Abbey where the local tenant farmers were talking to the daughter of the lord of the manor as if they were equals. I switched off as it sounded so ridiculous, but came across the next week’s episode where the maid was talking to her mistress like they were a couple of mates down a coffee bar. People from different classes did not talk to each other like that in England even in the 1950s or 1960s yet alone back in 1916. In books and film the character’s dialogue and their attitude has to be sensitive to the correct period, or else the viewer or reader will drift off.

I remember reading a book partially set in wartime Berlin, where the young anti-hero decided to pop down to his local Gestapo headquarters inform them his girlfriend was a member of an anti-Nazi resistance movement and attempted to negotiate a deal. Anyone who has read Hans Fallada’s masterpiece Alone in Berlin would realise the folly of such an approach. The same 17 year old girlfriend was able despite years of Nazi indoctrination, and the strict censorship, to announce to the son of an attendee at the Wannsee Conference in January 1942 that Germany had lost the war.  Operation Torch, El Alamein and Stalingrad [as well as Midway in the Pacific] were all many months away, and while Winston Churchill with his  faith in America’s industrial power might have had the inkling that eventually victory would come, I suspect no one in Germany would have had the strategic insight to express such a notion so early in the war. This was a case of writing based on what the author knows about the future rather than setting the story firmly in its period. The author fell into one of the major pitfalls of writing historical fiction of any kind.

Perhaps I know quite a lot about certain periods of history [and very little about so many other things] that this makes me overcritical of books set in those particular times. My ignorance about the late 18th century setting of the first shortlisted book I have just started, Island of Bones by Imogen Robertson, should give that author a head start in ensuring I enjoy her book.

I am looking for a good plot with a mystery and a crime, reasonably accurate dialogue, interesting characters, and enough atmosphere and historical detail to set me down in, and teach me something about the period. 

I hope to follow this up by reading Prince by Rory Clements, and The Cleansing Flames by R.N.Morris.