Reading the 2011 CWA Ellis Peters shortlist

Posted: October 18, 2011 in Book Awards, England

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. 

  1. Jose Ignacio says:

    I really liked your post Norman.

  2. Norman says:

    Thanks Jose Ignacio.

  3. Margot Kinberg says:

    Norman – I know exactly how you feel about that balance between overburdening with facts and making sure one’s accurate, especially when it comes to historical novels. My knowledge of history is nothing like yours, but I do find myself pulled right out of a story if it takes place during an historical period I know about, and there are anachronisms. Not any easy balance for an author to achieve…

  4. Historical fiction is extremely difficult to get right. That is why I prefer to read and write about periods I remember or know really well from history books. I am willing to forgive minor mistakes, but the book as such must sound convincing.

  5. Bernadette says:

    This is an excellent post (not surprisingly as you are my ‘go to guy’ when it comes to historical fiction) and I do agree it is a difficult thing to get right.

    I sometimes wonder if the things I think are wrong might not be wrong at all but I rarely get off my behind and do any actual research. For example I am reading John Lawton’s SECOND VIOLIN right now and some of it feels wrong – it’s set in 1938-41(ish) and one of the male characters has had a succession of women provide a seemingly endless stream of casual sex and this doesn’t really jibe with my knowledge of the era (especially given the social class of the women concerned) but maybe it is perfectly accurate and it’s other things I’ve read previously that got it wrong.

    I liked the Imogen Robertson book that I read and I do plan to read this one too, I don’t know much about that period in history either so it is easier to accept it all at face value.

  6. kathy d. says:

    Very interesting and good post regarding historical fiction.
    You’re relatively measured about your criticism of the author who wrote about a guy who just drops in for a little chat with the Gestapo about his partner being a member of an anti-Nazi group. That kind of mistake would have me nearly tossing the book across the room.
    Anyone writing since WWII (and during the war at a certain point) knows that no one had chats with the Nazis about anyone’s Resistance activities. Everyone knew anyone they mentioned to the Nazis who opposed them was a goner and they might be also. Objectively, that person would also be seen as an informer, responsible for someone’s imprisonment and worse. It’s ridiculous. I could not read that.
    People like that were dealt with by Resistance members if they were known.

    But about the British class lines. What about Adelia Aguilar whom many of us like so much? She broke every barrier — class, gender, nationality (being Italian in England), religion — or lack therein, but with a Jewish adoptive father.

    I just read the first book and know that she talked to everyone, was bold about expressing her opinions, disagreed with the Church, the nobles, the wealthy. She was totally for women’s and class equality, opposed bigotry, the Crusades, anti-Semitism, the death penalty, etc. And she was not afraid to voice her opinion on any and every issue. That’s a reason we like her so much.

    Also, just to mention that women readers over here who obviously did not grow up in Britain, don’t really notice this particular contradiction, but like Adelia’s character because she is so outspoken.

  7. Norman says:

    Bernadette thanks for the flattery, but can I deal with the pressure of being a go to guy. 😦
    I really enjoyed Second Violin and thought it an outstanding historical novel. The book which featured internment on the Isle of Man correctly got the atmosphere of the strict controls in wartime Britain. Even ordinary private soldiers in the army had their backgrounds closely checked by the authorities.
    I think the casual sex portrayed in the book is probably accurate especially during the post Munich years, when most people knew a terrible war was coming and reacted accordingly.
    Although we think of our parents and grandparents generations as very staid on sexual matters Troy, the character you mention, is a member of the upper class, who had no such inhibitions. In one book he even shocks me with his choice of female sexual partner.
    I don’t think the sexual revolution of the 1920s faded away completely. There was an American study in 1935 that showed that 7 out of 10 “young business class persons” in their twenties had had sexual relations prior to marriage.
    Troy, the short dark hero of the books, who is so incredibly successful with women is a creation of an author, John Lawton, who is short and dark. Perhaps we are not meant to take all of Troy’s adventures seriously. 😉

  8. Norman says:

    Kathy, I loved the Adelia Aguilar series, especially that first book, Mistress of the Art of Death. I know some people pointed out inaccuracies but I didn’t know enough about the period to question Diana Norman’s research. I do know there were women who studied at the medical school at Salerno and there was a lady called Trotula who was a teacher at that time.
    I suspect the fact that Adelia Aguilar was so exotic, the shock factor would have helped her break down barriers. In those violent times many women had to take charge when they were left widowed, or their husbands were away on crusades.
    My resident medievalist was on her way out, when I asked for names contemporary to Adelia, and Hildegard of Binden and Anna Comnena were offered, as well as later ladies such as Catherine of Siena and Eleanor of Aquitaine.

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