(Lynne's daughter Meriel here, deputizing again while my mum enjoys a couple of weeks States-side.)
I recently read a crime novel set in Victorian England. I'm a big fan of historical crime novels, and this one had been recommended to me by a friend whose judgement is usually sound, so I was expecting great things. I was... disappointed.
The plot would have benefited from some tightening up, and some of the dialogue was a little clunky. But the thing that proved a persistent annoyance throughout the book - like trying to listen to a radio programme through a constant crackle of static - was that the author (who shall remain nameless to protect the guilty) simply hadn't done his research properly. As far as I could tell, the central events that the story hung on were all accurate (insofar as they were meant to be, anyway: a major part of the plot revolved around telling an alternative version of history), but it rapidly became obvious that the author had no idea how aristocratic titles worked. I could have ignored this if it had only been an issue with one or two minor characters, but the detective himself is titled, as are most of the people he moves amongst. Specifically, he's referred to as both Lord Forename Surname (again, actual names withheld!) and Lord Surname as if these were interchangeable, when in fact they indicate very different statuses.
While this isn't the sort of thing I'd expect the average person in the street to know, I can't help feeling that if you're writing (or for that matter editing) a crime novel with a noble hero, then maybe at some point it's worth going and spending ten minutes looking through the Wikipedia article on forms of address in the United Kingdom? (For anyone who's curious, Lord Surname implies he's a peer, whereas Lord Forename Surname indicates a younger son of a duke or marquis - as with Lord Peter Wimsey, the creation of an author who certainly did do her research. Sometimes it's a bit more complicated than that, as the title may not be the same as the surname - as in Downton Abbey, where the family name is Crawley, but the head of the family is Lord Grantham - but that need not detain us here.)
However, I'm aware that this is the sort of thing that bothers me a lot and other people not at all. Out of curiosity, I went and looked at the Amazon reviews. Pretty much as I'd expected, there was one anguished 'How can he not realize?' review (from a history professor, apparently), and lots of people who hadn't even noticed - some of whom even praised the author's grasp of period detail.
There was another point where I thought I'd caught the author out. A small boy is given a present that he loves, and his response is 'Wow!', which to me just felt totally out of place in Victorian London. Being the sort of pedant I am, I went and looked the word 'wow' up in the Oxford English Dictionary. The first recorded usage of the relevant sense was... in 1892. Which just happens to be the precise year in which the book is set. Yet despite this, it wouldn't surprise me if that one little word jarred with far more people than the repeated mistakes with titles.
This set me wondering: is it more important for a historical crime novel to be accurate, or to feel right? While I'm sure there are plenty of crime buffs who are also history buffs, a lot of us who enjoy historical crime are chiefly interested in the story - the history mostly provides atmosphere, and maybe a social structure or legal system that permits plot devices that wouldn't work in a contemporary novel. Obviously it's preferable for authors to avoid getting things demonstrably wrong, but if push comes to shove, is it better for an author to stick rigorously to the historical facts (including people saying 'Wow!' in the 1890s)? Or are there times when a little bit of creative anachronism can help to oil the wheels of the narrative?