A surprisingly high proportion of the crime fiction that comes my way is historical, or has historical connections. My good friend Chris Nickson writes very little else; even his short series set in Seattle is set thirty years ago, and one author I asked to define historical said quite firmly, ‘History ended yesterday,’ which certainly makes the 1980s history. In fact, as an assignment on a residential creative writing course I was attending to many years ago to admit to, the tutor asked us to write a scene from history as if we were there – and I opted to write about the royal wedding which had taken place just three years earlier.
Like all fiction, historical crime is about people, and big themes which don’t really change regardless of when the illustration is taking place. Crime fiction of any colour usually means murder, and people have been getting unlawfully killed since, well, pretty well forever. So it doesn’t really matter when it happens; the how, who and where are as central as in the contemporary kind.
Individuals’ definitions aside, I suppose to most of us, history means a time before living memory, or at least before one’s own memory. Which allows the writer of historical fiction a decent amount of artistic licence. Not complete licence to make things up, of course: unless it’s the ‘alternative reality’ kind of history, there are real-life events which happened and can’t be ignored. And when it comes to background, it has to feel right. Which, taken all round, has to mean a certain amount of research as well as a lot of imagination. So today’s big question is – why? Why delve into bygone times, when there’s less drudge work involved in writing about the here and now?
Then again, for at least one historical crime writer of my acquaintance, and possibly a great many more I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting, the research isn’t drudge work at all; it’s kind of the whole point. The history comes first; it’s what they do, what energizes their little grey cells, what makes them want to get up in the morning. To them, it’s the fiction that is the hard part. I recently encountered Karen Maitland – not in a literal sense, just her work. I read The Plague Charmer, set in a mediaeval fishing village in England’s West Country in the fourteenth century. It’s an era I’m not unacquainted with; one of Chris Nickson’s several series takes place then, though some geographical distance away from Karen’s: here in my own corner of the UK, in fact.
Both Karen and Chris describe a simpler way of life than we’re used to nowadays – but there the resemblance ends between her work and his. Chris’s series follows the fate of John the Carpenter, who keeps being co-opted by the local coroner as a solver of crimes. The Plague Charmer is a hefty volume, a complex tale set in several locations and related from several viewpoints including a dwarf, a witch and a small boy, with weird goings-on and no dedicated crime-solver, though the task does seem to fall into one pair of hands when it arises. Far more than crime-solving, though, it deals with attitudes, customs and prejudices of the time.
The business of crime-solving is trickier to handle when the history which forms the background took place before the existence of specific people who played that role in society. If my reading has served me well, before policemen there were local constables; before constables came magistrates and coroners, who employed bailiffs for the heavy stuff; before them, who knows? Maybe a form of rough justice, when the people harmed by a crime took matters into their own hands. Any writers of pre-mediaeval crime fiction out there, please feel free to correct any misapprehensions on my part, and tell it how it really was. I’d be intrigued to learn where such information is to be found.
Last week I had something to rant about; today I’m in more contemplative mood, musing about something I’ve only ever dabbled at the edges of. But one thing that dabbling has shown me is that writing historical fiction, crime or not (mine wasn’t), is hard work. Anyone who does it for a living has my admiration.