A significant proportion of the crime novels I read are historical – but that's not what this post is about. Well, not quite. Not exactly.
The thing is, I've also come across an interesting twist on historical fiction. Not once but twice recently, I've encountered a book based firmly in the here and now, but with a plotline which reached far back into the past. Three times, if you count a subplot involving the robbery of a prehistoric site – which was in fact all tied up with the murder that was centre-stage, so maybe not so very sub. I may have mentioned a couple of these books before, but bear with me; it really is a different twist.
One of the three came as no surprise. The book was The Chalk Pit, latest adventure for Elly Griffiths's wonderful Ruth Galloway. The series always delves into history in one way or another, because Ruth is an archaeologist, and that's what archaeologists do. This time is was bones (again a recurring theme in the series), and underground tunnels which had been there a very long time. And as books in this series invariably do, it kept me up way past bedtime because I couldn't bear to stop reading.
That robbery, and its associated murder, took place in Shetland (a group of islands off the north coast of Scotland for the benefit of American blog-followers), where in real life shoplifting is crime enough to make news headlines, but why let reality get in the way of a good story? In fictional terms the islands are a hotbed of evil-doing enough to keep two crime-fighters occupied: Ann Cleeves's DI Jimmy Perez, whose job it is to track down the bad guys, and Marsali Taylor's Cass Lynch, who seems to trip over bodies wherever she goes. I love both series, and in Ghosts of the Vikings it was Cass's turn – though Jimmy's latest case is on my to-read shelf, so be assured that violent crime is alive and well in Shetland.
The third of this interesting trio was arguably the most intriguing of all. I hadn't come across E M Davey before; in The Napoleon Complex he posits the existence of an ancient document which showed its owner how to harness certain aspects of nature in a way that bestowed great power on him or her. Mainly him, it would appear; certainly in the context of the storyline, exclusively so. We're talking Hannibal, Napoleon, Hitler, possibly Churchill and a fictitious here-and-now British prime minister here.
This novel was all the more fascinating because a lot of the evidence put forward for the continued existence of this document through the centuries came from actual written records left by actual people. The author isn't exactly a historian by profession, but he is a very enthusiastic and meticulous amateur who has clearly done his research – to the extent that he has visited every location he uses. To an open-minded reader, which I try to be, the documents he quotes from are certainly open to the interpretation his protagonists place on them. I was left wondering, omigod, what if...? And given the location they finally track the ancient text to, and current international circumstances, it wasn't a happy thought. And that's as far as I'm going with the spoilers; this is one of those books that really should be more widely read.
Since ancient murders aren't really of much interest to an overworked 21st century police force, modern-day murders chased down by modern-day law enforcement lay at the heart of all three of these little gems. But if you're looking for a different twist on an old theme, and aren't sure that historical fiction is quite your thing, you could do worse than give them a go.