Historical crime fiction. Any period. Bring it on. Love it. Can’t get enough of it.
It wasn’t always so. Contemporary used to be my first, and pretty well only, love. And then I discovered C J Sansom. By accident, as these things so often happen. A couple of years into my venture into publishing, I had a meeting with someone high up in a much bigger company, and we exchanged books we were proud to have had a hand in; she gave me a hardback copy of Sovereign, the third in his wonderful Shardlake series set in Tudor England. As hardback books often are, it’s a thing of great beauty; I don’t own many, and this is one I treasure. But that didn’t stop me reading it, very carefully – and a new passion was born.
The following year my own little company launched its own historical strand, which turned out to be one of my better ideas. They outsold many of the other titles; three of the four authors who each formed part of it are now with other publishers, and arguably the most successful of my ‘discoveries’, and the fourth retains her own passion for crime fiction.
So historical crime fiction clearly has a following. And, like most other crime fiction, it has readers with an eye for detail and accuracy. I was mortified – and so was the author, who I won’t embarrass by naming – when a sharp-eyed reviewer pointed out that one of our historical titles contained anomalies: for instance, several mentions of an establishment which didn’t come into existence until ten years after the novel was set. Needless to say, we took more care with subsequent titles.
But that raised a question in my mind which has lurked there ever since. How much does it matter to get every little detail right? Is it vital to be absolutely accurate – or is it more important to capture the right ambience, and ensure that it feels right?
Obviously there are things that have to be correct. You don’t give a pre-1980s character a mobile phone or an iPad. And try to say that Henry the Eighth had two wives, or was king of England in the 17th century, or that the American Civil War happened in the 1500s and your reader would be justified in hurling the book across the room with great and scornful force.
And a lot of historical fact is a matter of public record, and available for research. But there’s so much we don’t – can’t possibly – know; and in any case, who’s to say those public records are 100% accurate? Any written information is only as good as the person who wrote it down, or the other person who told him/her what to write; much of history, the real kind, has always recorded by public servants, or more recently journalists, and if I started expressing my opinion of them I’d probably get sued. Come to that, how many times has the author of contemporary fiction used the destruction of public records in a war/fire/flood as a plot device? Historical records have had much longer to meet the same fate.
I’ve talked to a lot of people who claim their enjoyment of a historical novel has been destroyed, or at least diminished, because they lost faith in the author’s grasp of the reality of the period in which it was set. My answer is always the same – did it feel right? and if so, what happened to willing suspension of disbelief? Maybe historians shouldn’t read historical fiction – but then do historians always get it right themselves? Don’t get me started on that...
So I shall go right on enjoying historical crime fiction on its, and my, own terms. If it feels right, and tells a good story about people I’m interested in, that’s plenty good enough for me.