I’ve been an avid reader most of my life, but have often shunned novels set in the past. My antenna is tuned in for anachronisms or generalisations, for a poor understanding of period or simply for an unbelievable story.
However, over the years, there have been a few books that have had me unable to turn the pages quickly enough. They have been quite different both in the periods they cover and how they approach history – some cover events which happened only a few years before the books were written; others fictionalise events or characters far more than others.
Historical crime fiction is currently undergoing something of a renaissance with three of my chosen books here being recent examples of the genre. I’m really pleased, in particular, to see the 18th and early 19th centuries being the focus of some great research and writing – I’ve always sung the praises of the 18th century, despite one publisher once telling me that “the 18th century doesn’t sell” and “it’s not sexy”. I’d beg to differ.
But anyway – here’s my list.
It might be a bit of a cheat, as it was written less than a decade after the events it depicts – but it’s too good not to include it here. This book has had, and continues to have, much controversy over how fictionalised the iconic American writer made this tale, which details the horrific murders of the Clutter family in their Kansas home in 1959. Certainly, Capote writes a blend of fact and fiction, but in doing so, creates an incredibly powerful narrative both about murder and the motives of those who commit it. He shows the mundanity and hopelessness of the lives of the two men who carried out the offences – the bleakness of their lives set against the optimism of teenager Nancy Clutter, one of the victims.
Those who follow me on Twitter will probably know what a *huge* fan of this contemporary American author I am. DeLillo is particularly interested in the media, and shares some similarities with the likes of Thomas Pynchon, but this is probably one of his most accessible books. It recreates the story of Lee Harvey Oswald – the assassin (lone or otherwise!) of JFK in 1963 – from his own perspective, creating a form of language that makes Oswald a real, if complex, character in a novelisation of his life. Norman Mailer’s Oswald’s Tale is another good ‘faction’ book of the same iconic American historical event.
The Silversmith’s Wife by Sophia Tobin
(Simon & Schuster, 2014)
This is just a beautiful book. It features as it’s main character a woman – yay! – and is a gently unfolding, yet gripping, murder mystery and love story in one. Set in 18th century London, it opens with the murder of the eponymous silversmith, but it is fundamentally about his wife – her reaction to his death and how she lives in its aftermath. It is full of factual detail that is never overpowering (I dislike books that shove their research and their historical accuracy in your face – “Look at me! Look how clever I am!” – as much as I hate inaccuracies. Yes, I’m difficult to please). The story here is what takes precedence over the period; it’s simply a good story that happens to be set in the past.
I am so jealous of Hodgson for this book. The precursor of her latest book, The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins, it is a meticulously researched book set largely in the Marshalsea debtors’ prison – where Thomas Hawkins is sent. A murder occurs, and Hawkins has to work out what has happened. As I say, the research is so detailed here, and it really brings 18th century London, and life in the debtors’ prisons, to life. It makes you feel both grim and dirty, angry and disbelieving, when you read of the way the impoverished were treated in the past, and the inherent inequality in how different debtors were treated even when they were all being kept in one place.
(Simon & Schuster, 2016)
Lloyd has been quietly developing a new genre, with his historical crime books that blend fact and fiction, natural and supernatural. This is the latest instalment, the third since The English Monster, which I really enjoyed until near the end, when the reveal about the murderer made me raise an eyebrow, I’m afraid. But I enjoyed this latest instalment right to the finish. Lloyd uses real people and events from the past 500 years, but particularly the early 19th century. His hero is Charles Horton, from the Thames Marine Police; his elderly boss is the equally real magistrate John Harriott, and even Charles Lamb makes an appearance. Lloyd is equally at home with depicting the grimness of Georgian Wapping as he is with depicting the island of St Helena; and his main female character is a spirited woman who strives to shake off the limitations society has placed on her gender.