When it comes to writing about historical crimes, I’m in good company. C.J. Sansom, Lyndsey Davis, Ellis Peters….actually, I was thinking more of Shakespeare. No, seriously. We get all elevated about it nowadays, but the groundlings at the Globe weren’t interested in literature. They paid their measly groat to see Macbeth’s dastardly deed unmasked. You couldn’t have a more classic crime thriller plot than that very play. An essentially loyal man driven to murder his boss by an insanely ambitious wife. The only reason the groundlings didn’t lounge about in taverns devouring this story as well-thumbed paperbacks was that the printing press had only just been invented. There wouldn’t have been much of a market anyway: few of these churls could read. Hence the stage. But that’s another blog.
With such precedents it’s no surprise that historical crime fiction today is an important genre in its own right. But why? Is a murder victim in 1893 any more or less dead than if they were topped last week? Isn’t a robbery in Foyle’s War just a robbery?
One answer is that we like to think we’re learning something about history from these tales. Our modern (accurate) picture of Henry VIII as a gross, lecherous, diseased monster owes more to Mantel and Sansom than to our school history books.
The flipside is that we do already know something about history. Hence that pleasant frisson of familiarity when we open an historical crime novel, the sense that we’re on secure ground, that we already know our way around this landscape. If we’ve got any sense – and readers of crime all do – we know from the get-go that this comfortable rug is about to be ripped out from beneath us. The WW2 French Resistance will turn out not to have been so very heroic (see my last book THE WARNING BELL, under my pseudonym Tom Macaulay). Victorian ladies will prove not to be modest, and officers definitely not gentlemen (see DISTANT THUNDER, my latest). The trap is already set, and waiting to be sprung.
There are dangers in this. People don’t always like their cherished myths exploded. THE WARNING BELL outraged a number of people, though it is accurate to the nth degree, and incidentally it doesn’t spare the British either. The reaction to DISTANT THUNDER has been more complex. That’s because we all secretly love the glamour and action and confidence of the British imperial project at the end of the 19th century – but, obviously, none of us is allowed to say so, ‘empire’ being a dirty word. It’s been amusing to hear people tell me how much they loved the book, whilst carefully adding the regulation earnest caveats about the evils of colonialism. (They don’t need to: these caveats are in the book too).
Walking this line isn’t easy for the writer. How much can we invent when we’re dealing with real events? Personally, I don’t. If I write about an historic incident I keep to the facts. If you don’t, some trainspotter will certainly find you out; but there’s more to it than that. We need to have respect for the past – not for mythologies and stereotypes, but for our best knowledge of how things actually happened.
That’s a constraint which writers of contemporary crime fiction do not face. They don’t need to research Victorian underwear or the breech mechanism of Snider rifles or the wild tribes of the arid Goz . But there again, all this stuff has its own mystique.
Go on, admit it. You’re dying to know what the Goz is.
Check out Tim Griggs’ website at www.tdgriggs.co.uk and follow him on Twitter @TDGRIGGS1