The Harrogate History Festival is coming up in October and I’m going along to see if I can grab a selfie with Neil Oliver and Melvyn Bragg. Ideally both at once.
I’m also chairing an event about historical crime fiction ‘Cloaks, Daggers and Masked Maurauders’ with Robert Goddard, Michael Jecks, Shona MacLean and Andrew Taylor. I do hope that some of you can some along to the festival. There are some fantastic people appearing and you can guarantee the bar will be full of friendly writers between talks.
So my panel is made up of superb writers who are all critical and commercial success stories - a testament to the success of the (sub)genre. And if you needed any more convincing that historical crime is still drawing the crowds, no less than half of the shortlisted authors for the HWA Debut Crown are writing crime. Antonia Hodgson, MJ Carter and Ben Furgusson in fact. So why is it in such rude health?
The genre makes sense to me as a reader and as a writer. Crime fiction has the virtue of some clear genre rules, a contract with the reader. There will be a crime. You will find out the who, where, what, how and why of that crime before the book is finished, and you will be able to follow the investigation of that crime. The Detection Club have a fuller and funnier set of rules you can read here - but you get that idea.
Crime, especially murder stories, means high stakes, a strong, clear narrative drive and characters under pressure. That always sounds like a good read to me. And why does it works so well in a historical context? Well, it it seems to me the great virtue of the crime novel is that a detective is given (or claims) the right to ask questions and ask them of unusual people in unusual places. That detective is then the avatar for writer and reader, looking at how things work with an outsider’s eye and that perspective can be a great help when writing historical fiction.
Outsiders see what insiders do not - I’m sure that’s was why when I was writing The Paris Winter I found the memoirs of foreigners living in the city much more useful than those of the French. Detective fiction is a licence to uncover, to snoop, to examine and to speculate and I think historical fiction is driven by a similar sense of curiosity - a fascination with the small details that imply larger stories.
But perhaps something entirely different will come across in the discussion in Harrogate. I’ll be asking the writers about how they mix fact and fiction in their work, what draws them to certain subjects, individuals and periods, why they are attracted to crime fiction, and the difference between characters in a standalone novel and those that carry a series, but I’d love to know what readers of the History Girls would like to ask them. So what do you think? Questions for the individual writer or the whole group, please and I shall take them with me.
I'm interested in the attitude to violent death in different eras (and how you research it). These days most of us expect to comfortably reach our four-score, and yet our novels often deal with violent death as if it were commonplace - and it's even more true in TV series from the gun-toting States. 'Early' death would have been much more likely in the past and yet detectives from Falco to Poirot react as if murder were shocking and rare. Presumably violence appears more prevalent now because we hear more about what happens outside our own neighbourhoods?
Very interesting - particularly the idea that 'outsiders see what insiders do not', and that this is something that drives both historical fiction and detective fiction.
One interesting aspect of historical crime fiction is the opportunity to examine a society's attitudes to law, order, culpability and social control in an era before a reliable police force existed. In medieval crime fiction, for examples, detectives often come from religious orders. Partly of course because that is where the educated and literate ended up, but it also touches of the moral universe of a society where a monotheistic deity is regarded as the ultimate authority, and the clergy as representatives of the same.
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