This year (tomorrow, to be exact) marks a century since the execution of Russia's tsar, Nicholas II, and his family in 1918, following the Russian Revolution. Novels set during this tense, violent, chaotic period continue to fascinate for their depictions of a country's history, up-close and wrenchingly personal, during a time of great change. Following are a dozen works of historical fiction set during the period, both new/upcoming and older. Their viewpoints range from Romanov family members and aristocrats whose opulent world falls apart, to ordinary Russians empowered by revolutionary fervor, to men and women simply trying to survive the times as best they can. Listed below the cover are the perspective each book conveys.
Leonka Sednyov was the kitchen boy who fled from the Romanov family's house of captivity in Ekaterinburg and was one of the last to see them alive; a multi-period mystery. Viking, 2003. [see on Goodreads]
Katya Vogt, a young woman from a Mennonite farming family on the Russian steppes, sees the social order in the country torn apart. Milkweed, 2004. [see on Goodreads]
St. Petersburg's chief police investigator looks into a couple's brutal murder in winter 1917, during the last days of imperial Russia and the immediate lead-up to the revolution. Doubleday, 2003. [see on Goodreads]
This upcoming novel centers on sisters Militza and Anastasia, both Princesses of Montenegro, who are fascinated by the occult and are responsible for bringing Rasputin into the imperial family's circle. Head of Zeus, Aug 2018; also to be published by HarperCollins in the US, Jan. 2019. [see on Goodreads]
Marina Makarova, daughter of a bourgeois St. Petersburg family, falls in love with a Bolshevik poet and observes (and takes part in) many other dramatic events of the time. Little, Brown, 2017. [see on Goodreads] [see my review]
Follett incorporates a variety of viewpoints in this blockbuster epic of WWI and the Russian Revolution: aristocrats, soldiers, ordinary workers, and many more. [see on Goodreads] [see my review]
Grand Duchess Olga, eldest daughter of Nicholas and Alexandra, falls in love with a soldier (a fictional episode) in the days preceding her family's downfall. Out of print and first published in the 1970s, but worth seeking out. [see on Goodreads]
Maria Feodorovna, who became the mother of Nicholas II, narrates her tumultuous life story, from her youth as a Danish princess through her marriage to the imperial heir and the fall of the Romanov dynasty. Ballantine, July 2018. [see on Goodreads]
Gerty Freely, a young woman in Edwardian England, travels to Moscow to become a middle-class family's governess and gets caught up in the upheaval as the country descends into revolution. Faber, 2016. [see on Goodreads]
Grand Duchess Anastasia and Anna Anderson, who claimed Anastasia's identity, are the two protagonists (or sole protagonist?) of this multi-stranded historical thriller with the themes of identity and hope. Doubleday, March 2018. [see on Goodreads]
In 1916, Sashenka Zeitlin, an impressionable teenager from a well-off Jewish family, leaves her parents' beliefs behind and joins the Bolshevik movement as a spy, a decision with severe repercussions decades later. Simon & Schuster, 2008. [see on Goodreads]
Mathilde Kschessinska, the petite star of the Russian Imperial Ballet who became mistress to the last tsar, Nicholas II, looks back on her life at age 99. FSG, 2010. [see my review] [see on Goodreads]
In this engrossing prequel to the Charles Lenox mysteries, set in 1850, Finch’s amiable aristocratic hero is not yet the distinguished Parliamentarian and private detective who will feature in ten more full-length novels. He has the same brilliantly deductive mind that will serve him well in the future but, as a 23-year-old Oxford grad, he lacks maturity and life experience and is wise enough to know it.
Living in a flat on London’s St. James’s Square, Lenox and his valet, Graham, spend their days clipping crime-related articles from newspapers and seeking patterns that may lead to an initial case. He gets his break after spying a pretentious letter to the editor from a writer bragging about committing the perfect crime. When Lenox spots connections others don’t, and links the letter to the month-old discovery of a woman’s body from a waterlogged trunk, Scotland Yard finally starts paying attention.
This novel offers many pleasures, not least of which is the opportunity to puzzle out the solution to this intricate mystery alongside Lenox. Although as a baronet’s second son, he’s a privileged sort who has no material wants, he swiftly gains the reader’s sympathy. Aside from a few close friends, his social circle thinks he’s crazy for wanting to pursue a career at all, while experienced policemen joke about the “young inspector” and his sidekick valet (it doesn’t help that Lenox pronounces that word with a hard “t”). Lenox is also desperately in love with a female friend, and realized this much too late.
Gently wry humor emerges through Lenox’s banter with Graham, and in how he evades his redoubtable housekeeper’s lengthy to-do list. On the serious side, Lenox faces devastating family news and the emotional impact of a real-life murder investigation. Both newcomers and series regulars should find themselves drawn in.
The Woman in the Water was published by Minotaur, the mystery imprint of St. Martin's Press, in February; I reviewed it for May's Historical Novels Review. The nice thing about prequels to lengthy series (this is the 1st or 11th, depending on how you look at it) is that if you prefer to read in chronological order, you can easily start here. I've reviewed a number of other books in the series, as follows, plus the author contributed a guest post, When Did the Victorians Drink Their Tea?, back in 2014.
The show must go on, as the saying goes – and the “film people” in McNamara’s seventh Emily Cabot mystery take this to extremes, to the heroine’s bafflement.
In this entry, set in 1909, Emily is in her thirties, a married mother of two and lecturer at the University of Chicago. Series regulars, like her friends Detective Whitbread and policeman “Fitz” Fitzgibbons, play major roles, as do the colorful personalities involved with the Selig Polyscope Company, a prominent American motion picture studio at the time. Emily gets drawn into their orbit after learning that her younger brother Alden, to her shock and dismay, is accused of shooting a man to death on the set. Almost as bad, in Emily’s eyes, is that he’d quietly left his job at the Tribune to pen scripts for “Colonel” Selig.
The plot rattles along nicely and is a fine introduction to the film industry’s little-known Windy City roots. While trying to teach her old-enough-to-know-better brother about responsibility and extricate him from a murder charge, Emily and her star-struck children get up close and personal (sometimes too much) with the “pantomimists,” their romantic predicaments, and the secrets they try to hide. The victim, Mr. Hyde, was a censor, and both Chicago’s mayor and Col. Selig seem to want to downplay the crime – the investigations may hold up production – which incenses Emily.
Fictional characters mingle with real-life silent film actors, and since many of the latter are no longer famous names, readers may not realize which is which until they read the helpful afterword. Along the way, Emily visits the sets of The Wizard of Oz, in its earliest surviving version, and two wildlife adventure flicks with real lions and leopards (animal lovers should be alerted about one distressing scene).
There’s a multitude of suspects and no obvious perpetrator; this mystery gets the job done. The only drawback is Emily's attitude. The film-industry setting means she’s out of her element (as the author’s afterword admits): as a progressive social reformer, she has zero appreciation for celluloid “fakery.” She’s occasionally rude to her friends and abrupt with family members, and her overall mood is grumpy. Hopefully by the next volume, her planned vacation to Woods Hole will have restored her good spirits.
Frances McNamara's Death at the Selig Studios is published by Allium Press of Chicago in May; thanks to the publisher for sending a copy at my request.
Here are my reviews of two earlier books in the series:
E.M. Powell's latest work of historical crime, The King's Justice, takes place in a Yorkshire village in 1176, during Henry II's reign. Charged with solving a brutal murder are the traveling royal clerk Aelred Barling, who prides himself on his organization and efficiency, and his reluctant assistant, Hugo Stanton. The local lord claims to have found the culprit, but Hugo isn't so sure. If you loved and still miss the medieval novels of Diana Norman/Ariana Franklin, you'll want to seek out this first in a new series. It combines a gritty murder mystery, unpredictable plotting, intriguing characters, and a wonderful dry wit. I'll be on board for book two, The Monastery Murders, which has a Sept 2018 release date.
Hugo Stanton made his first appearance in your initial series. What inspired you to create a more prominent role for him in The King’s Justice?
The original inspiration came from my publisher, Thomas & Mercer, who are the crime/thriller/mystery imprint of Amazon Publishing. I am extremely fortunate in that as well as working with me on current projects, they also take a great deal of time to discuss future ideas with me. They said that they loved the 12th century world I wrote in for my Fifth Knight medieval thriller novels and wondered if I had ever thought of doing a spin-off series. I hadn’t, but it was a tremendously exciting idea. They told me to go away and have a think and gave me the luxury of time to do so.
That ‘think’ consisted of a great deal of research to see if I could find something that would work for me as a writer as well as the many (wonderful!) people who buy and read my books. And I found the golden nugget. I found that King Henry II reformed the English legal system. He introduced a travelling law court, where his justices would travel the country, hearing cases where the most serious felonies had been committed: robbery, theft—and murder. The dates worked perfectly.
I then wrote up a list of every single character that had appeared in the Fifth Knight series. I had killed off quite a few but there was one stand-out candidate: Hugo Stanton, the young messenger who wasn’t at all a hero but who found the courage to step up when it really mattered.
The laid-back Stanton was teamed up with a new character, the prickly royal clerk, Aelred Barling. I had my pair of sleuths ready to go and investigate murder and mayhem, the first being the brutal murder of a village smith. Fortunately, my publisher really liked the product of my thinking and so The King's Justice was born.
The viewpoint alternates between Stanton and his superior, the clerk Aelred Barling, and their personalities are pretty different. How did you decide on this structure? Did you find either of them easier to work with as a character?
A historical crime novel is still a crime novel. That requires just as much attention as the historical side. Many crime and mystery novels are written in the first person, with one main investigator. While I’m very fond of Stanton, he isn’t an obvious hero. Neither would have he been important enough in medieval society to carry the full weight of the law. I needed a second sleuth who was. So I created the dry, fussy, procedurally-obsessed Aelred Barling. My personal preference is to write deep third person Point of View, and with these two I can switch back and forth. I mentioned being fond of Stanton, but I’m far fonder of Barling. I share many more traits with him—we both like our books, our quiet, our order, our peace and quiet. I suspect my nearest and dearest would say I’m just as irritable as him as well!
I admit I'm partial to Barling as well! How do you get into the mindset of people living and working in 12th-century England?
The simple answer that every writer of historical fiction would give: research, research, research. We historical writers have to create a credible, believable world and part of that is the mindset of the characters who inhabit it. To get it right, it’s a case of months and months of research. Much of it is reading reliable academic work on the time period and offering up thanks for every knowledgeable historian who has chosen to publish a book that relates to my era. There’s also the joy of trudging through muddy fields to look at yet another 12th century castle, with the long-suffering family in tow.
It’s great that there are many fellow obsessives out there as well. I’ve had lots of contact with re-enactors, those wonderful folk who spend their time recreating 12th century life. They recreate weapons, food, clothing, you name it and are always willing to talk about it. Even better, I can get my hands on it, too.
author E.M. Powell
The novel delves deeply into the legal system and reforms of Henry II, showing them from multiple angles (in the initial scene with the ordeal in particular, the title seemed a bit ironic!). What fascinates you about this subject?
Like Aelred Barling, I find the process of the law utterly fascinating, be that 12th century law or 21st century law. As for Henry’s imposition of law and order, it truly was a novelist’s gift. The King's Justice opens with men accused of a murder who are proclaiming their innocence in a murder case. Forget prosecution and defence lawyers. One way of establishing guilt was to make the accused face the ordeal of water. The accused was tied up and thrown into a pit filled with water. Said water had already been blessed. If the accused sank, they were innocent. If guilty, they floated. It was believed that God had judged them. And if guilty, they were taken from the water and hanged. The King’s punishment for thieves was to have a foot and a hand chopped off. I don’t think many of us today would see this as an acceptable system, but it worked for Henry. Thanks to his travelling justices, he could ensure that that system could reach every corner of his realm.
The story takes many twists that I found hard to predict, which was great. Just when I thought the solution was leaning in one direction, suddenly things changed. When you’re writing, do you know in advance how you want the resolution to come about, or do you find the storyline developing as you go?
Those words are music to a mystery writer’s ears: twists, turns and unpredictability are our Holy Grail! I do know of writers who set off with a story and see where it takes them. That approach has me hyperventilating. I’m a plotter, through and through. I have recently discovered Scrivener, which is simply the best writing tool that I have ever come across. One of the marvellous things about it is that I can write what is essentially two novels in one, which is really what a mystery is. The first is the story of the murderer(s): the Secret Plot. The second is the novel as readers read it on the page. That’s Stanton and Barling’s story, where they’re trying to solve the crime. Fortunately for me, they do!
Thanks very much for answering my questions!
The King's Justice is published in June 2018 by Thomas & Mercer/Amazon Publishing in paperback and ebook (288pp).
About the Author:
E.M. Powell’s historical thriller Fifth Knight novels have been #1 Amazon and Bild bestsellers. The King’s Justice is the first novel in her new Stanton and Barling medieval murder mystery series. She is a contributing editor to International Thriller Writers’ The Big Thrill magazine, blogs for English Historical Fiction Authors and is the social media manager for the Historical Novel Society. Born and raised in the Republic of Ireland into the family of Michael Collins (the legendary revolutionary and founder of the Irish Free State), she now lives in North-West England with her husband, daughter and a Facebook-friendly dog. Find out more by visiting www.empowell.com. You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.
During the Blog Tour we will be giving away 6 paperback copies of The King’s Justice! To enter, please enter via the Gleam form below.
Giveaway Rules: – Giveaway ends at 11:59pm EST on July 13th. You must be 18 or older to enter. – Giveaway is open INTERNATIONALLY. – Only one entry per household. – All giveaway entrants agree to be honest and not cheat the systems; any suspect of fraud is decided upon by blog/site owner and the sponsor, and entrants may be disqualified at our discretion. – Winner has 48 hours to claim prize or new winner is chosen. Good luck! The King's Justice
Set in the Scottish Highlands and Edinburgh as the Edwardian era winds down, Douglas’s concise yet engaging romantic novel follows a young woman’s path to fulfillment and illustrates the pain of unrequited love. Lorne Malcolm’s decision to run away with her employer’s son on her wedding morning shocks her older sister, Rosa, and devastates her fiancé, Daniel MacNeil. A housemaid in Inverness, Rosa can’t comprehend Lorne’s self-centeredness, especially since handsome Daniel is quite a catch. Some months later, when Daniel begins courting Rosa, she is thrilled but wary; in his proposal, he asks her to help him forget Lorne, which isn’t the most promising beginning.
They marry and move into a big-city tenement, and the story is sympathetic toward Rosa, left alone all day while Daniel works. Her pursuit of a job outside the home gives her purpose but adds complications to their marriage, since Daniel proves resistant, and she still isn’t certain of his love. The theme of women’s early 20th-century roles figures strongly. Despite some repetitive descriptions, the plotline is eventful and pleasingly unpredictable. Douglas evokes period mores through her characters’ personalities and actions: they may not discuss their feelings openly but yearn for happiness all the same.
Highland Sisters was published by Severn House in 2018. Anne Douglas is a bestselling Scottish novelist who has set many novels in Scotland in the early 20th century (this is the first I've read). I wrote this review for February's Historical Novels Review based on a NetGalley copy.
Today I have a guest post from Kate Braithwaite, whose new novel, The Road to Newgate, will be one you'll want to read if you're intrigued by 17th-century England. Its subject, the Popish Plot, doesn't get a lot of play in historical fiction, so this was new territory for me. I found myself placed in the thick of the suspenseful drama alongside Nat Thompson, his wife Anne, and their friend William Smith (more on them below). How does one bring down an odious, immoral man who's managed to sway public opinion about the righteousness of his cause? It's a dangerous prospect - Titus Oates seems to have the law on his side as well - with no guarantee of success. Anne Thompson alternates narrating the story with Nat and William, and Kate's post illuminates the lives and roles of women in Restoration England.
There's a giveaway opportunity at the end, too, for US readers. Welcome, Kate!
A Suitable Job for a Woman?
“Were there any women in the 17th century?”
This is a question that historian Antonia Fraser was asked by a male friend when she told him that her next book would be The Weaker Vessel: Women’s Lot in Seventeenth Century England. Of course it’s tongue in cheek, yet how many famous Stuart women spring to mind? There was Nell Gwynn, of course, Charles II’s mistress, orange-seller and actress. And Aphra Behn, playwright, poet and one the first Englishwomen to earn a living writing. But how many more? Given that our historical sources were written about men, by men, it can be a challenge for a historical novelist to create a strong, believable female character - true to the period, but not a Royal mistress or a talented author. The subject of my second novel, the 17th century Popish Plot in Restoration England, is full of drama and incident, but in the text books, pamphlets and trial transcripts it’s male-dominated drama. The women are missing.
The Road to Newgate is about Titus Oates, a preacher, who causes uproar in London in 1678 with wild stories of a Catholic plot to assassinate Charles II. Barricades go up in the streets, prominent Catholic Lords and priests are arrested and fake news and bigotry dominate the public consciousness. When Sir Edmund Godfrey, a Protestant magistrate linked to Oates, is found dead in a ditch and the plot stories were deemed to be true, only a brave and resilient journalist, Nat Thompson, wants to chase down the truth about Oates – at great personal cost.
These costs involve Nat’s close friends Henry Broome and William Smith, as well as his wife, Anne. Henry is a bookseller and publisher, a father-figure to Nat, a much younger man. William is a schoolteacher, quiet, sensitive and with a secret he is afraid to share with Nat and Anne. And then there is Anne. In early drafts of the story, she was little more than his wife, a character with no real agency, story arc or importance to the plot, other than making her busy husband feel guilty about leaving her at home while he is busy at work. In a contemporary story, Anne would have education, training, her own bank accounts, transport, perhaps money from her own family or a better paying job than Nat does. But the life of a seventeenth-century wife was very different. A married woman at that time belonged to her husband. Anything she owned prior to her marriage transferred to him. Husbands had the right to discipline their wives and no wife could give evidence in court against her husband. Widows had more freedom and independence but The Road to Newgate is about a married couple and whether that marriage survives in a time of tumult. Anne’s options seemed limited.
Scratch the surface, however, and it’s no surprise that women were not just silent or complicit in their forced domestication. Then, as now, not all women wanted to stay at home to raise children, launder, clean or cook. Not all working women were content to be servants or seamstresses. In the course of my research I learned that women as well as men engaged in the explosion of pamphlet writing and journalism during the Restoration. Take this example, published anonymously, by a woman complaining about the amount of time that men were spending in the popular coffee shops of the day. Published in 1674, The Women’s Petition against Coffee declared that men were neglecting their family duty because of the hours they spent talking, arguing and drinking coffee. They were in danger of becoming worse gossips than women and worst of all, excessive coffee was having a dampening effect on their ardour. “Never,” it reads, “did Men wear greater breeches, or carry less in them of any Mettle whatsoever.”
Source: EC65.A100.674w, Houghton Library, Harvard University (via Wikimedia Commons)
Anne’s character – stubborn, loving, intelligent but a little naive – would never have written a document like that one, but the inspiration for a way for her to develop within the story was linked to the world of pamphlets and opinion that her husband is so engaged with. An idea fell into my lap when I was researching the printing business. Although women could not be apprentices in the print shop, a key duty of a wife in the seventeenth century was to support her husband. Women could and did learn to run printing operations, for example Anne Baldwin, the wife of Richard Baldwin, the printer of the London Mercury, who helped her husband in all aspects of his business. Widows commonly took over print shops when their husbands died. To do so effectively, they must have been working in the trade for some time.
Here then, was the perfect opportunity for Anne to spread her wings and take charge of her own fate. Although with a proud husband determined to provide for her and Henry, his printer, less than impressed by Nat’s hasty marriage to her, Anne would still have some challenges to overcome.
Kate Braithwaite was born and grew up in Edinburgh, Scotland. Her first novel, Charlatan, was longlisted for the Mslexia New Novel Award and the Historical Novel Society Award. The Road to Newgate, a story of lies, love and bigotry in 17th century London, will be published by Crooked Cat Books on July 16th. Kate lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and three children.
The author is offering a giveaway of a signed paperback copy of The Road to Newgate along with a handmade book (pictured above). For a chance to win, please fill out the entry form below; deadline Wednesday, June 27th. US readers only. One entry per household, and void where prohibited. Good luck to all!
Most people in sixteenth-century England weren’t royalty or famous names, yet a focus on the well-known predominates in historical novels.
Evincing deep knowledge of Tudor-era society, award-winning biographer and writer Glendinning helps remedy this skewed perspective. She centers on a young woman left homeless after Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries and forced back into a world that slots women into tidy, repressive categories.
In 1535, the witty, curious Agnes Peppin is sent to Shaftesbury Abbey after bearing an illegitimate child and finds a home among the nuns. Agnes is literate, and as the abbess’ assistant she is in a prime place to see Thomas Cromwell’s destructive plans for England’s religious houses coming to fruition.
Glendinning’s psychologically astute novel shows how significant an upheaval this was. Monasteries and abbeys served as social safety nets and economic engines, and their residents’ heartbreak and confusion are palpable as the sanctuaries are dismantled.
Agnes’ sudden freedom, both a burden and an opportunity, sets her on an entertaining, picaresque journey toward self-fulfillment across England’s West Country. Through the experiences of Agnes and others, Glendinning thoughtfully explores womanhood’s many facets.
The Butcher's Daughter will be published by Overlook next week; I wrote this review for Booklist's 5/15 issue. For readers looking for more "Tudor fiction without the famous," this is one! The cover at top left is the US edition, while the UK cover is at the bottom right.
French feminist writer and philosopher Simone de Beauvoir was best known for her masterwork, The Second Sex (1949); Nelson Algren was an award-winning American writer acclaimed for depicting working-class Chicago.
In a novel about the romance between these prominent literary figures, one might expect a thorough presentation of their intellectual lives, but Cowie’s approach is refreshingly different. With a fast-paced, down-to-earth, conversational style, he evokes their strong emotional and physical connection and their struggle to sustain it.
After getting Nelson’s number from a mutual friend, Simone phones him when she visits Chicago in 1947. They spend the evening visiting “the real city,” including the county jail, and end up in bed at his apartment. Over many transatlantic flights, foreign vacations, and letters flying across the globe, Cowie draws us into their psyches.
Nelson wants Simone to move in permanently, but her commitment to her long-time Parisian partner, Jean-Paul Sartre, precludes that. Ultimately, they face wrenching choices. Although the details are specific to this famous couple, the insights into how relationships flourish and wither are universal.
I wrote this review for Booklist, and it was published as an online review in March; the novel itself was published in May in the US by Myriad Editions (it was previously published in the UK). Cowie is an American fiction writer who is currently Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at Royal Holloway, University of London.
Like its go-getter heroine, C. C. Humphreys’ newest historical thriller starts on the ground but quickly takes off. Pilot Roxy Loewen, fleeing from her father’s creditors and the man responsible for his death on a New York street in 1929, makes a grand exit from the scene – with some help from fellow aviator Amelia Earhart.
Seven years later, she’s running guns into British Somaliland alongside her German commie lover, Jocco Zomack, doing her part to support the Ethiopians’ war against the Italians. But even as Mussolini claims victory, there’s another battle right behind it. Roxy’s next mission: fly more guns into politically torn Madrid, pick up an original Bruegel painting, lift it out of the country, and deliver it to a buyer in Berlin, on behalf of Jocco’s art dealer father – all without Hermann Göring and his goons finding out.
A bold feat, but Roxy’s sure she can do it. The money’s good, too. But she hasn’t counted on the Nazis partnering with her arch-nemesis.
With Chasing the Wind, Humphreys, who has made many forays into 16th through 18th-century settings, successfully vaults ahead to the first decades of the 20th century, when the world was reacting to the stock market crash, eruptions into civil war, and the rising tide of fascism.
He shows that he's mastered the skill of combining fast-paced action with vibrant historical detail. As the story speeds along with Roxy’s daring schemes and hairsbreadth escapes, it also delves into the techniques of forging a centuries-old painting and flying a small aircraft. Readers also get to experience the tense atmosphere of the 1936 Berlin Olympics (“Sport and politics are not separate, not at all. This display is all about power,” Roxy aptly observes) and walk through the opulent interior landscapes of the Hindenburg on its final voyage.
Roxy’s a gal with moxie to spare, but she’s not superhuman; she often experiences setbacks. She’s tough but compassionate: as Jocco tells her, “I know you care more than you admit.” That sometimes gives her adversaries the advantage. Her victories tend to be human ones, and are all the sweeter for it.
Granted, if you don’t take to wild adventures that just happen to swoop through some of the era’s most significant events, this may not be your book. But if you're tempted to try keeping up with Roxy, though, hang on and enjoy the flight.
Chasing the Wind is published in Canada by Doubleday Canada, and in the US as an indie title (ebook). Thanks to Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours for providing me with a Kindle copy.
In today's post, author Terrence McCauley, who writes novels set in the past and others in the present-day, describes the appeal and challenges of writing fiction set in 1930s NYC.
Past v. Present:
The Challenges of A Historical Thriller
As a writer, I always look for new ways to challenge myself. I never want to keep writing the same story over and over again. I don’t think the audience want to read the same kind of story, either. That’s one of the many reasons why I love setting my stories in different time periods. For example, my University series (Sympathy for the Devil, A Murder of Crows, A Conspiracy of Ravens) are all modern day techno-thrillers with plenty of action and technology to help me keep the pace moving.
Historical fiction does not allow me that luxury. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. Writing about 1930s New York affords me another set of challenges I wholeheartedly embrace. My Charlie Doherty novels (The Devil Dogs of Belleau Wood, Slow Burn, and now The Fairfax Incident) are different from any other kind of story I tell. I write them in the first person from Charlie’s perspective because I want the reader to get a sense of what he’s experiencing as he’s experiencing it. I don’t give myself the ability to use the third person omniscient narrator because I’m afraid of getting too far ahead in the story. I have a reason for that.
When writing about a bygone era, it’s very easy for the writer to slip into something I call the "dreaded data dump," an unfortunate place where the author is anxious to demonstrate how much research he or she did on the era by packing the story with historically accurate facts. These data dumps are usually long sections that might be interesting to read, but often kill the momentum of the story. By only allowing myself to use the first person voice, I can constantly yet subtly remind the reader of the time and setting of the novel. I can either talk about the grand mansions and packed streets of Old New York, or I can have Charlie mention them as he’s moving from one location to the other on his way to cracking the case. People tend to skip over passages that are too long, and that means death to a writer and a story.
My books may be set in the past, but they’re being read by a modern audience who have all of the distractions of the day. Emails, texts, social media are all at the reader’s fingertips, especially if they’re reading on a tablet or smartphone. The last thing I want them to do is leave Charlie’s world to glance at what’s happening right now.
Getting a modern reader to relate to the 1930s is also a challenge that must be overcome. Some pick up a book like mine expecting to read a hats-and-gats drama with tough private detectives, gun molls and wise-cracking gangsters. That’s why I try to make my characters more believable by showing the people of that era are very relatable to the people of today. Many of my characters are survivors. They’ve lived through the horrors of the First World War, the boozy glamour of the Roaring Twenties and are now suffering through the horrible hangover of the beginning stages of the Great Depression. Times are bad and promise to get worse. But rather than tell the reader all of that, I have chosen to relate that story from Charlie’s point of view. He’s as world-weary as the next guy, but he doesn’t fall into the same categories of similar characters who have come before him. He isn’t idealistic, he doesn’t follow a code and he’s not above shoving someone aside to grab a quick buck. He’s a product of his time; a former detective who had made plenty of money during the corrupt Tammany Hall era, but finds himself pushed aside by the Reform movement sweeping the day. I don’t tell the reader any of this. I show them through Charlie’s internal dialogue and actions. I find this makes it easier for the reader to understand the time by seeing it all through Charlie’s eyes.
author Terrence McCauley
Another challenge about writing about the past is overcoming modern biases about the actions and opinions of characters from another age. For example, I didn’t include a female detective in Fairfax because, quite frankly, there weren’t many female detectives back then. Sure, there were a few, but not enough to make one’s inclusion in my story seem realistic. Doing so would have been jarring and, as I said earlier, the last thing I want to do is pull the reader’s eyes off the page. That also doesn’t mean I make all the women in my books flappers or house fraus, either. Instead, the women in Fairfax and my other 1930s books are strong and influential in their own way. In Prohibition, for example, Alice may seem weak, but she exudes a lot of influence over the enforcer Terry Quinn. In Fairfax, I don’t think anyone would want to find themselves across the bargaining table from the formidable matriarch Mrs. Fairfax. And one of the main villains in the book doesn’t pick up a Tommy gun and begin firing. She is far more powerful by using her intelligence and cunning to serve her cause.
All of the devices and themes I mention here serve one purpose: to do everything I can to get the reader to buy in to the story. People read historical fiction for a lot of reasons. One reason I read it is to lose myself in a time that I might know something about, but wish to read about it in a fictionalized setting. My goal in writing Fairfax and my other 1930s novels is to introduce the reader to a time that’s not all unlike our own. A time where civil unrest and political paranoia runs rampant. A time when people worked hard and did what they had to do to survive. And to show them a protagonist who is far from a hero, but does the best he can with who he is.
The more things change, the more they seem to stay the same.
Terrence McCauley's The Fairfax Incident is published today by Polis Books.