Monday, June 25, 2018

Crime and history

"Mystery in the Age of Empire" is about books that combine two of my favorite genres, historical fiction and crime fiction. Good historical fiction teaches history. Crime and detection fiction necessarily provides detailed descriptions of the circumstances of the crime thus teaching us about the times. The writer of the essay, Paddy Hirsch, himself an author of such a mystery, describes how he came to enjoy history:
I suppose I was just looking for the spark to set it all alight in my mind. George MacDonald Fraser did exactly that, with his Flashman novels, followed by Bernard Cornwell, whose character Richard Sharpe rises through the ranks of Queen Victoria’s army and fights his way through India and the Napoleonic Wars.

It didn’t take me long to find out there was an intersection of crime fiction and historical fiction. One of the most fascinating elements of this literary hybrid is its ability to show the reader not just what the world was like in a given period, but how social change was being effected at the time. And what impact those changes had on real people. ....
Hirsch then provides examples of historical crime novels set from the early 18th century up to the late 19th. One he didn't include is by one of the authors who sparked his interest in history: Bernard Cornwell. Gallows Thief is set in London in the period immediately after the Napoleonic Wars and could easily fit into a list like this.

Well researched books about crime set in the past can be an enjoyable way to learn history. And although obviously not their intention, books not about the past, but written in the past can do the same. Merely by describing places, behaviors, technologies, etc., authors like Dashiell Hammet, R. Austin Freeman, Agatha Christie, and on and on, teach us about the times they inhabited and in which they set their stories.