Historical Noir: The Pocket Essential Guide to Fiction, Film & TV

Historical Noir: The Pocket Essential Guide to Fiction, Film & TV

by Barry Forshaw


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It's one of the most successful—and surprising—of phenomena in the entire crime fiction genre: detectives (and proto-detectives) solving crimes in earlier eras. Barry Forshaw has written a lively, wide-ranging and immensely informed history of the genre, which might be said to have begun in earnest with Ellis Peters’ crime-solving monk Brother Cadfael in the 1970s and Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose in 1980 (with another monkish detective), but which has now taken readers to virtually every era and locale in the past. Forshaw has produced the perfect reader's guide to a fascinating field; every major writer is considered, often through a concentration on one or two key books, and exciting new talents are highlighted.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780857301352
Publisher: Oldcastle Books
Publication date: 09/01/2018
Series: Pocket Essential Series
Pages: 192
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 7.75(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Barry Forshaw is the author of American NoirBrit Noir, Euro Noir, Nordic Noir, The Rough Guide to Crime Fiction, and The Man Who Left Too Soon

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Critical mass is a factor in the healthy growth of the historical crime genre. After Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose (1980) and the Ellis Peters Brother Cadfael novels (beginning in 1977), the genre began to awaken commercial interest among a variety of publishers. Further attention accrued when impressive writers began to enrich and expand the genre, gleaning a variety of heavyweight awards (such as Andrew Taylor with his epic The American Boy, which featured a youthful version of the man who invented the detective genre, Edgar Allan Poe).

Like science fiction, historical crime writing holds up a (distorting) mirror to nature: constantly finding provocative or ironic congruences with the present, but reminding us how much (and how little) the human race has changed. The reach of the genre is as wide as history itself, from Ancient Rome (with such writers as Lindsey Davis, Steven Saylor and Ruth Downie) to the Tudor period (stomping ground of multi-prize-winning CJ Sansom and SJ Parris/Stephanie Merritt) and beyond.

In my days as a CWA Ellis Peters Historical Dagger judge (often awarding prizes at intervals to the aforementioned Andrew Taylor, who supplanted CJ Sansom as default winner – to the chagrin of other worthy contenders), every other novel submitted seemed to be set in the Tudor period. At one time, Sansom seemed to have the field as his own fiefdom, with his sprawling, vivid Matthew Shardlake novels bagging multiple awards, but now he has a multitude of rivals. However, there is absolutely no underestimating the fact that Sansom's success was one of the key reasons why publishers began to spread their nets wider in the genre, principally for the kind of work he has produced – i.e. books with richer textures than authors had previously attempted in setting, period and character. After all, this is one of the most successful – and surprising – of phenomena in the entire crime fiction genre: detectives (and proto-detectives) solving crimes in earlier eras. There is now an army of historical sleuths operating from the mean streets of Ancient Rome to the Cold War era of the 1950s. Do you care that such invented detectives are ahistorical and anachronistic? Personally, I don't. After all, it is easy for readers to suspend their disbelief – just as one does when HG Wells has his protagonist climb into a machine that transports him to the far future.

I have attempted in these pages to address the phenomenon right from its inception, examining the work of such prize-winning authors as Robert Harris (whose books span the centuries) and Philip Kerr (wartime Berlin), plus Lindsey Davis, Boris Akunin, Kate Griffin, Mark Mills, Antonia Hodgson, Rory Clements, Aly Monroe, Martin Cruz Smith and SJ Parris, along with virtually every other important writer in the still-flourishing genre. And I could hardly ignore the great predecessors of the modern genre, such as Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time, although I cover earlier practitioners in a preamble.

Conversations and Definitions

My conversations with many of the writers included here afforded me precious insights into why the field has admirers happily conveyed to the past both on the page and on screen – as the historical crime genre is as much about film and TV as it is about books, Historical Noir is also a celebration of these media.

A couple of definitions might be useful for the reader. 'Historical noir', in the context of this book, does not necessarily carry the connotation of darkness (either physical or psychological) that customarily goes with the word 'noir'; this is a generic term used for all the books I have written in this series and simply suggests 'crime'. And as for any flexibility in the word 'historical', I'm happy to channel the ground rules of the CWA's Historical Dagger (current nomenclature: the CWA Endeavour Historical Dagger). This annual award given by the Crime Writers' Association to the author of the best historical crime novel of the year was inaugurated in 1999 and in the past was presented to a novel 'with a crime theme and a historical background of any period up to 35 years before the current year' (it has now increased to 50 years). These date parameters are emblazoned on my memory from my time as a judge for the award, considering the gems of the genre with fellow judges over vinous meals at St Hilda's College by the River Cherwell in Oxford. And speaking of the most prestigious UK prize in the field, the award was known as the Ellis Peters Historical Dagger from 1999 to 2005 in honour of the influential author of the Cadfael Chronicles (written between 1977 and 1994). From 2006 to 2012–13 it became known as the Ellis Peters Historical Award, and the most recent sponsor of the award has been Endeavour Press.

As in the earlier entries in the series – Brit Noir, Nordic Noir, American Noir and Euro Noir – my aim has been to produce an accessible reader's guide to a fascinating field. I've tried to cover every major writer, often through a concentration on one or two key books (and the interview sections contain both new interviews along with several I conducted for Crime Time, which I edit), and exciting new talents are highlighted. However, as mentioned below, completely comprehensive international coverage is not possible in a book of this length.

Writers who tackle a variety of periods and settings (such as Imogen Robertson) presented a problem: multiple entries for such novelists under the relevant eras? In the event, I decided to combine the various eras under a single entry with principal time periods listed after these writers' names (in most cases, I made no attempt to be comprehensive to avoid the lists being unfeasibly long). In terms of globe- and era-trotting, two authors seemed to demand a separate section after all the other entries: the indefatigable duo of Andrew Taylor and Robert Goddard.

In the twenty-first century, there is a new trend for exuberant, poster-coloured, fleet-footed novels, such as those produced by the talented triumvirate of Miranda (MJ) Carter, Antonia Hodgson and Kate Griffin, stars in the new historical crime firmament. The future – and the past – is an exciting place for historical noir.

The Origins of Historical Crime Fiction

In the crime fiction field, most definitions are arbitrary; I've already talked about the fluidity of the term 'noir' – and it's not just me who adopts the edict of Lewis Carroll's Humpty Dumpty in saying 'When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean'. What, for instance, constitutes a 'crime' novel and what a 'thriller'? The cross-fertilisation of both genres renders such distinctions amorphous at best. And writing a book such as the one you are now holding necessitated at least a working definition of 'historical crime'; I've laid out the parameters I set for myself in the introduction above.

When I mentioned to crime writers of my acquaintance that I was following up my Nordic, Brit, Euro and Ameri can Noir with Historical Noir, I was asked (on more than one occasion): 'Are you including Dickens and Wilkie Collins? They had detectives in their Victorian novels!' But I pointed out that they were – at the time – contemporary novelists writing about their own period (unlike current practitioners who deal in the past), and in a book of modest proportions such as this one, these classics would not come under the spotlight. And, at this point (apropos of that remark), I should point out that this is by no means an attempt to be completely comprehensive in considering writers either of the past or of the present – there are simply too many historical crime novelists to include here, so my apologies in advance to those I've omitted.

If the prosecution and investigation of a crime (set in the historical past) are the focus of the novels considered in these pages, it is necessary to touch a few bases, as I shall attempt to do in this preamble. These include the possible anomalies I have to deal with: does the Josephine Tey classic The Daughter of Time from 1951 qualify, with its modern investigation of the murders of the Princes in the Tower?


As Bernard Knight (a man who knows his historical crime fiction) said to me, The Daughter of Time is just one among a few 'evolutionary sports', so it is perhaps apposite to use the inauguration of the CWA Historical Dagger in 1999 as a starting point for this study – at least in terms of the perception of the genre as something established at a fairly specific point in time.

If this introduction is the place for some concentrated namechecking, as well as Tey, one might argue that Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho was an early progenitor of the genre, with Radcliffe setting her 1794 novel in the distant medieval period. Similarly, another early proponent of historical crime is an American writer who is now virtually forgotten: Melville Davisson Post. His Saturday Evening Post stories set in the nineteenth century appeared in a single-volume edition as Uncle Abner: Master of Mysteries in 1918. In the UK, Bow Street Runner Jasper Shrig was the creation of Jeffery Farnol at the beginning of the twentieth century, with The Loring Mystery a notable extended outing for his sleuth in 1925.

One writer whose reputation has been rescued (and burnished) in recent years is the novelist Georgette Heyer; her Regency romances were for many readers a guilty pleasure until her literary reputation underwent a reevaluation in the last decade or so. Her work includes mystery and crime elements in such novels as The Talisman Ring (1936), and she certainly merits attention. As do such writers as Bruce Graeme and, of course, Baroness Orczy (her Scarlet Pimpernel, with his secret identity, was a precursor of Bob Kane and Bill Finger's detective Batman), while Russell Thorndike's ambiguous protagonist Dr Syn certainly utilised mystery conventions in a long-running series.

Agatha Christie made one venture into the historical crime genre with her 1944 novel Death Comes as the End with its Ancient Egyptian setting, while John Dickson Carr used the notion of a man from the present moving back in time to crack a mystery. Carr even co-opted the creator of The Woman in White, Wilkie Collins, as a sleuth in The Hungry Goblin in 1972. More recently, Ruth Rendell's Anna's Book in 1994 (published as Barbara Vine) utilised diaries from the past in which the modern-day heroine examines injustices both in history and in the present.

Many of the tropes of historical crime fiction were established by Ellis Peters and by Italian polymath Umberto Eco (two names that will appear frequently in this study), but a slew of talented writers have taken up the genre, and the individual entries that follow – divided by period and locale – will, I trust, show how it has become one of the richest and most fecund fields in crime fiction. In fact, there are so many writers now that readers cannot help but spot a rash of newly minted clichés that surface more and more frequently. For instance, we are often asked to accept that busy historical figures were able to fit in a bit of detection; for example, Oscar Wilde (in the series by Gyles Brandreth) somehow had time to solve a variety of murder mysteries between entertaining and scandalising London. But aficionados of the genre are tolerant of such things– and the most egregious cliché of all is surely necessary for the reader: the subtle imposition of a modern sensibility on a hero or heroine from the past. Common sense would suggest that, say, a totally medieval mindset from which a novel's narrative never deviated might be something of a stretch for the modern reader – Eco's The Name of the Rose demonstrates the author's awareness of this fact. His crime-solving monk William of Baskerville is a typical cheat in this respect, although his contemporary, psychologically aware reading of medieval events is set against canny reminders that he is very much a man of his time.

The preamble is over; it is time to climb aboard the time machine and investigate murder and mayhem set in the distant (and not so distant) past.


The Ancient World

LINDSEY DAVIS (Ancient Rome)

For many years Lindsey Davis has been one of the most reliable names in the realms of the historical thriller – few would argue with the proposition that she is the market leader in the 'crime in Ancient Rome' genre. Her books featuring the intelligent Roman sleuth Falco marry a great deal of authentic-seeming historical elements with storytelling nous of a rare order. The Jupiter Myth followed such earlier Falco novels as Ode to a Banker, and is just as enjoyable as its predecessors. Falco is on a holiday trip with relatives in Britain when he finds himself in familiar murderous territory: he's soon involved in a savage killing. An outlaw henchman of King Togidubnus, a crucial supporter of Rome, has been summarily dispatched and crammed head-first down a barroom well. As usual, there's more to the incident than simply tracking down a murderer: Falco has to utilise his diplomatic skills to take the sting out of a thorny political incident. Lindsey Davis's admirers will be kept engrossed as Falco attempts to undo this particular Gordian knot. One of the key pleasures of this one for the British reader is the setting: Londinium boasts a forum and an amphitheatre, and the streets are thronging with traders and Roman criminals. The Stygian alcohol joints are dangerous places to be; prostitutes crowd the filthy streets; the law sleeps. In this pungently realised setting, Falco and his trusty friend Petronius seek the gangsters with political ambitions behind the grisly killings. One of the most trenchant concepts that Davis toys with here is the influence of the past – we are all defined by our history, and Falco's painful confrontation with this fact shows that it was ever thus. With the wharves of the River Thames joining the Colosseum as Falco's stamping grounds, The Jupiter Myth has a real piquancy.

Changes were rung when Lindsey Davis embarked on Master and God. Admittedly, she could count on a lot of reader goodwill thanks to her splendid Falco series. And the setting here is once again the ancient world, with the paranoid Roman Emperor Domitian grabbing the reins of power and styling himself 'Master and God', but Falco is nowhere to be seen – and this novel is a very different kettle of fish from customary Lindsey Davis fare. First of all, it is a love story – a distinction that may give pause to the writer's admirers: is this what we read her for? One of the two lovers here, Gaius, is a member of the Praetorian Guard and has served Rome well – he carries his facial disfigurement as a badge of service. He is drawn to Flavia, a freed woman who is hairdresser to the ladies of the imperial court. These are two fiercely self-possessed people, surviving in a dangerous world where imperial displeasure can mean sudden death. As the Emperor sinks further into the realms of mental disorder (Caligula was not alone in this respect), and as clandestine steps are taken against him, Gaius becomes aware that he has a triple choice: between Flavia, the woman he loves, the duty he has sworn to protect the Emperor, and a pressing moral imperative to bring about the death of a madman and monster who threatens the whole Roman state.

Falco remains Davis's signature character, but his adopted daughter Flavia Albia (who has her own series) is proving equally durable – and whatever Davis does is always highly accomplished.


Excerpted from "Historical Noir"
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Copyright © 2018 Barry Forshaw.
Excerpted by permission of Oldcastle Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

1: Introduction
2: The Ancient World
3: Medieval England and the Middle Ages
4: Tudor England and the Sixteenth Century
5: The Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries
6: Victorian Britain
7: The Rest of the World in the Nineteenth Century
8: The Early Twentieth Century and World War One
9: The Twenties and Thirties
10: World War Two and the Post-war Period
11: The Late 1940s and the 1950s
12: The 1960s and 1970s
13: And Finally…
Appendix: The Ellis Peters/CWA Endeavour Historical Dagger

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