Tuesday, August 25, 2009


A couple of the historical mystery authors I just read - specifically, Victoria Thompson of gaslight New York and "Owen Parry" of Civil War Washington, D.C. - express, in afterwords, pride in the accuracy of the details in their books, despite the fact that Pride is a mortal sin. They want to be sure to tell us which few, tiny details in their novels diverge from historical fact. Coney Island's Elephant Hotel, for example, was abandoned by 1896, and burned down the same year, but Thompson thinks it's neato and keeps it in business in her book. Otherwise, though, everything is totally accurate, "t"s crossed, "i"s dotted. Uh huh.

Much of what I write this week will be a confession of prejudices, I fear, evidence, perhaps, that I have no business reading these books (although I enjoyed them all, more or less). Still, as to the accuracy of the historical mystery, of any novel: I don't care, I just don't care.

Great writers create worlds that are nearly complete in themselves, lacking nothing but the imagination of the sympathetic reader. They borrow from the actual world around them, but in the end it's most important that the fictional world is true, not that it intersects with the real world in arbitrary or trivial ways. Because, I gotta say, there's plenty about every one of these novels that is untrue, regardless of how particular dates and events mesh. And, at their best, the novels contain other truths that have little to do with their historical accuracy - let's save that for later in the week.

I liked the approach Steve Hockensmith took to his "cowboy detectives on a train" story. In his acknowledgments, he thanks seven railroad buffs and one gun expert. His research is not meticulous - he just asked someone what he needed to do to keep the sticklers happy. The topography of the train is actually incorporated into the plot, but even that doesn't really matter - different order of train cars, slightly different plot. The world he created is small, but has its own sense, and works fine.

Some authors research their subject as part of their creative method. I'm thinking of Penelope Fitzgerald, novels like The Blue Flower or The Gate of Angels, which seem effortless, but are backed by intense archival work, hours digging around in old newspapers and diaries. The key here is that Fitzgerald used what she learned to inhabit her imaginary world, to make the fiction real. Almost all of the information she acquired in the process is omitted from the book.

Among these mysterical histories, only Carlo Lucarelli, writing about World War II Italy, came close to achieving this effect, carefully failing to explain the importance of every political detail or branch of the secret police. Some of the details are even obscure, or confusing. Good. He trusts his reader, or perhaps just assumes that they're Italians who know what he's talking about.

Every other writer from time to time hits the narrative brakes for an information dump. Hockensmith and Parry came off best, I think because of their first person narrators - they have to stay in character. A few passages in the Victoria Thompson and Michael Pearce novels, though, are little more than encyclopedia entries, on the history of Coney Island, or the politics of Herzogovina, or some other bit of curious lore. Thompson actually writes, about her policeman character, "He'd done some research on Coney Island and learned..." (p. 61), and then we get a page of Thompson's notes. When I said Thompson was clumsy, I meant passages like this.

The same problem plagues historical novels of any stripe, not just mysteries. Walter Scott's novels often include detailed notes about the accuracy and sources of his various characters and events. I've read six Scott novels; in saying that I am definitely not including every word in every one of those notes. I remember the notes in Ivanhoe as being especially dull. Better historical novels - The Scarlet Letter, or Alessandro Manzoni's The Betrothed - excise everything that is merely factual.

But, but, but, given that a novel or novelist may not be capable of creating an original world, historical or otherwise, given that the author is not Nathaniel Hawthorne or Penelope Fitzgerald, perhaps accuracy isn't such a bad goal. If a novel's mystery plot is typical for its genre (in every novel I'm considering, it is), the characters brightly colored cardboard, and the themes well-worn if we're lucky, we can at least enjoy some strange and wondrous details extracted from the library by our all too fatigable mystery writer.

Because Victoria Thompson was right - it is neato that there was a hotel on Coney Island shaped like a giant elephant. I had no idea. By all means, use that in a novel. I'm happy to know about it.


  1. I need to re-read War and Peace because so many people find it wonderful (but probably never will, given I didn't like it the first time and it is rather long), but I found it clumsy in the way you describe here. A few pages of story, several pages of history, several pages of Tolstoy telling you how the story and the point of view were reshaping history, then back to the story.

  2. I think there is a bit of a fine line to walk--and this goes for historical fiction of all types. You certainly don't want recitations of fact, or contrived chances for the author to show just how much research was done. But at the same time, you want to be able to have some confidence that things are accurate, or at least accurate enough that reading the novel won't leave you with lifelong misconceptions about its setting, gleaned and given root through osmosis.

    Also, I find that it really makes a difference how much you as a reader know about the thing in question, because while you might be being a stickler, wrong details will cause things to ring immediately false if you know what you're talking about. But that's even more likely to happen with novels set just a few years in the past, or in the present, I find.

  3. I am reminded of an elephant hotel (if I recall correctly) at the Jersey Shore (just south of Atlantic City, I believe); it was quite the early and mid-20th century tourist mecca. So, this suggests, a question: Did Victoria Thompson have her facts wrong and somehow transplanted the Jersey elephant to Coney Island? Or, here is another question: Could there really have been two of those bizarre monstrosities? If so, why?

  4. As you have raised the issue of accuracy in historical mysteries, make sure you check out the review of Doctorow's new book (which I think I saw at NYT). Doctorow, always one to play fast and lose with facts, has another "historical novel" on the market. And, if I were more helpful, I could have told you the title, but I'm sure you'll track it down.

  5. CORRECTION: The Doctorow review appeared in the Christian Science Monitor and here it is.

  6. 2nd CORRECTION: I meant to say Wall Street Journal. I apologize for the half-baked and error filled postings. Perhaps I need to take a break. Adios.

  7. For me, the problem is not historical accuracy, although I prefer that the author gets it right. What does bother me is the manner in which the information is conveyed throughout the work. If it is done skillfully and appears to be part of the story, that would be a strong point in the author's favor.
    Numerous lectures and asides, however, get in the way of the flow.

    I don't mind an occasional lecture by the narrator if I feel it's essential to the work. But, it should be necessary and short.

    Victor Hugo, in _Les Miserables_ gives the reader a complete chapter, some 50 to 75 pages, on the battle of Waterloo, simply so he can justify a plot element which could have been handled easily in 1/10th the length.

  8. Well, now that someone else has brought up Les Misérables, I'll comment that humans apparently have an obsession with living in giant elephant-shaped things. It's some sort of primal human urge.
    And yet, it is not the least plausible. I say an author deserves points for including highly implausible historical detail!

  9. Hear, hear! to this post. While I do get annoyed by historical novels that seem nothing more than costume dramas in which modern people and their modern attitudes are plunked down in a quasi-historical setting (why not just write a contemporary novel?), it's simply unrealistic to expect historical novelists to get every tiny detail right. I look for a sense of authenticity in a historical novel, not "accuracy," which fiction, by definition, cannot supply.

    A much bigger aggravation are historical novels that read like history books instead of novels because the author has researched the period so exhaustively s/he can't bear to leave anything out. At www.HistoricaNovels.info, I get review copies of a lot of self-published novels whose authors simply can't understand this point: it is an essential quality of fiction that it tell a compelling story.

  10. First: What helpful comments. This is a rich subject. Plenty here I hadn't thought about.

    Now, let's see. The Coney Island Elephant Hotel and the New Jersey elephant were actually designed by the same architect! Please note that the Wiki entry is inaccurate, apparently unaware of the existence of Napoleon's elephant folly, which, as noted, Hugo uses in Les Miserables.

    Thanks for he link to the Doctorow review. The postmodernists and their kin represent a strain of thought I didn't mention. History is malleable, just material for the novelist.

    So, nicole, one way I deal with the issue is that I never entirely believe anything I read in a novel. Extreme case, for discussion purposes only: what about a work where every single detail is invented, where nothing is "real"? Waiting for Godot, maybe, or Alice in Wonderland. Why doesn't everything then ring false? How do we lose or gain confidence in the author?

    SpSq, I think you're misstating the War and Peace ratios - it's many, many pages of story, followed by many, many pages of historical essay. I would not have minded if Tolstoy had put more of that business into an appendix, or another book entirely. Or a desk drawer.

    But, now, pace Fred, I become contrary. Maybe it's the other way - maybe the plot element in Les Miserables is there to justify the inclusion of the essay on Waterloo. Meaning, maybe the Waterloo section, or the convent section, or the Cistercian monks are the important things in the book, or just as important as the story. In The Rings of Saturn, there's a chapter on the natural history of the herring. The plot of the novel is "Sebald goes for a long walk." Maybe those herring, and the Battle of Waterloo, are there for a reason?

    Margaret D. - what a resource you've put together. I had no idea. Thanks for stopping by.

  11. I stand totally corrected. Lots and lots of pages.