Thursday, August 27, 2009


On Tuesday, Margaret D, host of the remarkable site, asked a pertinent question: why even bother with a historical novel? Meaning, the historical aspect should have some sort of point. My pile of five novels do pretty well by that standard. It's the contemporary mystery that turned out to be pointless.

Here's where I say nice things about Victoria Thompson and Murder on St. Mark's Place. I didn't like it that much, but I understood why she chose the story she did. In this novel, so-called "charity girls" are being beaten and killed. "Charity girls" are immigrant girls, factory workers, mostly, who pick up men at dance halls. They're not prostitutes, they insist, because they don't take money, just gifts.

The detective is a New York midwife, now living in a working class area, but actually from an old, wealthy Dutch family. She is independent, tough, a typical literary "strong female character." The world of young women who go dancing every night and go to hotels, or worse, with strange men is completely unknown to her. She's an outsider who can fill the reader in on all of the shocking details. This is how we get out to Coney Island, by the way, to see that Elephant Hotel - that's a place where men take their dates.

I thought this was all pretty interesting. The novel is not merely about violence against women, but also about the social changes of the past one hundred years. Some things have improved enormously for women in this situation - their incomes are dramatically different, for example. But the fear of violence, if not the risk, from men, strangers or otherwise, remains.

So Thompson's then/now comparison has some power, a resonance that the mystery itself, standard genre business, lacked. The novel has plenty of problems, but it has a meaningful purpose.

I'm pretty sure that Michael Pearce's A Dead Man in Trieste has a serious purpose as well. I just didn't understand the argument he was making. Something about the role of the individual in larger events, or the role of the artist in guiding history, or something like that. Avant garde art is a necessary but futile protest against the march toward war? So disappointing, because Trieste is such an interesting city, and it was fun to see the author play with Marinetti and Futurism. But I'm not sure that it amounted to anything more than play.

The Carlo Lucarelli and Owen Parry novel both investigate the compromises necessary for justice. Few ideas are more common in mysteries now, but the question is a big one, and worth pursuing from different perspectives - the unjust world of fascist Italy, the righteous cause of the fight against slavery.

Neither of those novels has an especially original purpose. Steve Hockensmith's On the Wrong Track has no purpose at all, besides good clean fun. Mostly clean - there are a few descriptions of gunshot wounds that are bizarrely gory, well out of character. Some misguided attempt at realism? A trivial book, I'm afraid, but not a disappointment. It is what it is.

And what book isn't, but that won't keep me from complaining about John Banville's The Lemur. I learned one thing from this book, namely that Banville can simplify his style when he wants to. Stylistically, The Lemur is Banville-lite, but still elegant, finely polished. No clichés in the prose. Why then, are the characters and plot nothing but clichés? Gee, that character is just like John Huston in Chinatown, I was thinking, just before John Huston strolls onto the page in a cameo! So Banville knows. Everything is borrowed. Calling it a pastiche or homage (to whom?) would be a kindness. It's a completely hollow novel. Why did he bother?$?$?$


  1. I'm not sure I agree that the historical setting has to have a point. I should influence the story, of course--how can it not? But a good tale is a good tale.

    My problem with historical fiction is the idea of reading it to gain a sense of "what it was really like." I just don't trust that idea. A modern writer will always carry some degree of modern point of view to the material.

    I think it's better to read the literature of the period to find out "what is was really like." That has it's own set of problems, but at least it is presented without any sense of looking backwards.

  2. I'm really enjoying this series of posts. I have really never read a "period" mystery I've thoroughly enjoyed. Mind you, I'm disappointed so often in mysteries I pick up that I'm not sure this has much to do with the historical aspects--but they rarely help and often hinder. I find much genre fiction just too thin to be really interesting (and I say this as someone who appreciates and takes a genuine interest in mystery fiction as a genre and teaches it regularly with much attention to questions about how clear the lines can even be between "literary" and "genre" fiction, etc.) I have the same reaction to much straight historical fiction these days: I just read another of Sarah Dunant's much-hyped "women in the Renaissance" series, for instance, and was completely underwhelmed. Yes, there's a lot of ornamental period detail, and there's a plot, but where are the ideas?

  3. C.B., it turns out we're debating the exact points I'm reading about in Manzoni's 1850 On the Historical Novel. Depending on how I define the problem, I either completely agree with you, or object strongly.

    Not about one of your ideas, though - none of the historical novels I read here give a sense of "what it was really like." In certain superficial ways, they do, sure. But you're right, they fundamentally contemporary novels, whatever the setting.

    Rohan, your posts about your mystery fiction class were am influence on this week's writing (wandering into a good mystery book store was another). Perhaps one of my problems is that I don't read any of these books as genre fiction, and therefore don't forgive them for the genre-imposed restrictions. The final confrontation with the killer, for example, not a good scene in any of these books. By then, I already knew how the story would go, but there was still this fuss to get through.

  4. Say, Tom, as a Banville expert, what do you recommend by him?

  5. Expert, very funny.

    I think The Book of Evidence is his best book. The Untouchable a first-rate spy novel of the psychological rather than active variety, and the two novel-biographies of scientists, Doctor Copernicus and Kepler, excellent if you have any interest in the subjects.

    After that, well, how much do you like his sentences? He wrote a lot more of them. Late James merged with Nabokov.

    1. I don't know his sentences, I never read the guy. But I'm curious because, well, I see lots of people raving about them sentences.

    2. I mean, once you have read The Book of Evidence or The Untouchable that will be the question.