Gotta Go Back in Time*

Historical NovelsA very interesting recent blog post discussion has got me thinking about what really counts as an historical crime novel. You might think at first glance that that’s an easy question to answer. But it’s not as easy as you might think. Let me use a few examples to show you what I mean.

As Ellis Peters, Dame Edith Pargeter created one of the best-known historical crime fiction series, the Cadfael novels. Those novels take place in 11th Century Britain and many of them are set in and near fictional Shrewsbury Abbey. I think most people would agree that these novels ‘count’ as historical fiction. They weren’t written during that century, and that time period was a very long time ago. This one’s a fairly easy call.

So, I think, is Ariana Franklin’s Mistress of the Art of Death series. Those novels take place in Medieval England and feature Adelia Aguilar, who has journeyed from the University of Salerno in Naples to England at the request of the king. Again, that series was not written during the time in which it takes place, and that time was a very long time ago.

We could say the same of series such as Peter Tremayne’s Sister Fidelma series, which takes place in 7th Century Ireland, or C.J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake series, which takes place during the reign of King Henry VIII. There’s also Michael Jecks’ Medieval Murder series. All of these are easy to put into the category of ‘historical’ because they take place a very long time ago, and they weren’t written at that time. I’m quite certain you could think of many more series that fall into this category than I ever could.

Of course, there are lots of series that take place more recently than that, but are still generally considered historical. For instance, both Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher series and Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series take place in the 1920’s. While that puts them within the 20th Century, it’s still not that far from a hundred years ago, and most people consider that long enough ago, if I may put it that way, to be considered historical. There are lots of other series too – more than I have space for here – that fall into this category.

Even novels and series that take place more recently than the 1920’s ‘count’ as historical for many people. Just as a few examples, there’s Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series (pre-World War II – 1950’s Berlin), William Ryan’s Alexei Korolev series (pre-World War II Moscow) and Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce series (1950’s England). There are many, many other examples of this sort of series too.

So far, so good. I think most people would agree that these series are historical crime fiction series. But as we get closer to modern times, it’s a little bit more difficult I think to make the distinction between what does and what doesn’t ‘count’ as an historical series.

For example, David Whish-Wilson’s Frank Swann series takes place in 1970’s Perth.  If you were alive during those years, you might not be so quick to think of these novels as ‘historical.’ The same is true of Colin Cotterill’s Dr. Siri Paiboun series. That one also takes place during the 1970’s, which for a lot of people doesn’t seem so long ago.

And then there’s James W. Fuerst’s Huge, which takes place in 1980’s New Jersey. It’s historical in the sense that it wasn’t written at the time. And if you give the term ‘historical’ some latitude, you probably count it that way. But if you remember the 1980’s, maybe it seems more current. This one’s not quite so clear.

Even more difficult to categorise are series such as Angela Savage’s Jayne Keeney series. Those novels take place in late-1990’s Thailand. On the one hand, it’s not the late 1990’s any more. And the novels weren’t published during that time. So in that sense these novels are historical. But the late 1990’s wasn’t that long ago (or perhaps that’s just my view…). Perhaps not enough time has passed to consider these stories historical.

As you can see, this isn’t as easy a question to resolve as it seems on the surface. Some series and novels fall quite easily into the ‘historical’ category. But for others, it really depends on what you call ‘history.’ Is a novel that takes place two years ago historical?

What’s your view of this? How long ago does a series have to take place for you to consider it ‘historical?’



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Huey Lewis and the News’ Back in Time.


Filed under Alan Bradley, Angela Savage, Ariana Franklin, C.J. Sansom, David Whish-Wilson, Edith Pargeter, Ellis Peters, Jacqueline Winspear, James W. Fuerst, Kerry Greenwood, Michael Jecks, Peter Tremayne, Philip Kerr, William Ryan

24 responses to “Gotta Go Back in Time*

  1. Very interesting, Margot. When I saw the original comments on this topic, I tried to find a definition I had seen once… but could not at the time. I recently found one used by a journal on historical fiction. It was “a novel which is set fifty or more years in the past, and one in which the author is writing from research rather than personal experience.” Of course that is just a definition set to deal with that journals guidelines, and the article goes on to say that there will always be differing opinions on the topic.

    For my own definition, I might go with the criteria of whether the author lived in the time he/she is writing about. If an author in their 20’s now is writing about the 60’s or the 70’s they are inventing things and doing research (I hope) and not writing from their memory. And the final answer is I don’t care, if the writing is good and the author convinces me of the veracity of the time setting.

    • Tracy – I really like your perspective. Good writing and a convincing sense of place/time is the most important key to a novel, however one classifies it. You also make an interesting point about the author’s age. Certainly if I wrote a book that took place in the ’80’s (which I remember) it’d be different to a book my daughter (who does not) might write. That in itself is a very fertile topic for discussion. Thanks. Oh, and thanks for sharing that article’s definition – fascinating.

  2. I enjoyed the original discussion, and it is an interesting topic. I like Tracy’s comment above – ‘I don’t care, if the writing is good.’ And I like her idea that it depends whether the author lived through the times they are writing about.

    • Moira – Thanks. I think it’s interesting, too. And yes, Tracy has a very good point about whether the author lived through an era. And in the end, you are both right tha t it’s all about the quality of the writing.

  3. Fascinating – I remember thinking about this when reading Some of John Dickson Carr’s last novels, which were set in the 1920s, 50 tears in the past, but also the era in which he had actually written his first stories when of course that was e present day – thanks Margot,

    • Sergio – Oh, that’s really interesting! I hadn’t thought about authors like Carr who wrote for many decades, but there are several. Rex Stout, Agatha Christie and Evan Hunter/Ed McBain come to my mind as examples. All of these authors wrote across several decades. Oh that adds a fascinating dimension to this question, for which thanks.

  4. Even yesterday is technically history, but I think of a historical novel as one set long enough ago that we are able to have some perspective about it. In other words, not about the war in Afghanistan, but certainly about Vietnam.

    • Barbara – Good point; yesterday really is history. And I like your point about having some perspective. Perhaps we do have some about Vietnam, but you’re right; I’m not sure we do about Afghanistan. It’s hard to say how much time’s needed for that perspective, but it does make for a solid historical novel.

  5. Interesting. I’d have said any book that is about a time previous to when the author is writing – until you mentioned the 1990s. Hard to see that as historical. So I guess I’d have to have a cut-off of say, more than thirty years ago. What about novels with double-time lines though? As you know, I’ve just finished Peter May’s latest, and the bulk of it is set in the mid-19th century, but the crime itself is in the present day. I tagged it as both crime and historical fiction…

    • FictionFan – Oh, that’s an excellent point! What about books like May’s (folks, do read FictionFan’s review of Peter May’s Entry Island)? Is that historical? Is it not? I can certainly see why you classify it as historical, but at the same time, it has that present-day timeline as well.
      I can see too why you think of 30 years as a solid cutoff point for what ‘counts’ as historical or not. I think most of us have at least an informal cutoff point like that. And what I’ve noticed is, the older I get, the longer ago a novel has to be to be considered ‘historical…’

  6. kathy d.

    Now I consider Mari Strachan’s The Earth Hums in B Flat, set in 1950s Wales, to be historical fiction. Also, Black Wattle Creek, set in 1957 Australia.
    I do not consider Jayne Keeney’s investigations in Thailand fairly recently to be historical.
    And I’m in-between on Kaaberbol/Friis’ Death of a Nightingale, set in current-day Denmark and 1930s Ukraine. It’s a combination of both,
    and that is how many books are plotted these days — current day setting, alternating with a historical period, including flashbacks.
    If a character is having flashbacks to an earlier time period, what do we consider the book? A current or historical book or a combination?
    Or an author can go back a century to give background.
    Several books lately have motives that hark back to WWII, with scenes, even dialogue from the war time. So, how do we label the books? Or, is it best not to categorize, but just read!

    • Kathy – Now that’s an interesting point; perhaps just reading is a good idea. You actually do bring up a very interesting point. There are many stories now that include either a dual timeline or flashbacks or in some way, some connection to the past. It’s hard to consider those novels as historical, strictly speaking, since they have a modern-day timeline. But they do have an ‘in the past’ timeline too. I’d honestly put them into another category.

      I agree with you too about both The Earth Hums… and Blackwattle Creek. Both are, to me, historical novels. As to the Jayne Keeney series, I find it hard to think about that as historical; it’s just too recent for me, I suppose…

  7. This is a very interesting post, Ms. Kinberg, thank you. I’d like to think of historical fiction, both crime and others, as anything written before I was born. Take WWII, for instance. Although I know a lot about, and have read many books on, the seven-year war, it is still a historical event for me. I’d stretch that argument to other significant events like the Vietnam War or JFK. On the other hand, fiction set in and around the collapse of the Berlin Wall or the Soviet Union wouldn’t be historical because I was “there” when the two catalytic events took place. So a historical novel would have to be about events that have occurred before my time. I hope I make sense.

    • Prashant – You certainly do make sense. And you’re not alone. I think a lot of people see it that way. It’s hard to think of evens one remembers or even witnessed as ‘historical.’ On the other hand, events one learned about in school or in books are historical. It’s a natural way to break the past from the present.

  8. I see historical fiction as using historical events to tell a fictional story. So I suppose anything that uses history, for example a significant event, and is a recognisable era, from the past, is what I would consider to be historical fiction.

    • DS – Your definition makes a lot of sense. It gives some latitude, too, so that it includes novels that take place in the more recent past as well as those that take place in the more distant pass. And using an historical event means that readers can anchor their understanding of the story around a particular era.

  9. So many good ones. I prefer ones that go back just a bit. Like the Maisie Dobbs series. I really don’t want to spend time on a whole new world, I guess. And I especially like books that are set today but look into events in the past as part of the plot.

    • Patti – It’s interesting isn’t it how people do develop preferences for certain kinds of historical crime fiction. And it makes sense to feel comfortable with a novel/series where there’s enough similarity to modern-day life to connect with it. I agree, too – past/present connections are appealing.

  10. Col

    I think I view a historical novel as something which a subject matter dating before my working life started, which is a bit random probably. Say 70’s historical, 80’s plus,maybe not. I have adult memories of the 80’s onwards.

    • Col – Interesting point. I’m sure you’re not the only one whose personal dividing line for ‘historical’ or ‘not historical’ has to do with when one comes of adult age. I think that makes sense.

  11. Interesting post, Margot. I was just about to write that anything not written about the present would count in my book as a historical crime novel but then I thought of Sue Grafton whose books are set in the 80s. I wouldn’t count this as history perhaps because I *ahem* remember it so well.

    • Sarah – Thanks. I know what you mean too about the ‘yardstick’ you use. When one remembers an era, it’s harder isn’t it to count it as history. I think it’s because those years still feel so very real.

  12. Hi. I see this is an old discussion, but the topic is very interesting so I would like to add my two cents.

    I think what I consider historical is something which happened in a time toward which we have some kind of perspective and in which we are not involved anymore. Which culture was different from today’s culture too, in a way that is recognizable. So, although I remember the 1980s, I would consider a novel set in that time to be historical. Not so much the 1990s, because I don’t think we are detached from them as strongly, yet.

    As for the ‘two timelines’ novels… well, I’m not only a history fan, but also a fantasy fan. Tolkien considered ‘fantasy’ a story that build on what he called ‘secondary reality’. I feel a bit the same about historical fiction. If the story builds on a ‘secondary reality’ – and with this I mean the historical setting – that is complete and independent from anything else, then I’d consider the story historical. If the story doesn’t realty completely on the ‘secondary reality’, but anchors itself to ‘our world’ too, then I wouldn’t consider it historical.

    Hope this makes sense.

    • Jazzfeathers – It certainly does make sense. A novel is historical if it’s anchored in another reality – another way of looking at the world. And you could certainly say that about a novel set in the 1980s. The world then was quite different, with different views about life, different technology, etc.. And as you say, we can get a perspective now on those yaers, as a certain amount of time has passed. I’m not quite ready to say that about the late 90s, although not everyone agrees with me. And I find it interesting that you read fantasy too. I’m not as well-versed in that genre, but what I have read has shown me that it can be excellent.

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