A 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.