Category Archives: C.J. Sansom

Too Much Information Running Through My Brain*

Part of the reason that people enjoy historical fiction is that it can give really interesting information about a particular time and place. That’s part of why, for many readers, it’s important that their historical fiction be accurate. They want to learn from it, which is hard to do if it’s not realistic.

But that presents a challenge. Even if you don’t read much historical fiction, you probably know that many periods of history haven’t been exactly pleasant. Wars, disease, high infant mortality, lack of hygiene, and plenty of other factors could make life miserable. That’s especially true for those who were poor or otherwise disenfranchised. At the same time as readers of historical fiction want realistic depictions, they may very well not want unrelenting misery. So, what’s the balance? How can an author depict a particular historical period honestly, yet in an engaging way? Everyone has a different idea of what ‘counts’ as the right amount of realism. But here are a few examples of books and series that strike that balance.

Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites is the fictional retelling of the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, one of the last people to be executed for murder in Iceland. The novel takes place beginning in 1828, when two farmers, Natan Ketilsson and Pétur Jónsson, are murdered, allegedly by Agnes Magnúsdóttir, Friðrik Sigurðsson, and Sigrídur ‘Sigga’ Gudmondsdóttir. The three suspects are found guilty, and are sentenced to death. It’s decided that, rather than spend the money to keep Agnes housed in a prison, she will be sent to live with District Officer Jón Jónsson, his wife, Margrét, and their two daughters, Steina and Lauga. There, so it’s believed, she will benefit from living with a ‘good Christian family’ for her last months. And the government won’t be responsible for feeding and housing her. The family will benefit, too, from her work. As the story goes on, we slowly get to know Agnes, and we learn about her past, her relationship with the other two convicted of the crime, and their reasons. Throughout the novel, Kent is clear about what life was like at that time, and in that place, especially if you were a woman and a convict. There’s no glossing over. At the same time, the attention is on the story, rather than on every gritty detail.

One could say much the same thing about C.J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake series. Shardlake is a lawyer who lives and works in London during the reign of King Henry VIII. It’s a very uncertain time, with religious upheaval, political intrigue, and strained international relations. Life’s not easy for the average person; in fact, it can be quite bleak. And even those with means are not immune from disease, persecution, and more. Against this backdrop, Shardlake has to move very carefully. He knows he works at the pleasure of the king and his advisors. If he does anything to displease them, he risks everything. Sansom doesn’t make light of the grim realities of life at that time. That said, though, the focus is on the mysteries and the plot threads relating to them.

It is in Ariana Franklin/Diana Norman’s Adelia Aguilar series, too. These novels take place in the 12h Century, during the rule of King Henry II. Aguilar is a doctor, originally from the University at Salerno, who is summoned by the king to investigate a murder. Life at this time is grueling, especially for women and other disenfranchised people. In fact, for her own safety, Aguilar has to work ‘behind the scenes’ and pretend that the medical work is done by Simon Menahm – Simon of Naples – who came with her to England. It’s too dangerous for a woman to be involved in medical science. Superstition plays a major role in people’s lives, and that, too, makes life difficult. That’s not to mention the other hardships that people faced at the time. But the focus of these novels is on the cases at hand. It’s not that Franklin/Norman plays down the realities of the times. Rather, the emphasis is on the stories, instead of on the ‘gory details.’

Kate Grenville’s The Secret River tells the story of William Thornhill and his family, who move from London to Sydney 1806, when Thornill is sentenced to transportation for stealing a load of wood. The family makes a new start, with Thornhill earning a living by making deliveries up and down the local river. His wife, Sal, sets up a makeshift pub. Little by little, they settle in. But as they do, they come into increasing conflict with the people who were always there.  That conflict ends in some brutal atrocities. Although Thornhill wants no part of this sort of bloodshed, he soon sees that he’ll have to get his hands dirty if he’s to build a life on the piece of land he dreams of owning. Grenville is realistic about what it was like to be poor in London at that time, and later, what it was like to live in a penal colony. It’s dirty, exhausting, and sometimes very ugly. Lifespans are not long, and disease kills very quickly. That said, though, there isn’t exhaustive detail about the grimness of live. Rather, Grenville’s focus is on the story of how the Thornhill family makes a new life in Australia.

Brian Stoddart’s Superintendent Christian ‘Chris’ Le Fanu novels are set in 1920’s India, mostly in Madras (today’s Chennai). Life’s not really easy, even for the British, who are firmly in charge. It’s much more difficult for anyone else, especially the poor who happen to be Indian. Although there have been some medical advances, there’s still a high mortality rate. As is mentioned in The Pallampur Predicament,
 

‘If there was a scourge left for the British in India, it was illness in many forms.’
 

That said, though, Stoddart’s focus is the mystery at hand in each novel. There’s no glossing over some of the difficulties of life; at the same time, the novels don’t dwell on them.

That’s also arguably true of the work of other authors, such as Sulari Gentill, Gordon Ferris, and Felicity Young. It’s not an easy balance to strike. On the one hand, readers want realistic portrayals. On the other, most readers don’t want unrelenting bleakness. What’s your personal balance? If you’re a writer of historical crime fiction, how do you acknowledge the difficulties of life in other times without letting them overpower your plots?
 

ps. The ‘photo is from Abba Eban’s Heritage: Civilization and the Jews, and was reprinted there from the Bettmann Archives. It shows a tenement in New York’s Lower East Side not long after the turn of the 20th Century.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Police’s Too Much Information.

21 Comments

Filed under Ariana Franklin, Brian Stoddart, C.J. Sansom, Diana Norman, Felicity Young, Gordon Ferris, Hannah Kent, Kate Grenville, Sulari Gentill

How the Mighty Have Fallen*

Being powerful certainly has its advantages. Things get done on your say-so, and you have access to things that you otherwise wouldn’t. It’s not surprising that a lot of people would like to be powerful.

But that’s just the problem. People in power can be very vulnerable, because others want that power. And there’s no guarantee that someone with power will stay in that powerful position. Just ask Thomas Cromwell, who was arrested on this date in 1540. As you’ll know, he was one of King Henry VIII’s most trusted advisors. And he had a great deal of influence. But that didn’t stop the king having him arrested and, a bit more than a month later, executed.

Hilary Mantel’s historical novels, Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies, and the upcoming The Mirror and the Light, tell the story of Cromwell’s rise, fall, and execution. They may not be, strictly speaking, considered crime fiction. But there are plenty of crimes mentioned in them. And they show how illusory power can be. And there are plenty of other historical figures whose stories show that, too. I’m sure you can think of many more than I could. We certainly see it in historical crime fiction, right, fans of C.J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake novels?

We see how vulnerable the powerful can be in lots of crime fiction, actually. For instance, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Scandal in Bohemia, Sherlock Holmes gets a visit from the King of Bohemia. He’s soon to marry a wealthy Scandinavian princess, and that union is expected to advance both of their fortunes. But there’s one big problem: an actress named Irene Adler. She and the king are former lovers, and she has a compromising photograph of them. The king wants Holmes to get that photograph, because he knows that if his fiancée finds out about it, the marriage won’t happen. Holmes agrees, and soon learns that he is up against a most worthy adversary. In fact, as fans of the Holmes stories know, she bests Holmes.  In this case, power has advantages for the king, but it also leaves him at a disadvantage.

In Claudia Piñeiro’s Thursday Night Widows, which takes places in the late 1990s, we are introduced to the wealthy, powerful families who live in an enclave called The Cascade Heights Country Club. Known as ‘The Heights,’ it’s a gated, ultra-exclusive community located about 30 miles from Buenos Aires. Only the very wealthiest and most powerful people can afford to live there, and even they are ‘vetted’ carefully. The people who live in The Heights are protected from the daily struggles that a lot of people in Argentina face, and they are in completely unassailable social positions. Everything changes, though, when Argentina’s economic problems find their way into the community. The very power that has protected its residents also means that they have to live up their reputations. Many aren’t prepared to leave the community, find more affordable places to live, and so on. And for some, their social status has become so important that they can’t imagine life without it. And that leads to real tragedy.

Olavo Bettencourt learns how vulnerable power can make a person in Edney Silvestre’s Happiness is Easy. He’s an advertising executive whose services are much in demand. And, with Brazil’s political process getting more open, Bettencourt has found that political candidates are advertising more and more. And this means he’s steadily acquiring more and more power. But he’s trapped, although he’s not really aware of it, because he’s engaged in several corrupt business deals. He’s certainly being manipulated more than he thinks. That becomes all too painfully clear when a gang decides to kidnap his son, Olavinho. It’s a logical choice, given Bettancourt’s money and power. But the gang abducts the wrong boy. Instead of Olavinho, they take the son of the Bettancourts’ housekeeper. Now, the gang has to decide what to do with the boy they kidnapped, and what to do about their original plans. And Bettancourt has to decide how much to tell the media and the police. After all, if he shares too much information, he could be vulnerable to prosecution. Not enough, and the result could be tragic.

Fans of Qiu Xiaolong’s Chief Inspector Chen Cao series can tell you that these novels often focus on those in power – the High Cadre. On the one hand, they are very important people. They make the decisions, they have all of the ‘perks’ that power brings, and so on. On the other hand, because they’re in such enviable positions, there are plenty of other people who would like nothing better than to take that power for themselves. So, even though they tend to protect each other, they are also very vulnerable to one another. And, they’re vulnerable to the ‘court of public opinion.’ Their public reputation can be, and is, used against them.

Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Armand Gamache isn’t what you’d call wealthy. And he’s not at the proverbial top of the tree when it comes to his position within the Sûreté du Québec. But he’s legendary in terms of his ability to solve cases. And he’s well-known as a person who supports his teammates, and coaches his juniors in helpful ways. So, in that sense, he has a certain amount of ‘clout’ within the Sûreté. And that’s part of what makes him vulnerable. In one story arc, we learn that several people would like to see him fail, and will stop at very little to succeed in that.

And that’s the thing about power. It’s most definitely got its advantages. But it also puts a person in a very vulnerable position. These are only a few examples. Over to you.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Hoodoo Gurus.

16 Comments

Filed under Arthur Conan Doyle, C.J. Sansom, Claudia Piñeiro, Edney Silvestre, Hilary Mantel, Louise Penny, Qiu Xiaolong

Always Shouts Out Something Obscene*

An interesting pair of events happened on this day, only five years apart. In 1955, copies of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl were seized as being obscene. Only five years later, D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover was ruled not obscene. It’s all got me to thinking about our standards for what ‘counts’ as too explicit, too violent, or in some other way too graphic. To an extent, beliefs about what ‘should’ and ‘shouldn’t’ be discussed are a product of the times. But there are arguably other factors at play, too.

For instance, like several writers of her generation, Agatha Christie didn’t really write about explicit sex. And certain other topics were also taboo. Yet, she made her meaning clear enough. For instance, in Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect), Hercule Poirot investigates the sixteen-year-old poisoning murder of famous painter Amyas Crale. At the time of his death, he was having an affair with Elsa Greer, who was staying in Crale’s home (she was modeling for a painting he was doing). The fact of that relationship, plus some solid evidence, placed Crale’s wife, Caroline, under suspicion. In fact, she was arrested, tried and convicted, dying in prison a year later. But now, her daughter wants her name cleared, and Poirot agrees to try. Of course, if Caroline Crale was innocent, that means that someone else is guilty. So, part of Poirot’s task is to find out who that someone else might have been. One possibility is family friend Philip Blake. As it turns out, he had strong feelings for Caroline and, in fact, asked her to have an affair with him:
 

‘‘I never liked her, if you understand. But it would have been easy at any moment for me to make love to her…She came to my room. And then, with my arms around her, she told me quite coolly that it was no good! After all, she said, she was a one-man woman.’’
 

In this novel, first published in 1942, there are a few discussions of adultery and illicit affairs. They’re important in the story, but neither is described in detail.

Three years earlier, in 1939, Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep was published. In that novel, PI Philip Marlowe is hired by Guy Sternwood to stop an extortionist named Arthur Geiger.  When Marlowe tracks Geiger to his office, he finds that Geiger’s just been killed.  Worse, Sternwood’s daughter, Carmen, is in the room. She’s too drugged or dazed to be of much help, but Marlowe doesn’t want her dragged into the situation any more than necessary. So, he gets her out of the room. With Geiger dead, Marlowe thinks he’s done with the Sternwoods, but the truth turns out to be quite different. At one point, for instance, Carmen turns up in Marlowe’s place (he actually finds her in his bed), and her purpose is obviously to seduce him:
 

‘Then she took her left hand from under her head and took hold of the covers, paused dramatically, and swept them aside. She was undressed all right.’
 

There’s more, but this should be enough to show that, even though this novel was published a few years before Five Little Pigs, it’s more explicit. Most people classify the Philip Marlowe novels as noir, which tends to be more graphic than is the work of more traditional Golden Age authors such as Christie. So, part of what ‘counts’ as too much explicitness could very well be a matter of sub-genre. For instance, cosy mysteries are, in part, defined by their lack of explicitness.

Another factor at play here may be context. For example, C.J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake series takes place during the Tudor years. Shardlake is an attorney, which gets him involved in the murder cases he investigates. Throughout the series, there are references, for instance, to affairs. But they’re more oblique references, and aren’t described in detail. It’s not because Sansom is required to avoid explicitness. Rather, that series isn’t the right context for it. It takes place at a time when such things were not discussed (at least publicly) using the ‘blow by blow’ accounts that we sometimes see in today’s novels. So a very graphic description wouldn’t really fit in with the rest of the context.

On the other hand, Lawrence Block’s Small Town, published in the same year (2003) as the first Matthew Shardlake novel, is quite different. It features a serial killer nicknamed the Carpenter, and a collection of different New York characters, including a dominatrix and the ex-police commissioner who falls in love with her. There’s plenty of drug use, sex, and other explicitness in this novel. It’s that sort of story. Block doesn’t include those aspects for ‘shock value.’

There’s also, of course, the matter of personal taste. Some readers are bothered by any mention of sex beyond the most oblique reference. Others don’t mind the detail. And, although the focus in this post has mostly been about sex, the same might be said for anything else that could be considered ‘obscene.’

For instance, James Ellroy’s LA Quartet has quite a lot of extremely explicit language. The same goes for Karin Slaughter’s Cop Town. Christopher Brookmyre’s work also can get quite explicit. Many readers prefer to avoid that sort of language; others aren’t so bothered by it. Is it obscene? That’s a difficult question to answer. I would argue (and please feel free to differ with me if you do) that the language in those books is not out of context. That is, it’s not put there for shock value. It’s woven into the stories and helps to give them their ‘feel.’ That said, though, there’s no denying that it’s profanity, and profanity offends some readers (or at least, it’s language they’re rather not read or hear).

This is, perhaps, part of why it’s so difficult to define ‘obscene. What ‘counts’ as obscene varies a great deal based on time, on context, on individual taste, and on other things. So, while there are some things that just about all of us would call obscene, there are others that aren’t at all so clear. What’s your view? What’s your ‘barometer,’ if you have one?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Beatles’ Mean Mr. Mustard.

25 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Allen Ginsberg, C.J. Sansom, Christopher Brookmyre, D.H. Lawrence, James Ellroy, Karin Slaughter, Lawrence Block, Raymond Chandler

I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish*

DNFIf you read enough, sooner or later you’ll run across a book that you shove aside in exasperation, or even disgust. I think it happens to us all. There are a lot of reasons this might happen, of course. And the challenge for authors, editors and publishers is that different readers are put off by different things.

That said, though, there are some things that really do seem to pull readers right out of a story. One of those things – and the most important thing to some readers – is credibility. And there are all sorts of ways in which you can conceive of that word. For instance, readers want their characters to ‘feel’ real. They don’t, as a rule, want characters to have superhuman powers, or behave in ways that aren’t logical, given that character’s personality.

That’s one reason, for instance, why many people find Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch an appealing character. He’s a police detective, not a superhero. He’s a normal sort of person. He certainly has his issues, but he pays the consequences when he makes mistakes (and those mistakes add to his credibility).

It’s not just characters, though. Readers also like plot elements to ring true. And that’s possible even in thrillers. For example, Bill Selnes, who blogs at Mysteries and More From Saskatchewan, makes the well-taken point that the most engaging thrillers focus on catastrophes that could really happen. He’s right. And he mentions Drew Chapman’s The King of Fear (a novel I’ve not yet read, I admit) as an example of a thriller that is quite credible in that way.

Another element that can pull a reader out of a book is a lack of appealing characters. And, interestingly a character doesn’t have to be someone you’d like in person in order to be appealing.  But most readers want at least one character they care about – whose fate actually matters to them. It doesn’t bode well for a book if the reader doesn’t care whether a crime is solved or not, because both the victim and the sleuth are so annoying that it doesn’t really matter what happens to either.

And that’s one reason for which Arnaldur Indriðason’s series featuring Inspector Erlendur has been so highly regarded. As we learn about the different members of Erlendur’s team, those characters become fleshed out, and it’s easy for readers to care about what happens to them. The same is true for the various victims, witnesses and ‘people of interest’ in the Erlendur novels. Many readers find that they care about what happens to those people, and want to know what happened to the victims.

There’s also the matter of length (you were waiting for this one, weren’t you?). A book that’s very long runs the risk of being plodding. And when a plot drags on, with nothing to keep the reader’s interest, this makes the reader more likely to disengage. I’ll bet you’ve all had the experience of wading through far too many pages of description, so that you got thoroughly fed up.

That said, this doesn’t mean that a long book can’t also be really absorbing. C.J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake novels are long. So are Hilary Mantel’s (which, interestingly enough, take place during the same time period). And so is Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries. And I’ll bet your personal list of top authors includes some who’ve written long books. It complicates matters, too, that we all have different ideas about what counts as a book that’s too long. But for the most part, readers want a plot to move along.

They also want a plot that doesn’t depend on a lot of extreme violence and brutality. Violence is, of course, pretty much inherent in crime fiction for obvious reasons. But violence for its own sake puts a lot of readers off.

Many of John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee novels are violent. And MacDonald doesn’t gloss over the ugliness, either. But at the same time, it’s not protracted violence. Fans will also tell you that the violence serves the plot. It’s not there for its own sake. That’s arguably one of the reasons that this series has had such lasting appeal. Of course, violence is another quite subjective element. The answer to the question, ‘How much is too much?’ often depends on which reader you ask.

And then there’s the matter of what readers think is offensive. If you’ve ever read a book that’s full of ‘isms’ that bother you, you know what I mean. Or, perhaps you’ve read a book with a lot of language that offends you, or with explicitness that you don’t like. Those kinds of things can really upset readers, so that they’re no longer interested in the story at all. Like everything else, what counts as ‘offensive’ varies, sometimes a lot. That doesn’t make it easy for authors, editors and publishers. But readers know what upsets them, and they will stop reading if a book pushes that ‘envelope.’

What about you? What’s the quickest route to the DNF pile for you? Let me know if you’d like in the poll below, and we’ll talk about it again in a week or so. Psst… You can choose more than one element in this poll if you want to.

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by The Smiths.

52 Comments

Filed under Arnaldur Indriðason, C.J. Sansom, Drew Chapman, Hilary Mantel, John D. MacDonald, Michael Connelly

When I Want to Run Away*

Books as EscapismLet’s face it: the world is sometimes not very much fun at all. Whether it’s your personal or professional life, or the larger world in general, there are times when you just need to take a break. And book lovers know that there’s nothing like the right book to help you escape.

We all have our own ‘escape routes,’ too. Some readers like to turn to light crime fiction. You know, the kind that takes place in small towns, with a minimum of violence, quirky characters, and maybe even some romance. There are many examples of this kind of cosy mystery, of course. Lorna Barrett’s Booktown mysteries, which feature mystery bookshop owner Tricia Miles fall into this category. So do Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Southern Quilting mysteries, which ‘star’ retired folk art curator Beatrice Coleman. If you enjoy cosy series, I’ll bet you’ve got several to add to this list.

These series, when they’re done well, can create for the reader a world where things work out, and where it’s all going to be all right. It’s a little tricky to do such a series well, though, without it getting too ‘frothy.’ The best cosy series have enough realism and solid characters that they’re not too full of ‘sugar content.’

Those kinds of series aren’t for everyone, though. For some people, ‘escape’ means a ‘high-octane’ sort of thriller, complete with narrow escapes, undercover operatives, and shadowy groups. Robet Ludlum’s Jason Bourne novels come to my mind as an example of this. So does Lindy Cameron’s Redback, which features a crack team of Australian retrieval/rescue specialists who go up against a mysterious and very dangerous terrorist group. By the way, Ms.Cameron, if you happen to be reading this, I think Redback would make a terrific film.

Some thriller fans don’t mind suspending quite a lot of disbelief, and it’s easy to see why. It’s escapism, and doesn’t necessarily reflect real life. Other thriller fans like their ‘wild rides’ to be more realistic. So, for the thriller author, there’s always the question of just how much to stretch credibility. But even so, there are plenty of readers for whom ‘escape’ means the ways in which Ian Fleming’s James Bond gets himself out of trouble.

‘Escape’ can have another meaning too: travel. For some readers, the novels they read when they need to ‘get away from it all’ are set in exotic places. I see you out there, fans of Andrea Camilleri’s Salvo Montalbano series. It’s not hard to appreciate the allure of gorgeous weather, delicious food and white, sandy beaches. Shamini Flint’s Inspector Singh series is also set in what for many people is an exotic location: Singapore. Inspector Singh travels quite a lot in the series, to places such as Mumbai, Beijing, Cambodia and Bali. So the novels really give the reader a chance to ‘visit’ all sorts of different locations.

A series set in an exciting, different sort of place can’t just trade on its setting, of course. The story and characters do matter, and readers don’t want their crime novels to start resembling a travelogue. But sometimes, when the world gets a bit much, a virtual trip to Greece, or Malaysia, or Ibiza, or perhaps Botswana, can be very enticing indeed.

There are also plenty of crime fiction fans who like to escape using a virtual time machine. Life might not have been better during the Victorian Era, or Ancient Rome, or the early 1950s. In fact, in some ways, it was very much harder. But it can be really interesting to learn about life in a very different time. And isn’t it nice to contemplate a life without spam email and ‘robo-calls?’ C.J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake novels, for instance, are set in Tudor England. Life at that time, and in that place, wasn’t very easy, even if you had money. But there’s plenty of court intrigue and insights on the customs of the times to invite readers to forget their modern-day worries, at least for a time. Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce series is set in the 1950’s mostly in the English village of Bishop’s Lacey. It’s not completely idyllic; there’s post-war financial difficulty, for instance. But Bradley does evoke a quieter time.

Of course, readers only enjoy literary escapes if their destinations are well-written. It’s not enough to have a cosy premise, or an exciting ‘thrill ride,’ or a solid historical context. Character development and story content really do matter. But that said, there are just some novels and series that are perfect ‘getaway vehicles.’ I’ve mentioned a few. Now it’s your turn. When you’re looking for a book simply to escape, what sort of series do you choose? If you’re a writer, do you write escapist novels? I know, that’s not an easy question as we all define that term differently. What’s your take on this?

 

On Another Note…

 

Thanks very much to all of you who voted on which of my stories you’d like to see continued. It means a lot to me that you liked them that well. Interestingly, A Bite to Eat and Giving All Your Clothes to Charity were tied. So the matter was settled by a coin toss. The winner? A Bite to Eat.  Look for the next instalment very soon!

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Peter Gabriel’s In Your Eyes.

35 Comments

Filed under Alan Bradley, Andrea Camilleri, C.J. Sansom, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Ian Fleming, Lindy Cameron, Lorna Barrett, Robert Ludlum, Shamini Flint