This week for the Tuesday Night Bloggers’ month long look at History and Mystery I decided to share with you some of my favourite historical novels and writers. Some of these will probably be familiar to you as my personal favourites, due to the fact that I bang on about them so much, but there are some on the list which I haven’t talked about much on the blog.
- 1. Hans Olav Lahlum’s K2 Series
This is definitely one of the writers which won’t come as a surprise to you. Although this series is only set in the recent past, 1960s and 70s Norway, Lahlum deftly recreates a very specific time and place. Yet in this specific time and place there are political and social issues which the modern reader can identify with, particularly in Lahlum’s most recently translated novel, Chameleon People (2016), which has Norway’s referendum on whether to join the EU or not, as its backdrop.
2. Boris Akunin – Erast Fandorin and Sister Pelagia series
Number two on the list will also not be much of a surprise, as again I witter on about Akunin and his work a lot. The timescale for the Fandorin series is quite long, going from the 1870s until the early 20th century. Moreover, this is a series which is quite global in its settings with Fandorin travelling quite substantial distances in the books, including places such as Turkey, England and Japan. Sister Pelagia’s trilogy has a shorter time span and is unspecified but cultural references place it in the late 1890s or early 1900s. There are a lot of reasons why I like Akunin’s work, but the one which relates to this month’s TNB theme, is how he engagingly and effectively recreates these time periods, which contained a great deal of social, political and technological change. The Fandorin series in particular charts these changes well, not just in the narrative descriptions, but also in the character of Fandorin himself and how he responds to these developments.
3. Robert Van Gulik’s Judge Dee novels
Although my last read from this author was a bit disappointing (see The Lacquer Screen (1962)), Gulik’s earlier work is very enjoyable and I would definitely recommend, The Chinese Maze Murders (1956), The Chinese Bell Murders (1958), The Chinese Gold Murders (1959) and The Chinese Nail Murders (1961) – with the second novel being my favourite. The Judge Dee novels are set in 7th century China and I think Gulik captures the time period well, giving us enough information to make the setting seem intriguing and interesting, without being bogged down by descriptive detail. These novels also interested me as they were often based on records of old criminal cases in China and I liked how Judge Dee had to tackle several crimes at once. Crime readers who enjoy a good puzzle should definitely try Gulik’s work out.
3. Jose Carlos Somoza – The Athenian Murders (2000)
I don’t think anyone would be surprised to hear that this novel is set in 5th/4th Athens, but
this is no conventional historical mystery novel. Somoza’s novel takes metafiction to a whole new level, with their being several layers of storytelling and the final surprise at the end – the final layer of storytelling you might say – is brilliant in the way that it makes you kick yourself for not having expected it sooner. Somoza’s way of depicting history is quite different to the previous authors mentioned on the list and the ones which follow. It is a faithful depiction, you’re not frowning wondering why an ancient Athenian is playing angry bird on his IPad, but nevertheless Somoza’s use of setting is slippery and definitely sneaky, but in a good way.
4. Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs Series
This is one of several series, which have been written in the last decade or so, that sets its’ novels in the aftermath of WW1, featuring a female private investigator. One factor which inspired the author’s interest in this time period was her grandfather’s own suffering in the conflict. Suffering due to the war is a key facet of the Dobbs’ novels and in the central sleuth herself, but also in the clients she helps and the villains she uncovers. However the motivation behind her work is to provide lasting healing for her client’s mental and emotional afflictions.
5. Frances Brody – Kate Shackleton Series
Brody’s series is also set in a similar time period to Winspear’s and again her female protagonist has emotional baggage from the war, with her husband missing in action. For each of these I have read the first three or four and I am aware I am quite behind, with each series being considerably longer now. So why don’t I keep up to date? I’m not entirely sure, as they are both strong series, with a focus on characterisation that always appeals to me. There is also plenty of room for character development with the protagonists who have to deal with their WW1 ghosts. I think the reason comes down to the fact that I over read from this particular type of milieu (modern day writers writing mysteries in the aftermath of WW1 with female protagonists) and therefore regardless of the writing skill, I just became disinterested in returning to it. The narrative arcs and character problems began to become a bit predictable, in the same way that modern police procedural dramas and novels can often have their set tropes. So yes I guess these are two odd entries to my list as they are books I enjoyed but not ones I feel I want to return to. Suffice to say if you haven’t had your surfeit of this particular milieu these are two writers I would recommend trying.
6. Stephanie Barron – Jane Austen series
This is a series which I have only scratched the surface of, having only read three of the 13 books in the series, but it is one I always enjoy when I manage to return to it. It is hard to write a series which not only includes real people from the past, but to also have one of them and a famous one at that, as your sleuthing protagonist. Yet I’ve always thought Barron does this very well and the Regency time period comes through well and is interweaved in the plots, a good example of which can be found in The Wandering Eye (1998), where the then craze for portrait miniatures plays a prominent role in the storyline.
7. Josephine Tey – The Daughter of Time (1951)
A well-known and popular choice for my list, but I think it is deserving of its reputation. I read it early on in my crime reading and the novelty of the approach it took, e.g. dealing with a cold case through historical documents and books, impressed me a lot. I also think it is to Tey’s credit that she maintains reader interest well despite the majority of the action taking place with Inspector Grant lying in a hospital bed.
8. George Arion’s Attack in the Library (1983)
This is a book I came across a couple of years ago when I was trying to find crime fiction from different countries/languages. Attack in the Library (1983) is set in Communist ruled Romanian and one of the biggest reasons why I enjoyed this book was for its depiction of what life was like for everyday people under this regime. Interestingly I was able to have the reliability of this depiction vouched for when I loaned my copy to a Romanian friend. The 2011 translation by Ramona Mitrica, Mike Phillips, and Mihai Risnoveanu, has a great introduction by Phillips which helps orientate readers to the political backdrop of the novel.
9. I J Parker’s The Dragon Scroll (2005) (Sugawara Akitada Series)
This is a series I have felt bad about. I read The Dragon Scroll (2005) a couple of years ago and really enjoyed it and there are definite parallels between the setup of this series and Gulik’s Judge Dee one. Yet for some inexplicable reason I have never got around to reading the second book in the series, which I think is a shame as it would be interesting to see how the series develops. Hopefully now my TBR pile is less unwieldly I may get myself a copy or I might add it to my present list for Santa Klaus (you know what he’s like, if he doesn’t have a list he’ll probably get you books you already have).
10. Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Golden Child (1977)
This is a book I remember really enjoying, though my memories of it are a little foggy, having read it three years ago. But the thing which does stick in my mind is the museum setting, the British Museum in fact and the mystery takes place during a King Tut Exhibition (which did actually happen there in 1972). This setting has more than novelty factor to make it enjoyable and I liked how it pervades the plot action and Fitzgerald’s satirical portrayal of this milieu is entertaining and engaging. This is another novel to add to my mental list of books to re-read – a list which, however hypothetical, is definitely toppling over.
Finally if you want to catch up on the last two weeks’ posts from the Tuesday Night Bloggers, links are below: