Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Unearthing Villainies of Yore

If my memory is correct, I was initially drawn to historical crime fiction when I was still a boy, back in the 1970s. It was then that a trio of small- and large-screen entertainments—the 1972-1973 NBC-TV private-eye series Banyon, the 1974 motion-picture Chinatown, and the 1976 NBC series City of Angels—charmed me with their gauzy but gritty portrayals of 1930s Los Angeles and made me curious to learn more about urban crime from earlier times. As I matured and turned more toward books to satisfy my hunger for crime fiction, my interests expanded, taking in not only hard-edged yarns set in the early 20th century, such as Philip Kerr’s March Violets (1989) and Max Allan CollinsTrue Detective (1983), but also Victorian-era whodunits on the order of Peter Lovesey’s Waxwork (1978) and the Sergeant Verity series by “Francis Selwyn” (aka Donald Thomas). My discovery of books by Umberto Eco, Stuart M. Kaminsky, Caleb Carr, Susanna Gregory, Charles Todd, Edward Marston, Rennie Airth, J. Sydney Jones, and Walter Mosley soon followed.

For a mystery lover and part-time historian like me, novels of murder and other misdeeds rooted in vivid yesteryears represented a pretty ideal reading combination.

British critic-author Barry Forshaw came to the historical mystery genre via a rather different route than mine, but wound up equally enamored of its accomplishments and potential. A longtime editor of Crime Time (both in its original magazine days and its current electronic incarnation), and former vice chair of the British Crime Writers’ Association, Forshaw has penned a variety of authoritative directories to crime, mystery, and thriller fiction over the years. Among those are British Crime Writing: An Encyclopedia (2008), Death in a Cold Climate (2012), and last year’s American Noir, the fourth in a series of compact guides to criminous tales from around the world (following Nordic Noir [2013], Euro Noir [2014], and Brit Noir [2016].) His latest book, Historical Noir (Oldcastle/Pocket Essentials)—released last month in the States—is the fifth and probably final installment in that “Noir” series.

Historical Noir’s contents roll out chronologically, beginning with novels set in the Ancient World and continuing through the 1970s. As time moves forward, Forshaw focuses increasingly on the history of Great Britain, though there are ample mentions of works taking place elsewhere—in 1830s Istanbul, 19th-century New York City, 1920s Shanghai, pre-World War II Munich, 1940s Italy, and Soviet Russia. (A preview of Historical Noir’s range is found in this piece the author contributed to the blog Crime Fiction Lover.) Like Forshaw’s previous installments in the “Noir” series, this book is made up primarily of brief profiles of authors and the works for which they’re best recognized. In cases where a writer explores different epochs in different books, that’s noted. Additionally, Forshaw dashes into his mix crime-fiction films and TV shows, as well as abbreviated interviews with writers prominent in the genre (among them Candace Robb, L.C. Tyler, Matthew Pearl, Robert Ryan, Barbara Nadel, and Andrew Taylor).

This paperback isn’t a comprehensive guide to historical mystery fiction. At just over 200 pages long, it’s a volume to be leafed through at leisure and enjoyed, especially by folks who can claim minimal familiarity with the genre but are curious to learn more. Even knowledgeable readers, however, may find themselves surprised by Forshaw’s insights into the spectrum of historical mysteries currently available and the ways in which this genre has evolved.

I recently took the opportunity to ask Barry Forshaw, via e-mail, a number of questions related to Historical Noir, including about his personal experience with this mystery-fiction field, how he selected the authors about whom he writes in the book, and the growing number of “celebrity sleuths” appearing in crime fiction nowadays. The Q&A below has been edited a bit to enhance its readability.

J. Kingston Pierce: Have you long been a devotee of historical mysteries, or is this just an area in which you’ve dabbled for the purposes of writing a book? If the former is true, do you remember which book(s) got you hooked on this genre?

Barry Forshaw: Well, I’m no more a devotee of historical mysteries than any other genre, though—of course—I like them. I’m sure you’ll agree that enthusiasts such as you and I, Jeff, regard the whole crime/thriller genre as a broad church, and allow our enthusiasms to spread far and wide. As to which book might be said to have hooked me on the genre, that’s easy: Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, in William Weaver’s superb [1983 English] translation. Not only does it conjure an entire, richly drawn medieval world with tremendous vividness, it’s a book of ideas, hotly debated. I can understand, though, why so many people find it daunting—it’s not an easy read. And along with the Brother Cadfael novels of Ellis Peters, it inaugurated the “historical crime” genre as a specific, identifiable field—even though there had been many examples, not so named, beforehand. Bookshops now began to sport “Historical Crime” sections (“Historical Mysteries” in the U.S.) as a category description.

JKP: Oh yes, a couple of those previous examples of historical crime fiction that come to mind would be Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time (1951) and Ken Follett’s Eye of the Needle (1978). But again, as you say, they didn’t carry the label.

(Left) Barry Forshaw

BF: The situation was rather similar to translated crime fiction. When I read the novels of Georges Simenon as a boy, I did not perceive them as “translated crime”—that became a specific genre more recently. The newspapers I’ve written for over the years would just ask me to cover individual authors from various countries (Britain, the U.S., France, Sweden, et al.) and eras; now the literary editors say, “What's new in the translated or historical crime field?” I think bookshops were a factor in the labeling process—they like to have specific sections to which they can point their customers. And there’s nothing wrong with that, is there?

JKP: So what’s your definition of “historical noir”? I ask this, because many of the authors mentioned in your new book don’t write stories that I’d consider especially dark. Did you call it Historical Noir simply to fit it in with the rest of your series?

BF: Your second sentence hits it on the nail. The fact that my series is called American Noir, Brit Noir, Nordic Noir, Euro Noir, and now Historical Noir is basically a marketing ploy by my publisher. I usually point out in the books that as a series title, “Noir” can simply be taken to mean “Crime”—there are a lot of authors in all the books that by no stretch of the imagination inhabit the dark world that noir implies. Alexander McCall Smith, for instance, told me he was taken aback at being featured in Brit Noir as he “couldn’t be less ‘Noir’!”

JKP: How much has the field of historical mysteries grown over the years? Do you have any metrics—or an educated guesses—as to what percentage of new crime, mystery, and thriller novels are now being published annually with historical settings?

BF: Metrics and figures are most definitely not my thing, so I’ll pass on the figures side of the question. But certainly the market share has grown in the UK because of the prize-winning success of such writers as C.J. Sansom and Andrew Taylor. There are also currently some formidable female talents ensuring that the genre is buoyant, including M.J. Carter, Antonia Hodgson, Kate Griffin, and S.J. Parris—all of whom I’m asked to do historical noir panels with. We have Anglo-Asian writers such as the prize-winning Abir Mukherjee with his Raj-set series—and there are American writers equally skilled in the genre, as you know.

JKP: Is it your sense that Americans and Brits are equally interested in historical mysteries, or is this genre more popular in one country than the other?

BF: Americans have had a long interest in the genre—possibly even longer than British readers. That’s only appropriate as (speaking more generally) it was an American who created most of the tropes of the crime-fiction genre—the great Edgar Allan Poe (who was an unhappy schoolboy in my part of London—I was at the unveiling of a bust of him over a restaurant on the site of his school).

JKP: But since U.S. history is short when compared with the history of Great Britain or many other countries, Americans interested in mysteries rooted in the long-ago past wind up reading stories that take place in your part of the world, so often penned by Brits.

BF: Yes, we have historical mysteries set in Roman Britain and the Tudor era. In fact, when I was a judge on the Crime Writers’ Association Historical Dagger Award panel, barely a week passed without a Tudor mystery popping through my letterbox. And certain useful historical figures began to appear again and again—such as the Elizabethan spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham. It got very confusing, let me tell you—what was his function in Novel X or Novel Y? Is he good guy or a bad guy in this novel? …

The Tudor era was rich in possibilities—such a sprawling, colorful canvas for an author to draw on with the possibility of larger-than-life historical figures having walk-ons. And the Roman era has produced two splendid series: Lindsey Davis’ Falco books in the UK, and Steven Saylor’s Gordianus the Finder series in the U.S.

JKP: You’ve profiled a great many authors in this book. Yet there are numerous others missing, among them J. Robert Janes, Terence Faherty, Max Allan Collins, Kelli Stanley, Andrew Bergman, Martin Holmén, Kate Ross, Gaylord Dold, Loren D. Estleman, Andrew Hunt, Kris Nelscott, Bruce Alexander, Ed Gorman, Stuart M. Kaminsky, Francis Selwyn, Louis Bayard, Robert J. Randisi, Alex Grecian, Bill Pronzini, David Downing, Tasha Alexander, Robert Wilson, Michael Kurland, and … well, that’s quite enough. How did you go about deciding who to include and who to leave out?

BF: Space, as you will understand, was a key consideration, and I’ve also been frequently told that my books are used as shopping lists, so I tried to ensure that the majority of the authors I discussed were available. Many of the authors you mention—despite their skills—are not readily available (at least in the UK).

JKP: And how frustrating is it for someone, like me, to come along now that the book is in print and list all of the people you didn’t mention? I bet I’m not the first to do so.

BF: I always flinch in advance from people saying—as you just did—“Why didn’t you include X or Y?” My pleas about space considerations generally fall on deaf ears. Also people relish pointing out omissions—hell, I'm as guilty as anyone else. Even J. Kingston Pierce!

JKP: On the other hand, I did make some author discoveries by leafing through Historical Noir. For instance, I hadn’t previously been familiar with the works of Armand Cabasson, Sara Conway, Pablo de Santis, or A.C. Koning. Did you, too, become acquainted with some new names while assembling this work?

BF: As well as writing for such UK newspapers as the Financial Times and The Guardian, I’m asked to chair a lot of events for places such as the Institut Français and the Italian Cultural Institute—getting to meet writers such as Armand Cabasson and Pierre Lemaitre, and asking them questions on stage (in English, not my woeful French) was a useful entree into the world of such books. And the novels of new authors are sent to me by the bushel—it’s a bloody hard job keeping up. But, usefully, there’s a freemasonry of the London crime critics—we swap notes at our meals on new discoveries.

JKP: You call C.J. Sansom, creator of the Matthew Shardlake series, “the gold standard for historical crime fiction.” In what respects are his novels exemplars of this field? And which other historical mystery writers do you think rank at least near him in stature?

BF: Many authors have vaunting ambition, but their ambition is not actually matched by their reach. In C.J. Sansom’s case, it most unquestionably is. His books sport a Dickensian richness of character and an evocative sense of place. As to the second part of your question, while I could name several maladroit contemporary crime writers (though I’ll be charitable and avoid doing so), the level of achievement in historical mysteries field is generally high—I can't remember when I last read a really bad book in the field. Although in my days as a judge for the Historical Dagger Award, there were certainly several novels that both I and my fellow judges agreed were damned lucky to be published.

JKP: Who else, in your opinion, are consistently dependable or creative historical mystery writers—either living or not?

BF: Apart from the names listed above, there are wonderfully entertaining writers such as Ray Celestin, Lyndsay Faye, Alan Furst, and the late Philip Kerr’s highly accomplished Bernie Gunther series. And your country’s Dennis Lehane has contributed mightily to the genre. Peter Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor is a key novel in the field. Current talents of note? The excellent Imogen Robertson, William Ryan, William Shaw—oh, and the first Arkady Renko books by Martin Cruz Smith.

JKP: While other subgenres of crime and thriller fiction continue to be relatively male-dominated, such as hard-boiled detective fiction and spy fiction, the field of historical mysteries seems better balanced between male and female authors. How is this genre richer as a result of women contributing to it?

BF: It is a field in which women excel. One British writer in particular (who I mentioned before), Imogen Robertson [Theft of Life, etc.] is a constant delight, as the whole of history is her playground—and one of the pleasures of her books is not knowing which era and settings she will choose next. I’m not sure one can identify a specific male or female ethos in the field—for instance, I mentioned above Lindsey Davis and Steven Saylor, whose takes on ancient Rome have much in common.

JKP: A number of historical mysteries in recent years have cast as their protagonists “celebrity sleuths,” real people—such as Humphrey Bogart, Mark Twain, Isaac Newton, Bram Stoker, Eleanor Roosevelt, and even Groucho Marx—who demonstrate unexpected crime-solving skills, at least in fiction. How do you feel about this trend?

BF: You want the unvarnished truth? I have a real problem with this subgenre. Giles Brandreth, for instance, has Oscar Wilde solving mysteries. How did he have time when holding London spellbound with his plays—or his visits to the capital’s fleshpots that did him such damage? If we are to accept them as sleuths, the day-job for celebrities always gets in the way. Bram Stoker, for instance, was not just writing Dracula—he was working flat out in the theater. Which is why I have a distinct preference for fictitious historical sleuths.

JKP: Your previous books in the “Noir” series have devoted separate sections to films/TV series and, in American Noir, to author interviews. Yet you mixed all those components together in Historical Noir. Why the formatting change? And are you intending to carry on this blending of components in future series entries?

BF: Just to keep things fresh for myself. There’s nothing worse for a writer than to settle into rigid routine—I’m sure you know what I mean. One must ring the changes.

JKP: This leads to the question: What do you have planned for your next installment in this wonderful series of “Noir” guides?

BF: I’m often asked this question, but I think that the five books I’ve done so far cover pretty well all I wanted say about their various fields. What can I do next? Future Noir? Finding the crime elements in Philip K. Dick?

JKP: As you’ve told me, you are currently working on a non-fiction book called Crime Fiction: A Reader’s Guide. What will that publication encompass? What are your intentions with it? And how will it differ from your various other guides to this genre we all love so much? When might this next book finally reach bookshops?

BF: Everything! Every country. Every era, from Chandler and Christie through to James Lee Burke and Sara Paretsky. Every genre, every language, film, TV—making sure I don’t repeat elements from my earlier books. It’s to be published (if I finish it—and I will) sometime in 2019.

JKP: Beyond your labors on the Pocket Essentials guides and penning other books, what else are you up to nowadays? I know you write a monthly review column for The Guardian, continue to have some hand in the Crime Time Web site, and threaten to become ubiquitous at UK crime-fiction festivals. But what else occupies you?

BF: Apart from the newspapers I write for (along with broadcasting duties), I’m kept busy by the number of chairing author events I’m asked to do here and abroad. I particularly enjoy doing them—and my favorite part is when I know I’ve asked the right questions and then just sit back so the author can provide a witty or intelligent response. I also emcee the Crime Writers’ Association Dagger Awards dinners, the Oscars of the British crime-fiction field. Oh, and I provide to-camera extras for various Blu-rays—not just crime, although that is my main field (I’m also an enthusiast for horror and arthouse movies). It’s useful when doing the latter if I can remember my meetings with authors or directors—Eddie Bunker, for instance, when I was working on the extras for Steve Buscemi’s Animal Factory, or Roger Corman for The St. Valentine's DayMassacre. And as a very young journo, I once met Alfred Hitchcock!

JKP: I know little about your personal life. Where did you grow up, and where were you educated? Do you live in London or elsewhere?

BF: Originally from the city of the Beatles, Liverpool; moved to London at 20. It was the only place to be if you wanted to work in journalism (that was my perception, at least). I still love London but have vague thoughts of moving somewhere bucolic—but that will probably never happen. I’m addicted to the buzz of great cities: London, New York, Paris. Although I don’t get to New York as often as I used to—I worked for the American publisher Abrams, and one of the best parts of that job was the visits to the Big Apple. I always visited the cavernous Strand bookshop—a wonderland!

JKP: Finally, what’s this I hear about your having once been an illustrator? How did that come about, and what did it entail? Do you still keep your hand in the art world?

BF: I was a UK comics illustrator for eight years—I even treasure a letter from Stan Lee, sort of offering me a job when I was 20—but only if I moved to America. I was ready to do so at the time, but didn’t—I often think of the direction my life would have taken if I'd said yes. As for keeping my hand in with illustration—sadly, I fear I’ve lost my mojo in that regard. Any creative instincts I might have are now thankfully slaked by the writing!

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