Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Historical novels

I am not generally a fan of historical novels, largely I think because I am an historian myself. I prefer the line between fact and fiction to be clear-cut. I really can scarcely bear to read novels set in my own period, the nineteenth century, because they so rarely seem to ring true. The way people thought in the past, the things they took for granted and assumed that other people took for granted: that is very hard to capture. Having said that I can enjoy a good Sherlock Holmes pastiche and am tempted to try my hand at one sometime.
This is by way of explaining why I felt a certain reluctance to read William Brodrick's A WHISPERED NAME, even though it won the CWA Gold Dagger last year - and was in addition recommended to me by Richard Reynolds at Heffer's bookshop. Richard has recommended some great writers to me in the past, so I decided to take a punt. The novel is set in the First World War and concerns a court martial for treason and the attempts of a present day monk to untangle what really happened. I was totally convinced by the evocation of the trenches and the men who lived and dies in them. It is a gripping read and beautifully written.
Another writer is pretty well pitch-perfect is summoning up the past is C. J. Sansom in his series set in Tudor England and featuring the hunchback lawyer Matthew Shardlake. I've nearly finished SOVEREIGN and it is a cracking read. Shardlake is an engaging figure and the historical background is conjured up in wonderfully convincing detail, a particular tour-de-force in a novel that is 650 pages long. Only once was I pulled up a bit short: surely 'week-end' is a word that wasn't in use until the twentieth century? But really, I am full of admiration for the way Sansom combines accessibility and historical accuracy. It doesn't matter that it won't have been quite like this, because as one reads, one's suspension of disbelief is total and that is all that counts.

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