By PJ Parrish
My post today is going to sound a bit crabby, and for that I apologize. Okay, here goes: . I am not a big fan of historical fiction. I know there are many many truly great historicals out there, and a few remain among my favorites — Shogan, Beloved, Memoirs of a Geisha, The Underground Railroad, Perfume.
I’ve got my favorites from the historical mystery shelf as well — The Name of the Rose, The Alienist, Child 44, The Eye of the Needle, among others. I’m not a total philistine.
But most historicals I’ve tried leave me cold. And for the life of me, I can’t quite figure out why. I think it is because too many just try too hard to impress with…details.
Research is, as all writers know, very seductive. And sometimes, it shows.
To my mind, the best historical novels, first and foremost, explore the great themes of what we like to call popular fiction―crime, family, passion, betrayal― set against well rendered backdrops. The not-so-best of these, on the other hand, let the historical details overwhelm the story, choking the characters in layers of crinoline, stiff collar stays and stilted dialogue.
I’m crabby about this, I think, because the contest I am judging right now for a writers conference is coughing up a lot of historicals this week. I’m drowning in miladies, malingering lords, and gagging on the “sulphuric aroma” of gunpowder and the “foul hint” of stale tobacco. These manuscripts are far from bad; they are well crafted. But they are also boring because nothing is happening. And it’s not happening in numbing historically accurate detail.
I am also reading two historicals right now, and both are somewhat disappointing. I got Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale for Christmas because the gifter knew how much I loved the TV series A French Village, a superb soaper set in a Nazi-occupied village. Hannah’s book is mildly diverting so far, but the 1939 France setting comes off a little post-cardy and I feel like I’ve met these characters somewhere before.
The second book I’m reading is Jess Walter’s The Cold Millions. I love anything this man writes, truly. Two poor brothers struggle to survive in 1909 Spokane. Exquisitely detailed in its research and setting with a carnival parade of quirky characters. The writing is dazzling. Yet the book is very put-downable. I’m almost half-through and the story itself just isn’t gelling as a whole. It’s more picaresque than well-plotted.
So all this has me wondering why some historicals captivate while others capsize. I don’t have the answer, folks. I actually have written two historicals — fat family sagas with love and sex, one set in post-earthquake San Francisco, and another set in Belle Epoque Paris. You can find them both on Amazon for about a buck a piece. Heck, let me know and I will give you a copy. I have lots left.
My late friend Jerry Healy once quipped that I still write historicals because my Louis Kincaid mystery series is set in the Eighties. And yes, I had to be careful with my research as to when cell phones and DNA arrived, little stuff like that. But research never got in my way.
Maybe that’s all it comes down to — not letting the grinding machinery of research gunk up your plot or drown out what your characters are saying.
In 2003, Dennis Lehane was red hot. His Kenzie-Gennaro series had established his mystery cred. His blockbuster stand alone Mystic River was coming out as a movie. He had just published Shutter Island. Where does a guy go from there?
He took a couple years off and in 2008 came out with The Given Day. It was a magnum opus historical set in post-war Boston. It clocked in at 720 pages. The New York Times called it “intensely researched” and I don’t know if that was a compliment. I found The Given Day hard going. It’s ambitious, sprawling and almost promiscuously sensual in its style, as in this sentence:
Lying together in the smell of flowers and the constant threat of a rain that never fell, as the ships left for Europe, as the patriots rallied in the streets, as a new world seemed to sprout between them even quicker than the blooming flowers, Danny knew the relationship was doomed.
I didn’t finish the book. After The Given Day, Lehane decided to go back to his Kenzie-Gennaro series with Mooonlight Mile. He told a British interviewer, about returning to genre fiction: “It’s ten years later, and it scares me. Do I still have that looseness? [The genre books] had an ignorance about them, and I wonder if I can recapture that now that I’ve flirted with self-importance.”
Two years later, Lehane came out Live By Night. It’s a slimmed-down sequel to The Given Day, with the spotlight lazer-trained on one character Joe Coughlin. It has the same beautiful Lehane writing, but the ease is back. Here’s the opening paragraph.
Some years later, on a tugboat in the Gulf of Mexico, Joe Coughlin’s feet were placed in tub of cement. Twelve gunmen stood waiting until they got far enough out to sea to throw him overboard, while Joe listened to the engine chug and watch the water turn white at the stern. And it occurred to him that almost everything of note that had happened in his life — good and bad — had been set in motion the morning he first crossed paths with Emma Gould.
The history is there in this gritty gangster yarn. The research is there, but now it’s background music for Joe Coughlin’s solo. Lehane finally won the Edgar that he should have gotten for Mystic River. I loved this book. Couldn’t put it down. It broke my heart in the end.
Okay, thanks for letting me vent today. I feel less crabby now, and am going to give Jess and Kristin more time to win me over. History doesn’t have to be drag.
Would love to hear some of you weigh in who are more learned in historical fiction than I am. What did you read that worked? What fell short and why?