The Wonderful Crime of History

History comes alive by making its characters come alive. This fundamental premise applies to both novelists and historians, for if we can’t feel engaged with the players on the stage of the past we will inevitably lose interest in their performance. Our texts and classrooms too often pin one-dimensional labels on those actors from prior episodes of the human drama, draping them with resumes of glorious accomplishments and events. In doing so they become lifeless mannequins whom we never learn to embrace as humans. But the past is neither lifeless nor one-dimensional. It offers vital lessons, not just in revealing patterns in the conduct of nations and cultures that still apply today, but also in teaching us about whom we were. The DNA that defines each of us today was in living, breathing ancestors centuries ago, meaning that both literally and figuratively the past lives inside us. Our histories are thus ultimately tales of ourselves, but too often we have allowed them to become so sterile they hold no interest for us.

Through the years I had learned much about Ulysses Grant, for example, but he never truly came alive for me until I read Ron Chernow’s description of how Grant liked to toss bread balls at his children during White House dinners. Likewise Benjamin Franklin felt standoffish until I discovered that as a teenager he mischievously wrote essays in the name of the widow Silence DoGood, which proved so popular that several Boston bachelors wrote to propose marriage.

These are the subtle, humanizing details that breath life into our forebears. By using them the skilled novelist can resurrect long dead characters, making them rise up out of the printed page. Historical crime fiction thus becomes an antidote to our historical apathy. It can make those characters resonate within our spirits, not just allowing us, but motivating us, to experience their world through their eyes. There is no better vehicle for helping us discover that despite contrasts in technology and material objects, the inhabitants of those prior worlds had appetites, ambitions, frustrations and conflicts much like those we experience today. We are all, today and in the past, swimming in the same great ocean of humankind. Trying to reduce complex humans to shallow soundbites and symbols just because they are no longer living diminishes our own ability to understand humanity.

Why do I believe that historical crime fiction can be such a potent catalyst for understanding the human condition? Most importantly because it can paint such rich and textured portraits of its characters, forcefully demonstrating that the past was not populated with mere scarecrows. Just as today, in the past everyone was a sinner trying to be more of a saint. Our forebears were complicated, conflicted creatures with very familiar motives and temptations in their everyday lives. By focusing on the crimes and sins of flesh and blood characters, casting light on their dilemmas, moral crises, and struggles for personal justice such novels can transform those characters from the past into our very human companions. As we embrace them, we recognize that their efforts to retrieve roses from the thorn beds of life are not so dissimilar from our own struggles, making them very real allies in understanding whom we ourselves are. Relating to these characters as companions in turn helps us grasp their world—the past—more fully.

Successful crime novels thus place the reader inside the head of their protagonists from the past. The very best crime novels, however, place the reader inside their soul. C. J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake novels have earned their high praise not because they teach us about 16th century forensics, but because they insert us into the battered psyche of the hunchbacked Shardlake, letting us walk at his side as he navigates his imperfect world. We don’t get invested in Shardlake because we want King Henry’s government to score a victory, we want to accompany him on his journey because we identify with his flaws, his struggles, and his far too infrequent joys. Sansom seasons his story with authentically depicted characters from history, just as Caleb Carr does in his successful Alienist series. Carr’s Lazlo Kreizler becomes such an engaging lens on late 19th century New York in part because he interacts with real-life characters like Teddy Roosevelt, which anchors readers through more familiar historical touchpoints. Carr also fuels the reader’s curiosity by weaving into his plot the emerging role of psychology in solving crimes, inviting us to witness not only the troubled psyche of Kreizler but also to be present at the fascinating birth of a new science.

This eyewitness aspect is one more strength of the genre. Bonding with a player in an important historic event allows the reader to experience the event as a participant. In writing my Bone Rattler series I very deliberately seek to both educate and entertain my readers. I never seek to lecture; rather I want them to assimilate a vitally important period of our past by getting inside the heads of men and women who lived in the 18th century. Taking this character-driven approach to exploring the past not only allows me to make the past more relatable to modern readers, it allows the reader hands-on involvement with history. By inviting readers to join my characters in walking the path toward American independence, they can discover for themselves that the Revolution was not fomented by some cabal of ambitious generals, it was the result of long festering identity crises experienced by scores of thousands of immigrants, whose personal struggles transformed them from colonists to Americans.

Such struggles, and such tormented spirits, may be the most important seasonings for elevating historical crime fiction to a stage of high drama. Nothing reveals more about a person than how they react under the extreme stress of crime, sin, violence or persecution. These are inherent elements of all crime novels, and they provide the vehicle for revealing the innermost secrets of the characters who confront them. Historical crime fiction does this, but with the added advantage –and challenge to writer and reader alike—of understanding human frailty in a new dimension. I’ve always suspected, moreover, that the added emotional distance implicit in transporting readers across a gap in time makes many of them more willing to open themselves to the intense pain and trauma of that drama.   In like fashion, in closing that gap readers can discover how our history has been created by ordinary people doing extraordinary things, thus glimpsing the potential for doing extraordinary deeds themselves.

Few genres offer so many levels of engagement for the reader as well done historical crime fiction. The special strength of the genre isn’t just that it transports readers into what is essentially a former home they have forgotten they lived in, which it does. It isn’t just that it introduces them to amazing but authentic characters, which it does. It isn’t just that it exposes them to perspectives and “old” innovations they have never experienced, which it does. It isn’t just that it translates the struggles of the former world into terms we can relate to in the current world, which it does. The special magic of the genre is that it can do all of these things together.

Rudyard Kipling once said that “if history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.” Bringing those stories to life is the duty, and the thrill, of the historical crime novelist. History isn’t dead. History isn’t even over, for ultimately it is a way of adding provocative and enriching texture to our own lives. The best historical crime novels are time machines that take us back, to ourselves, and nurture our understanding not only of the past but of the present.