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.

Rediscovering Our Selves Through Historical Fiction

Historical novels are carving out a special literary niche as readers begin to more fully grasp their unique value in understanding whom we are and where we came from. All novels should present the possibility for the reader to learn and grow in some dimension, but by tapping the fertile landscape of our past this expanding genre offers endless layers of opportunities for learning about ourselves.

I often ask a simple question of readers who express an interest in exploring historical fiction: where was your DNA two hundred fifty years ago? We are all made up of particles of history. That isn’t just a metaphor, it is a scientific fact. The genes that define you were walking around in the 18th century, when my Bone Rattler novels are set, and long before then. Considering where they were—and they may have been on different continents at the same time—becomes a wonderful key for opening the treasure chest of your past, and historical fiction can be a potent guide to understanding what you find there.

We are all players in the great orchestra of humanity, and while the instruments get passed on to new members from time to time, the music doesn’t change nearly as much as we might think. Those who ignore that reality, who decline to turn and face earlier links in our human chain, diminish their lives and their ability to fully grasp who they are and the society they live in. In the words of novelist Michael Crichton, “if you don’t know history, you’re just a leaf that doesn’t know it is part of a tree.”

I was fortunate enough to discover that I was part of such a tree at an early age, and I have derived nourishment from those roots ever since. It helped that my ancestors choose paths which easily aroused a youth’s curiosity—Highland Scots who migrated to Virginia highlands and other Scots who fled an English army to take up farming in Maryland, as well as multiple ancestors who fought in the American Revolution and Welsh forebears who survived the bloody attacks on Jamestown in the 1620’s. But whether your DNA resided in a German cobbler, a Scythian warrioress, a Venetian weaver, or an African chieftain, it survived an amazing journey. Understanding that journey, and realizing you are engaged in its current leg, enriches our appreciation of our families, and provides important insights into whom we are, not just physically but.also intellectually and spiritually.

Great novels are about characters, and history is derived from characters. The first important step in embracing historical fiction is the recognition that we are all derived from historical characters. Historical novels breathe life into figures who otherwise have become little more than flat paper cut outs in our textbooks. The skilled novelist enlivens these players from the past by using historically accurate venues, vernacular, fashion, and technology. Such aspects bring important color to characters but as valuable as these external attributes may be, the vital elements in reviving people from the other side of time are the internal ones, the hearts and souls of a novel’s cast. By thrusting us into those hearts and souls, such novels translate distant humans into terms we can relate to, allowing those humans to become part of us.

I didn’t get hooked on Wolf Hall because I yearned to know about Tudor court politics, I was hooked because I could identify with the very human, very conflicted character of Thomas Cromwell. Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose and Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael novels were successful not because of the late Middle Age history lessons implicit in their pages but because of their poignant, internally resonating portraits of two complex figures who had traded in Crusader armor for monks’ robes. Such historical mysteries can be especially effective at this translation process, for they inexorably draw the reader into conundrums that can’t be solved without getting inside the heads of these long ago characters. The reward, and the challenge, of getting through my own Bone Rattler series is that none of its mysteries can be resolved unless the reader has assimilated elements of 18th century Highland and Native American culture.

Historical fiction ultimately lets us walk beside these participants in our past, allowing us to discover that in reasoning, aspiration, curiosity and passion they differ very little from ourselves. They may speak and dress differently but such differences are only minor variations of hue on the great human palette. Glimpsing how human our forebears were doesn’t simply add to a novel’s entertainment value, it helps us grasp the depth of our own humanity. I write two series set in very different times and places but at their core each is about that shared humanity, about values and elements of natural justice that transcend specific times and cultures and therefore become links across the centuries.

Discovering such bonds with the past has immeasurably enriched my life. Knowing that we share traits and experiences with others who came before us adds new texture to our lives and new strength to our spirit. After better understanding the experiences of both my ancestors and my characters I look at certain places and institutions in profoundly different ways. Our forebears are, inevitably, companions in our life’s journey, who shadow us as we confront the trials and celebrate the joys of our lives, just as we will become silent companions in our descendants’ lives.

Too often in today’s instantly connected culture our feelings, and any opportunity for contemplative decision making, are obscured by the constant noise of social media. A well-crafted historical novel isn’t just an oasis where such distracting influences are banished, it can become a refreshing trek of self discovery. Connecting with those whose blood flows in our veins isn’t simply a pleasant distraction, it is empowering. This is our time to rise up out of the great sea of humanity, but knowing its depths and currents allows us to be more effective navigators in our own journey. Discovering that the past isn’t really past, it just has new faces, is the great reward of historical novels. By investing time in a well-crafted historical novel you might learn to find yourself, from before.