Going historical by Matt Rees

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Writing of the disdain expressed for genre novels by critics, Raymond Chandler said that there were just as many bad “literary novels” of the type favored by critics as there were bad genre stories – except that the bad literary novels didn’t get published. In other words, there’s nothing inherent in so-called genre fiction that makes it lesser than “literary” fiction.

Chandler knew what he was talking about. His great noir novels, such as “The Big Sleep” and “The Long Goodbye,” are must-reads for anyone who wants to know how to build a sentence and a voice, how to create an image that won’t fade a few pages on, how to make people want to read it all over again. His contemporaries in the “literary” field who were more favored by the highbrow critics of his time are these days consigned to the dustbin of college literature courses. (If you don’t believe me, tell me when was the last time you reached for a volume by Upton Sinclair or Pearl Buck?)

But historical fiction is back. Ever since “The Name of the Rose” (published in English in 1983), the genre has accrued greater legitimacy. Last year’s Booker Prize went to a historical novel (“Wolf Hall”) and this year’s looks likely to go to “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet” (do an internet search for its author David Mitchell and “genius,” and you’ll see why.)

Even poor old Alexandre Dumas and the swashbuckler have been returned from their long-ago burial under a mound of critical invective. In the last decade or so, Dumas has found his way into the title of a novel by Arturo Perez-Reverte, one of the most notable historical novelists of our time. Perez-Reverte can buckle a swash in the form of his Dumas-derived Captain Alatriste series, but he also has enough modern perversity for one of his novels to have been adapted for the screen by Roman Polanski. (That novel, “The Club Dumas,” even included a reference to Eco, “the professor from Bologna,” in a nod to his role in legitimizing the genre.)

Crime readers who want something with a bit of a cosmopolitan, intellectual slant often go for the World War II-period mysteries of Alan Furst. There have been other successful evocations of old Vienna in the books of J. Sydney Jones, and likewise for New York with Caleb Carr. My blogmate Barbara Nadel alternates between contemporary Turkey and historical London to great effect.

Each of these books, in their way, does what historical fiction alone can do. They take contemporary issues, place them in a historical context and thus let us see them anew. One of the best novels of the last two decades was Barry Unsworth’s heartbreaking evocation of the slave trade in “Sacred Hunger.” You’ll never see race and class the same way once you’ve read that book.

That’s partially why I’ve turned to historical fiction for the books I’m working on right now. Earlier this year my fourth Palestinian crime novel came out. Before I return to my West Bank sleuth Omar Yussef, I’m going historical.

My New York editor is working on MOZART’S LAST ARIA now. It’ll be out in the UK in late winter, in the US in early fall. I’m writing a novel now about the last years of Caravaggio’s life. Both take a real historical mystery as their starting point. But I also think they’ll tell us a great deal about what it is to live the life of an artist, and more than that they’ll focus on the nature of love. That’s something that isn’t limited to any historical period.

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