The Reading List of the Adlerverse (Part II - Historical Fiction)
Updated: Mar 20, 2018
History is a good discipline for any detective - the importance of sources, of conflicting accounts, realising the first allegation is the winner's prerogative. The historical novel strikes me as a tough balancing act. Too much history and it becomes a slog for the reader. Too little, and what's the point? My collection of favourites consists of stories that get it just right, like Momma Bear's porridge.
The Religion by Tim Willocks
Tim Willocks is so confident in his writer's skin, he can do what the hell he likes and still get away with it. And he does. It's Malta, 1565 - The Ottoman Turks launch a Jihad against the last Crusader order, The Knights of Saint John the Baptist. Enter Mattias Tannhauser, a swashbuckling mercenary who make's Blackadder's Lord Flashheart look like a simpering ninny. Tannhauser agrees to travel to Valletta to help a French noblewoman find her long-lost son (he is of course a ladies' man par excellence). He's also the ideal man to fight Turks - as a boy he was kidnapped and conscripted as a Janissary, their elite slave infantry. What Willocks serves up next is an epic, bombastic, spiritual adventure about passion, faith, the clash of civilizations and siege warfare (with Valletta becoming a 16th Century Stalingrad). One of those books which, as I write about it, I want to read again.
Flashman by George Macdonald Fraser
Ever find the politically-correct 21st Century so astonishingly, grindingly dull you want to do a Michael Douglas in 'Falling Down'? You do? Hey, me too. Well, before you abandon your car in a traffic jam, read this. Harry Flashman, the bully from 'Tom Brown's School Days', shags, boozes and bullshits his way across The Empire Where The Sun Never Set, each adventure more improbable than the last. It makes 'Carry On Up the Khyber' look like it was scripted by Polly Toynbee. Not a book I can imagine being seen in the library at 'The Guardian', the good news is Macdonald Fraser wrote twelve of them before he died. In this story, Harry's womanising sees him kicked out of the army and sent to Afghanistan with the East India Company. The British in Afghanistan? What could possibly go wrong...
Azincourt by Bernard Cornwell
Cornwell is another one of those lucky writers who manages to be consistent and prolific at the same time. I loved Sharpe, The Warlord Chronicles, The Last Kingdom and more or less everything else he's released. A favourite of mine is this, the exotically spelt 'Azincourt'. Part of Cornwell's genius is his ability to paint a broad canvas while still focussing on individual experience - in this case Nicholas Hook, mercenary archer. There's a feud, there's a murder, there's a vendetta - all of which lead to the titular confrontation between the armies of Henry V and The Damned French in October 1415. Cornwell bases his account of the battle on the most credible research available (mainly Juliet Barker's). Muddy and gore-slicked, it's wanton slaughter, borne of French hubris as much as the skill of Henry's longbowmen.
The Silver Pigs by Lindsey Davis
Marcus Didius Falco is a snarky, down-at-heel private eye, his beat the Vespasian-era Roman Empire. When I first read this (back in 1989) the idea was genuinely different, and I was struck by how skilfully Davis drops her 'Maltese-Falcon' style gum-shoe into the middle of antiquity. In the first novel of a very successful series, Falco investigates a silver-smuggling ring (the 'Pigs' of the title are ingots) which takes him to the most dank, miserable and godforsaken fringe of the Empire - Britain. Where, for me, Davis shines as a writer is her ability as a world-builder. She immerses us in Ancient Rome, but never smothers us. Falco's principled pursuit of social status, for example, fits the character and helps bring Rome to life for the reader. Falco is an appealing protagonist too, a sardonic, chippy outsider who's much cleverer than the toga-clad halfwits he ends up working for. He also, unusually for a private eye, gets the girl.
London by Edward Rutherfurd
I've actually got mixed feelings on this one, but include it 'cuz (a) London's really my thing, and (b) it's the type of book I'd probably never write - a sprawling, pan-generational mega-narrative with a cast of thousands. And, given that's no easy feat, I'd say Rutherfurd does a bloody good job. We travel from Roman-era Britannia, when London is a couple of huts in a swamp (hello, Deptford!), up until the late 1990's, when the city was undergoing one of its cyclical reinventions (as the Coolest Place in the World). The characters' lives are stitches in a much wider tapestry, famous historical figures (Chaucer, Julius Caesar among others) popping in to say hello. In 'London', Rutherfurd's strength lies is in successfully capturing the feeling cities are an amalgam of everything that went before, that the individual is part of something much, much bigger.