A Criminal History: Stephen Gallagher on the Challenges of Historical Fiction

Weekly Lizard

Why is it so hard to find a good historical crime novel? In this essay, Stephen Gallagher, author of The Bedlam Detective, explains what it takes to create riveting fiction out of real-life events.

The Devil in the White City is one of my all-time favorite nonfiction reads. Erik Larson counterpoints the planning and staging of the 1893 World’s Fair with the murderous activities of one “Dr. H. H. Holmes.” The fake doctor—real name Herman Webster Mudgett—was a plausible charmer who preyed upon young women drawn to Chicago by the prospect of work and the excitement of big-city life. One of the most frequent commendations to be offered about the book is that it “reads like a novel.” So it does, and a particularly rich one at that. We look into a world that is not our own, distanced by time, to find a timeless drama of fear and conflict. The historical panorama fascinates but it’s the crime, the crime that drives the tale.

Historical crime. Pick any era, and you’ll find a crime writer working the ground. Margaret Doody’s Aristotle Detective, the Falco novels of Lindsey Davis, Phil Rickman’s Dr. Dee, the Victorian railway detectives of Edward Marston and Andrew Martin (working half a century apart). Alienists, playwrights, and celebrities of the day all take the investigator’s role, with varying degrees of credibility and success. Anthologist Mike Ashley’s collections of historical crime draw together stories from ancient Egypt to 1930s New York, and just a glance down their contents pages is enough to show that there’s far more to the field than yet another Sherlock pastiche or tale of Jack the Ripper.

For me the stories that work least well are those that impose modern methods or attitudes on their historical context, treating history as little more than a dressing-up box. The best of them recognize that the past is, indeed, another country, where it’s part of the thrill not to feel at home. When it comes to imaginative creation, historical fiction is a harder act than most to pull off. The rules for the Walter Scott Prize, one of the richest in the field, require that “the majority of the events described take place at least sixty years before the publication of the novel, and therefore stand outside any mature personal experience of the author.”

What does that mean for the story? For the author it means putting in serious work to achieve a sense of authenticity, where nothing can be assumed or taken for granted in the creation of your fictional world. That still leaves plenty of room for the imagination. In skilled hands and with the right attitude, even the most improbable events can be made plausible. Conan Doyle did careful research on his Lost World, and then populated his plateau with believable dinosaurs. Publication of The Lost World in 1912 gave me the springboard for a work of my own, when I was inspired to look into the real lives of its Edwardian subjects. The result was The Bedlam Detective, in which a discredited explorer’s fantasies may hold the key to the murders of young girls on his estate.

I’ve read other “true crime historical” since The Devil in the White City. Larson’s own Thunderstruck counterpoints the Crippen case with the development of the technology that would play such a big part in its climax, while Howard Blum’s American Lightning juxtaposes the birth of Hollywood with the bombing of the Los Angeles Times offices in 1910. But the balance is an elusive one. It’s a rare dramatic crime that exactly fits the needs of a dramatic narrative.

Which means it’s rare to find the factual history that really does read like a crime novel.

For that, you need a novel.