Why Historical Crime Fiction Matters

Historical crime fiction allows the present to claim ownership over the past.
Scene from the Thirty-Nine Steps (1935), starring Robert Donat
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In an age when people have taken to pulling down statues – albeit this hasn’t happened for a couple of years now – you know that there’s a disconnect between the past and the present. Whether that misconnection is born of ignorance, misunderstanding or ingrained prejudice is open to debate, but what’s beyond doubt is that it’s very real.

Undoubtedly there remain figures celebrated in stone and bronze in our public spaces who have no business being there. Take Clive of India, on the Clive steps no less, at the rear of the Foreign Office in Whitehall, but a stone’s throw from Horse Guards Parade. The victor of the Battle of Plassey in 1744 and first governor of the Bengal Presidency here is a man who arguably did more than any other to usher the Raj into existence. Surely, he has no business being celebrated at the heart of British government in the 21st century?

The trouble is where do you stop? Elizabeth I, after all, signed the charter of the East India Company in 1599 – so she’s got blood on her hands. Then there’s a more recent Elizabeth, the Queen Mother that is, who was of course the last Empress of India, so should we take her statue down too?

Because by the same taken, what’s to stop us jumping on an EasyJet flight to Rome and throwing paint over Tragan’s column or committing an act of vandalism at the Colosseum – the scene of an unknowable quantity of innocents’ deaths?

The fact is that the past is everywhere, be it in the footprints on the Moon, or visible from aircraft over fields or in the shrapnel marks in the side of Tate Britain: and much of it both hard to explain and intrinsically difficult.

Of course, rather than cancelling these individuals, it’s far more useful to society and healthy for us to explain them, because their actions didn’t happen in a vacuum.

And this is where historical crime fiction can help. How did 10,000 Brits rule a subcontinent of 300 million Indians during the Raj? And, even more intriguingly, why did they want to do it and how on earth did they justify it to themselves? They can’t all have been ‘evil’ (not a helpful word) or malignant. Historical fiction can help explore these motivations and show that most of these people were no different from you or I or modern graduates going off to join big law firms or management consultancies. It was just a good way of getting on, until it wasn’t.

Exploring attitudes like this was one of the reasons why I set my second Drabble and Harris thriller in India –  in 1937, a decade before the flag came down. It’s title, Enemy of the Raj, is intended to represent modern sensibility, too – because we’re all enemies of the Raj now. But as a British writer, writing in the 21st century I also wanted to put my own past in the dock – and challenge lazy, complacent or nostalgic views about the Raj.

Clive of India

Likewise the first book in the Drabble and Harris series, Rule Britannia, is set against the backdrop of the Abdication Crisis of 1936, and while it’s first and foremost an out-and-out thriller – think The 39 Steps or Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male (or as my local Waterstones’ has it, ‘Indiana Jones meets Foyle’s War’) – it’s also a vehicle for exploring the political context of the constitutional crisis. Crucially it serves to challenge our complacency over Britain’s opposition to fascism during the 1930s and the second world war. It could have been different, particularly if Edward VIII had hung on, and Rule Britannia is anchored to that often ignored or overlooked context. There were plenty of fascists in Britain, too, and we should be grateful that it didn’t happen here, rather than imagine that it’s down to any ingrained decency or imagined political superiority.

Helping to join the dots between the past and present is something I tried to achieve with the third book my, Ghosts of the West, which begins with a suspected grave robbery in Gravesend in Kent. What unfolds is a thriller which offers an opportunity to revisit the history of relations between Europeans and indigenous peoples in North America. As you’ll be aware it’s the grim story of an unequal competition over resources, interwoven with a clash of cultures that took several centuries to play out. Without being glib, in one sense, that real life historical narrative is the biggest crime at the heart of the book.

At the Lyme Crime in June, I chaired the historical crime panel, with guests Vaseem Khan and William Ryan. As a writer of historical fiction, William described himself as a travel writer, a ‘time-travel writer’, which puts it neatly. Our characters – whether it’s Vaseem’s indominable police inspector Persis Wadia, or William’s battle-damaged first world war veteran Tom Harkin (or indeed my own historian-mountaineer Ernest Drabble) – are Gullivers exploring a lost world, each of them offers a window into the outlook of their times, which, if done well, is incredibly powerful.

Philippa Greggory has called historical fiction a ‘gateway drug’ for historians – people love the books much they turn to study. If writers of crime fiction can help modern audiences better understand and come to terms with the past – quite apart from fulfilling their central task of entertaining readers – then that is no small accomplishment. After all, it’s far better to understand the past than simply to destroy it, because obliteration is the surest route to repeating past mistakes. Moreover it leaves us culturally adrift, moving on a tide of opinion unanchored from the certainly of objective truth. On this basis, I would argue that we need historical fiction more than ever. Certainly, there’s a massive job to be done and crime writers can help.

Alec Marsh is the author of the Drabble & Harris books Rule Britannia, Enemy of the Raj and Ghosts of the West – published by Headline.