Look Through My Eyes*

Crime novels are often set against particular backgrounds of time, place, and so on. And sometimes, major historical events or movements are taking place as the novel goes on. This raises a question: how should the author handle those major events and movements? To completely ignore them would likely make a story too unrealistic, or at least, very much out of context. However, to focus too much attention on them can take away from the story, and even result in ‘information dump,’ which can be alienating. One way authors can avoid that particular trap is to show larger events through the eyes of the individuals who live through them. There are many examples of this in the genre; I’ll just mention a few.

Agatha Christie’s Taken at the Flood takes place just after the end of WW II. The armed hostilities are over, but that doesn’t mean everything is right again. There are shortages of many basic things, and the war has wreaked havoc on the economy, leaving many people with little money. It’s a difficult time, and Christie doesn’t gloss over it. The main focus of the novel is the Cloade family. The head of the family, wealthy Gordon Cloade, had always promised his siblings and their children that they’d be taken care of financially, so none of them has ever much worried about money. Then, to everyone’s shock, Cloade marries. Not long after that, he Is killed in a wartime bomb blast. Since he died intestate, his widow is set to inherit his whole fortune – until it comes out that she may have been already married at the time she married Cloade. As you can imagine, it all leads to strain and conflict. And then there’s a murder. Hercule Poiort is drawn into the case by two different members of the Cloade family, and he works to find out the truth about the case. The story is told from a few different points of view, and we see how the characters are coping with food shortages, the immediate post-war economy, and the other realities of life immediately after WW II.

Peter May’s Entry Island features Sergeant Enquêteur Sime Mackenzie of the Sûreté du Québec. He’s called to Entry Island, one of the Îles-de-la-Madeleine/Magdalen Islands, when James Cowell is murdered there. Almost immediately, Mackenzie feels drawn to the island, although he’s never been there. He also has vivid dreams of stories he was told about his ancestor, also named Sime, who emigrated to Canada from Scotland in the 19th Century. That Sime’s story is woven through the novel in as the modern-day murder plot plays out. As we learn more about that Sime, we learn about the Highland Clearances, which lasted from the late 18th Century through the mid-19th Century. During this time, there were mass evictions of people who lived in the Highlands and Western Islands. Those people were removed, so that wealthy landowners could turn the land to sheep pasturage and other uses. It resulted in many thousands of people being forced to leave Scotland and find new homes in North America or elsewhere. In this novel, the Clearances are seen through the eyes of Sime Mackenzie, whose family is forced to leave. That approach allows the reader to really get a sense of what happened, but also care about the plot and the individual characters involved.

C.J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake series is set during the reign of King Henry VIII. A great deal has been written about this era, about the major sociopolitical and religious events of the time, and about the notable historical figures of the time. Sansom’s series, though, tells the story of that era through the eyes of an ordinary person. Shardlake is a lawyer, neither particularly wealthy nor very poor. He is educated, but doesn’t enjoy a privileged status, really. His perspective is especially interesting, because through it, Sansom shows the reader what ordinary life in Tudor England was probably like.

Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series begins just before WW II, and it continues through the war years and the years after. Gunther is a former police officer-turned private investigator who lives and works in Berlin. As the first novel, March Violets, begins, Hitler is in power, and it is very dangerous to call attention to oneself, or to fall afoul of the Third Reich in any way. So Gunther has to be very careful of everything he does and says. Through Gunther’s eyes, we get to see what it’s like to live in Germany at this time. The changes sweeping through the country are brought to the individual, human, level, and woven into the stories, so that the plot remains the focus of the novels (rather than lots of descriptions of the larger forces at work).

There are also plenty of novels and series set in contemporary times that look at major events and movements through individuals’ eyes. For example, Brian McGilloway’s Garda Ben Devlin series is set in contemporary times on the border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland. That part of Europe has seen major changes in the last fifty years, and all sorts of sociopolitical forces are at work there. As the series goes on, McGilloway shares some of those forces and events as they are relevant to the stories. But the novels don’t go into exhaustive detail about the different forces that have shaped modern life in that borderland. Rather, we see their impact through the eyes of people who live there.

That perspective makes a story more appealing. It also makes the characters seem more real. And stories that share major events, movements, and so on from the perspective of individuals also have a way of making those things come alive. Which ones have stayed with you?

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Phil Collins.

 


12 thoughts on “Look Through My Eyes*

  1. Interesting points, Margot – and I suppose it depends in some ways whether the book is relatively contemporary or written retrospectively. For the latter, I feel the authors sometimes can struggle to capture the feel of the times. I’ve found many of the British Library Crime Classics valuable as many have been written, and set, during the second world war, or just after. The sense of place is very strong in some of them and I love a book (of whatever type!) that can transport you to another place and time!

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    1. I do, too, KBR! I find I especially enjoy it if it’s a place/time I don’t know much about; I like to learn. And I do think you have a point about what a challenge it is to evoke another place and time, as authors of historical fiction do. I really admire those who do that well. And that, as you say, is one of the advantages of the BL Crime Classics. Those authors can paint a very vivid picture of a time, place, event, etc., because they lived it. It’s harder to do that from a distance.

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  2. It’s one of those aspects that can either really add to a story or overwhelm it completely, so the author has to keep a tight rein. I love the Sansom books because the history is in there and is accurate, but the main story usually doesn’t involve the powerful people even if it starts with them. As Kaggsy says, the BL books are great for getting a contemporaneous picture of the period around WW2 – very different in tone, often, to authors writing about the period now as historical fiction. It’s also important for the author not to come down too heavily on one side of a contentious question – I find books about the Troubles in Northern Ireland can be very biased on one side or the other, and that is simply going to put half of the potential readership off before they begin. It’s easier when the book is set further back in history when a consensus has formed about the rights and wrongs of a period or event.

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    1. You have a strong point, FictionFan. It’s a difficult balance to strike between providing the reader an immersive experience in a time period, and drowning the poor reader in facts. Sansom does that so well, I think. I like it, too, that his stories focus on ordinary people; they feel a lot more realistic, if that makes sense. And there is a real difference between historical fiction about, say, the WW II era, and fiction written at that time. There’s just something about living through an event or movement…

      I’m also glad you brought up the importance of being as even-handed as possible, especially with a very contentious topic (such as the Troubles). It’s difficult to do that, but I think that’s the best way to ensure that the reader gets a real sense of the issues.

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  3. Of recent times, David Downing’s Wedding Station – similar territory to the Gunther series by Kerr. Kerr and McGilloway are a couple of authors I should be reading, thanks for the reminder.

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  4. I think you make an interesting point, Margot. If the event is handled right, it does make the character and the story seem more realistic. I enjoy books where bits of history or added, it makes me want to learn more about the era.

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    1. Thanks, Mason. I know what you mean about wanting to learn more about an era. I feel the same way when I read a book that depicts a certain time, especially if the focus is on the characters’ perspectives. It makes it more interesting for me.

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  5. I love books where historical events form the background but agree with you completely that they have to be done well. Christopher Isherwood’s Mr. Norris Changes Trains is wonderful in its evocation of the last days of the Weimar Republic.

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    1. I like a good historical novel, too, Neeru, but you’re right that they have to be carefully done. And thanks for the mention of the Isherwood. He did capture that time period well didn’t he? I have to admit I haven’t read Mr. Norris Changes Trains, but Goodbye to Berlin is similarly evocative.

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