Philobiblon: The challenge of genre

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

The challenge of genre

Literary types like to dismiss genre fiction as pure formula, yet judging by the number of published novels that are near- (or all too frequently far-) misses, a detective novel is as difficult to write well as any other.

I was musing on this after reading C.J. Sansom's Dark Fire, the second in what looks likely to be a long series featuring a hunchback lawyer, Matthew Shardlake, who's navigating the hazardous political/religious waters of the later years of Henry VIII's reign with Cromwell (no the other one) as his patron.

Having enjoyed the first in the series, Dissolution, I was keen to pick up this one, but finished it feeling vaguely dissatisfied (although I did read it through in one session, so it was good enough).

Analysing why, I decided that Sansom has got it 75 per cent right. The characters are excellent - Matthew is an interesting, complex central figure, with believable sensitivities about his hunchback and a plausible back story, and there are colourful minor characters, particularly the apothecary Moor who is his best friend and, in this second book, an important character.

The historical setting is, so far as I can tell, well researched, and it only occasionally intrudes in a way that suggests the author couldn't resist including this detail, without literary reason.

The plots too fairly rolic along, in a way that demands you keep reading, and have the sort of neatness and fairness that fiction demands and real life almost never delivers. (So in Dark Fire an orphan girl who is accused of murder is kept safe and finally, rightly freed, when anyone who knows anything about "justice" of the time knows she wouldn't have had a hope. But fair enough: our 21st-century minds demand right triumph, in a way that would have been seen as hopelessly naive in the 16th century.)

What isn't right is the language, and the detail of the writing. "Lay off the weather!" I feel like yelling at Sansom at regular intervals. And he hasn't really got the "show not tell" rule. e.g. in Dissolution: "As I passed down Ludgate Hill, I noticed a stall brimming with apples and pears and, feeling hungry, dismounted to buy some.". Drop the "feeling hungry", please. Why else would you?

Overall Sansom does a pretty good job of avoiding anachronism, while using basically modern language (I'm not a great fan of the "thee, thou" school of historical writing - you can't write "in period" because we wouldn't understand it, and using such dressing is like those home improvement shows that turn a suburban dining room into a medieval hall with a bit of plywood and paint.)

But it is funny how odd words grate: Matthew refers sometimes to his "condition", sometimes others refer to him as a "cripple", both of which seem fair enough, but sometimes he is thinking of his "disability" - I'm not sure exactly why, but this just seems too modern a word.

Reading such fiction makes you realise how little we really know about the details of historical life. I'd question, although I can't cite sources why, whether Matthew and his sidekick in the first novel would really have changed into nightshirts to sleep (which becomes significant in the plot) - surely, particularly when staying at a rough country inn, they would have slept in their day clothes.

Then Matthew in Dark Fire is forever saddling his horse to ride a mile or so across London. I think of Pepys, rather later of course, but he used to walk down to Rochester, and all across London. Given the difficulty of finding somewhere for the horse at the other end would not Matthew have walked?

Still, will I buy the next in the series? Probably.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'll have to pick up this one. I liked Dissolution a lot.

On the getting undressed detail - I didn't really notice that one. I have one or two (later 17th-century) cases of theft from someone staying overnight in a tavern/inn and I have a feeling it mentioned that they took off their outer clothes to sleep; but this is not the same as actually changing into a nightshirt, which seems most unlikely really. I will check it if I can, but it might not be the easiest detail to pull out of my database.

6/29/2005 01:17:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Got it.

Richard Ayres, a London grocer visiting Wrexham in 1671, had shared a room at an inn with William Banister the first night of his stay; the second night, Ayres was alone (I think), although Banister tried to join him after Ayres was already asleep and was told to use another room. But when Ayres woke up in the morning: "he saw one vjd on his wastcoate, wich was on a stoole or bench by the bedd side & another on his stokins on the floore & further saith that he putt his breeches under his bolster when he went to bedd & in the morning found his purse open in his pockett & telling his money found that he had lost as he conceivith about xxxs ther being left in his purse 40 shillings vjd & a penny & 5 brasse halfepence &... he suspects that the said William Banister tooke away that money feloniously..."

And there are at least two more cases that mention a traveller staying at an inn sleeping with his breeches under his head (as a pillow or for security - in which case it wasn't very effective security...). So at this slightly later date men staying at inns did get at least partially undressed to go to bed; but none of these documents says whether they put *something else* on. An ordinary undershirt was itself quite a voluminous garment, and I suspect that rather than carrying around a special nightshirt, travellers would tend simply to sleep in that.

6/29/2005 01:42:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What grated for me was when other characters described things to Shardlake in great detail. Do you remember the bit where Barak told Shardlake about the first time he saw Greek Fire in action? It's prefaced with a comment about Barak's surprising fluency, which almost makes me wonder if his editor said something.

Anyway, I really enjoyed it too. :) He did have a lot of appointments each day and he was being chased by assassins, so I think we can forgive him the horse.

6/29/2005 07:25:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Do you like Rankin and his creation Rebus (not historical crime fiction, I admit, but crime fiction nevertheless)? I studied for my first degree at Edinburgh and he caputres the atmosphere perfectly (I lived in the same suburb as Rebus and every detail is spot-on). I fully agree with the sentiments of the first paragraph. Remember literary critics have a vested interest in looking down on certain products as part of their own claim to superior insight/authority (the best analysis in my opinion is Pierre Bourdieu's excellent The Field of Cultural Production). Having said that, thus far I have only read Rankin in the genre because I am not a great consumer of fiction (only partly due to time constraints). The review was perfectly pitched (no nonsense, providing the right amount of detail to let the reader decide if she wants to investigate further). I hope you posted it on Blogcritics as well.

6/30/2005 09:50:00 am  
Blogger Natalie Bennett said...

I think actually the Greek fire case is not so bad - it would be such an amazing occurence that you'd describe it in detail, but there are other cases where he's doing that historical exposition thing - I've done this research so you ARE going to read it - then again it is an irresistable impulse sometimes as as writer.

7/01/2005 02:03:00 am  
Blogger Natalie Bennett said...

I confess to being agnostic on Rebus - I might pick him up in an airport bookstore for lack of other choices, but I find him just a little to stereotypically noir - alcoholic, out of luck with women, always fighting with superiors, etc etc ... (And I've never been to Edinburgh, which probably doesn't help.)

I don't know that Bourdieu text, but I am a total fan of his - as I've probably said elsewhere I think his habitus is just the most wonderfully useful analytical concept.

7/01/2005 02:06:00 am  
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12/30/2005 03:27:00 am  

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