Crime in Historical Fiction

Aren’t There Enough Crimes in History Already?

Castle Full of Books (1)

This essay originally appeared in Tanzanite’s Castle Full of Books:

True crime may be the most popular genre of contemporary novels, television, and movies.  We live in an era of constant news updates, and whatever sensational lawbreaker makes the headlines today will likely appear in a fictionalized form in next season’s Law and Order.  The most horrific crimes are analyzed and rehashed, and sometimes the point seems to be how quickly the reporter or interviewer can make someone weep on camera.  It’s invasive and horrible—and yet we watch and read and want more.  What we probably want is an explanation of our most hideous possibilities.  We want to know what makes a human being commit crimes and how different we ourselves are, really, from the monsters we watch.

Writers of historical fiction take up this need for revisiting crime, too.  My own Tudor mystery, The Altarpiece (Knox Robinson Publishing 2013), makes use of a real crime, though very loosely indeed.  And we’ve all read novels or watched shows about Jack the Ripper, Lizzie Borden, Robespierre, or the many faceless witch-hunters of Renaissance Europe.  We get a certain shivery pleasure from recounting, yet again, the bloody acts that people long ago and far away have committed against each other.  One potential problem with historical true crime, however, is that the ending will not change, and if the main players are historically well-known figures, the writer is somewhat limited.  Henry VIII will not pardon Anne Boleyn at the eleventh hour.  Jesse James is not going to survive that encounter with Bob Ford and his pistol.  And even if Abraham Lincoln suddenly hunts vampires, he’s still got to be the president during the Civil War and John Wilkes Booth still must assassinate him.

For novelists who want to create and explore questions of character, however, using a fictional crime provides a way to examine the ways ordinary people act within the constraints of a culture’s legal restrictions.  It’s a way to think about the limits of human behavior—both within legal systems and among the people who break the law—and the ways we make difficult, sometimes wrong choices.  In my Cross and Crown series, the main character, Catherine Havens, who is introduced in The Altarpiece, is the adopted daughter of a very imperfect prioress.  Catherine struggles with the desire to be holy and good but she also wants to have money and power and independence and to be a “normal” Renaissance woman, with a husband and family.  She cannot accept Henry VIII as the head of the church, but she cannot ignore the corruptions of Roman Catholicism, either.  Sometimes she chooses to break the law; sometimes she chooses to violate the conventional restrictions against women.  Some of the crimes she commits were, in her time, serious indeed.  The “true” elements of the central crime have been changed to fit the characters; the characters have not been shaped to fit the historical events.

But why make it up?  Why not just be more “historically accurate” and tell a story that “really happened”?  For me, a fictional character and fictional, though plausible, crimes, are a better way to get at what life was like for ordinary, real men and women in a time when witchcraft or treason could be charged against a person for an ill-tempered or ill-timed word.  Theft in Tudor England could be a hanging offense for most people, though members of the clergy could avoid the gallows, even after a conviction for felonies, by reciting a “neck-verse” in Latin.  Was that justice?

We may flatter ourselves that we have evolved judicially, but historical crime fiction, like science fiction, provides a created world that lets us look at our own circumstances more dispassionately and more acutely.  When we read historical stories about accused witches or condemned murderers and thieves, we experience both a stretching of human sympathy that lets us examine ourselves more fully and a “what if–?” that allows us to see our own times more clearly.  We extrapolate, as we do with good science fiction, and, applying what we’ve discovered to contemporary people and events, look at ourselves with fresh eyes.  You might say that we come to a re-formed present, having experienced the past differently.  What, we might newly ask, is our contemporary version of the “witch hunt”?  Who among us is punished excessively for acts resulting from desperation, hunger, fear, or a refusal to submit to the status quo?  Who escapes punishment for breaking the law—and why?

I believe that historical crime fiction can give us this fully realized world that makes us look at ourselves anew.  My Catherine wants justice, freedom, education, and dignity.  How different are we, even now?  And she, like us, uses what opportunities and skills she has to gain her ends.  She may love a man, but she is no angel in the house; she may love her country, but she will not pretend that the king is divine (or even very devout).  Her crimes are of the sort that any person might have committed, given the right circumstances, and she can sometimes forgive herself and sometimes not.  She does not always deserve forgiveness, and she knows that.  She does not always forgive her antagonists easily for their crimes, though she believes (most of the time) that she should.  And her struggles, for me, add up to a truth that resides both within and beyond the historical record.  My Catherine does meet some famous Tudors, and she will meet more as the Cross and Crown series progresses, but the story is hers—and, I hope, all of ours, as well.

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