Historical Fiction


Imagine Raymond Carver and Nick Hornby collaborating on an episode of PRIME SUSPECT set in 1968. Not (for the most part, anyway) in the Technicolor London of Carnaby Street and King’s Road, but in a grim, gray postwar London pockmarked with bomb sites and reeling from waves of immigration from Britain’s former colonies.

Shaw’s protagonist, Detective Sergeant Cathal “Paddy” Breen, is himself the son of Irish immigrants, and an outsider in nearly every way–unmarried, unambitious, alienated by the brutish, racist, and sexist behavior of his fellow CID officers, and a generation away from the glittering denizens of Swinging London. Stunned by the death of his father, whom he nursed through his long final illness, Breen finds himself behaving in unexpected ways–fleeing a crime scene, nauseated by violence, unable to control his emotions.

To redeem himself, Breen takes on the case of a murdered teenage girl who was found a few blocks away from EMI’s Abbey Road studios. Assigned to assist him is newly arrived Temporary Detective Constable Helen Tozer, whose status as a female detective is regarded by the rest of the squad as mildly ridiculous.

Tozer is talkative where Breen is laconic, tuned-in to pop culture where he is uninterested, energetic where he is plodding, rural where he is urban. Yet each recognizes in the other intelligence and curiosity and an eye for particulars. Their scenes together light up the page.

All the characters shine: Bailey, the hapless, intimidated CID superintendent; the surly owner of the bagel shop down the street from Breen’s flat; the aggrieved occupants of the housing block overlooking the crime scene. Even the most incidental characters are fully formed and carry the weight of their personal histories.

More than that, they carry the weight of the historical moment, from the rise of the counterculture to the civil war in Biafra, from assassinations in the US to government scandal in Britain. Shaw makes these cultural conflicts personal for all of his characters, adding political heft that takes the novel beyond mere entertainment. And, speaking of the historical moment, his period details are flawless.

The writing throughout is restrained and focused on specifics, as in this description of the squad room: “The morning light filtered through the canvas blinds. Olivetti typewriters filled with triplicate forms, white on top, yellow in the middle and pink underneath. The picture of the Queen. Blackstone’s Police Manual and Butterworth’s Police Procedure. Green enamel lampshades hanging from the ceiling, comfortably coated in dust.” And the dialog is even better. Sharp, rapid fire, full of double entendre and personal quirks, frequently going in multiple directions at once.

The novel is brutally realistic in language and events, and the constant twists and turns of the plot make for relentless suspense. As the mood shifted from dark comedy to heartbreak and back again, my emotions were as fully engaged as my intellect. SHE’S LEAVING HOME is ultimately satisfying as a mystery while leaving the fates of Breen and Tozer unresolved. The last two paragraphs, in fact, were so ineffably sad that I was only consoled by the knowledge that this is the start–and what a start–of a series.

Thanks and a tip of the auld titfer to Steve Pease, a man who knows his way around a novel or a guitar.

Contemporary Novels

THE HATE U GIVE by Angie Thomas

I have a troubled relationship with Young Adult fiction. I didn’t take to Harry Potter, and I’ve struggled through a number of first-person present-tense peppy novels where the threats are never that dire and the outcome never in doubt. To be clear, there are some YA novels I love, like the brilliant STRAYDOG by Kathe Koja and FENDER LIZARDS by Joe Lansdale (and that’s not even counting Lansdale’s many novels with teen protagonists that aren’t marketed as YA, such as THE BOTTOMS, THE THICKET, EDGE OF DARK WATER, A FINE DARK LINE, etc.). It’s not so much that the books I like are bleak or depressing, but rather that you don’t sense the author hovering over them like a benign deity, warding off anything that might really upset you. These books are more like life and less like a sitcom.

Sitcom elements are certainly part of Angie Thomas’s THE HATE U GIVE (2017)–the 16-year-old narrator, Starr, is obsessed with THE FRESH PRINCE OF BEL-AIR; scenes of her parents trying to dance to hip-hop are intentionally comic; the dialog flirts at times with preciousness. Starr’s first-person present-tense voice, full of slang and pop-culture references might, in some other novel, seem to be pandering to its teenage audience. In this novel, the voice sets you up for one visceral shock after another, starting fewer than 25 pages into it, when one of the characters is shot to death as Starr helplessly looks on.

Starr’s parents love her unconditionally and demonstratively. But they have their own complicated issues, and you never know when a bantering argument between them is going to turn personal and hurtful. Friendships sour and don’t recover. Innocence is lost, and dreams die.

This is a novel about racism in Anytown, USA.

When it really counts, Thomas does not pull her punches. Rather than a benign deity, she is a righteous recording angel with an attitude, as if asking the reader over and over, “You got a problem with that?”

Case in point: There are a number of true heroes in THE HATE U GIVE, but none more complex or intriguing than Starr’s father, Maverick. He is massive, tattooed, a former gang member, a former drug dealer, and an ex-convict. He reveres Malcolm X and teaches his kids the ten-point program of the Black Panther party. (And may I just say what a pleasure it is to see the Panthers, possibly the most misunderstood and misrepresented political group in history, portrayed so positively?) He keeps his Glock close at hand and has no qualms about using it in self-defense. He is not a character intended to sit comfortably with mainstream white America.

The plot of the book could not be more timely: a white cop has shot a young, unarmed Black man in the back. Thomas shows us a good cop in Starr’s Uncle Carlos, but she doesn’t pretend he’s representative. When word gets out about the shooting, there are riots, and there are Black people in those riots who smash windows and loot TV sets. But Thomas takes the time to tell us why.

The violence at the climax of the book is harrowing, all the more so because Thomas has let us know that anything can happen. And if the ending is perhaps a little neat, the losses are not forgotten or downplayed.

Thomas’s rendering of dialect (see my review of WENCH) is superb–understated, but rhythmic, colorful, and convincing. She has a genuine gift for delineating fully rounded characters through a few well-chosen details and through the words they speak.

I love the feeling of being deep in a book that has taken over my consciousness, that makes me pause during the day and look forward to getting back to it, to going over what I’ve just read as I fall asleep, to wanting to talk about it with my friends. THE HATE U GIVE is that kind of book. And more–it might just be essential reading.

Thanks, and a tip of the cappello, to Seba Pezzani for the recommendation.

Historical Fiction

WENCH by Dolen Perkins-Valdez

When Perkins-Valdez chanced upon the true story of an Ohio resort called the Tawawa House, she knew she was on to something. For a few years before the Civil War, this rural inn allowed Southern slaveholders to vacation there with their enslaved mistresses as if they were ordinary married couples. Her curiosity about the lives of these women couldn’t be satisfied by the scant facts available, so she turned to fiction. History’s loss is our gain.

Unlike Butler’s KINDRED or Morrison’s BELOVED, WENCH (2010) is not filled with horrific physical violence. The four women at the heart of the story are, relatively speaking, privileged. Lizzie, the viewpoint character, even has her own bedroom in the “big house”–though she has to share it, against her will, with her enslaver, Drayle. She’s had two children by him that she loves without reservation. She thinks she may be in love with Drayle, and he with her.

The women, who all come from different plantations in different parts of the South, only meet once a year, for a few weeks in the summer. Mawu, with her fiery red hair, is immediately the most memorable. She’s the one who fights back against the predations of her enslaver, who talks about escape. She relentlessly pushes the others to face the reality of their positions.

And that reality, as Perkins-Valdez makes increasingly clear, is that although they may be privileged, they are still property. The women may forget it for short stretches of time, but the men who own them never do.

I believe unequivocally that the way to render dialect on the page is through word choice and rhythm, not phoneticization. Phonetic spelling is a single-edged sword wielded almost exclusively against the poor. In WENCH, Perkins-Valdez shows us how to write dialect without condescension or prettifying, without dropped Gs on the one hand or flights of poetry on the other. Each of the women has a distinct voice that reflects her character and upbringing–Mawu’s abrupt, Lizzie’s educated, Sweet’s maternal, Reenie’s country. Their conversation crackles with the heat of life.

As for the descriptive prose, it is also completely free of grandstanding, evocative when it needs to be, but always welded to Lizzie’s viewpoint, drawing you deeper into the character, and into the novel, with every word.

The historic details are utterly persuasive, the settings vivid, the summer heat and smells of sweat and cooking fires inescapable. But it’s the truth of the characters’ emotions that rings most loudly of all.