Tuesday, 28 June 2011

True Crime?

I believe that bloggers and reviewers shouldn’t give away the plots of other writers’ novels. It’s perhaps not so crucial in traditional romances, when it’s guaranteed that the hero and heroine will have their happily ever after. Although I do recall reading about someone who objected when a review of a television adaptation revealed that Elizabeth Bennet marries Mr Darcy.

In novels where the detection of crime is a major theme, however, the reader’s experience can be completely spoiled if he or she knows the ending in advance. I remember the furore when a national newspaper obituary of Agatha Christie gave away the solution to one of her mysteries. As I recall, the obituarist was unrepentant; he said it was the best way to illustrate Dame Agatha’s particular genius.

However, I don’t think it’s possible to make the point I want to make in this post effectively without revealing plot details. So I’ll say in advance that I’m going to be talking about Phil Rickman's The Lamp of the Wicked and Christopher Fowler's  Bryant and May: Off the Rails. Anyone who really doesn’t want to know about those books shouldn’t read beyond the end of this paragraph. I have read and enjoyed other books by these authors; the fact that I have reservations about these two titles doesn’t mean I dislike their work overall.

So, on to the point of this post. When, if ever, is it appropriate to use real life crime for fictional purposes? The Whitechapel murders have been providing material for novels and film and television drama for years. Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher is the most recent fictional interpretation of a crime that took place at Road Hill House in Wiltshire in 1860. All the people directly connected to these crimes is long dead and can‘t be affected by anything written about them. (Although, remarkably, one person involved in the events at Road Hill House lived until 1944 and is probably remembered by people still alive today.)

What about more recent crimes? In The Lamp of the Wicked, Phil Rickman uses real life events in Gloucester in the 1990s as part of the background to the story. Real people do not appear in the book, but one of the characters is said to have known and been influenced by the perpetrator of these real life crimes. There was no advance warning that fact and fiction would be mingled in this way; if there had been, I would probably have chosen not to read the book.

In Bryant and May: Off the Rails, Christopher Fowler concludes what, up to that point, had been an entertaining novel set against the fascinating background of the abandoned and unknown parts of the London Underground by revealing that the murderer the detectives had pursued through two books started the King's Cross Fire in 1987. There is in fact no evidence that the fire was started deliberately or criminally; that is pure invention on the author’s part. Again, there is no warning that real life events are going to intrude so starkly into the fiction.

So where does an author draw the line? Is it ever appropriate to use real tragic events as a background to fiction? Would it be more acceptable to use an event such as the King’s Cross Fire to explore the impact of a disaster on the lives of survivors, rather than to drive the plot of a mystery novel? Or should contemporary novelists always stick to fiction and leave real life events to journalists?

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Oh dear -

'As Inspector Ben Ross of Scotland Yard walks across Tower Bridge one Saturday evening in late October 1867...' is the beginning of the front cover blurb of a historical crime novel. In the book itself he walks, more plausibly, across Waterloo Bridge, but I wonder how many people will think the blurb is indicative of the historical accuracy of the book, and decide to give it a miss?

Friday, 10 June 2011

‘My Husband and I’

- was a phrase often used by the Queen as a means of acknowledging the Duke of Edinburgh's contribution to her private and public life.

His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh is ninety years old today. Her Majesty the Queen has a few years to go before she becomes our longest reigning sovereign, but the Duke is already the longest serving consort. The second is Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. She became queen when she married George III in 1761 and lived until 1818. 

The Duke of Edinburgh was born a prince of Greece, but his ancestry is mostly German and Danish. He and the Queen are both descendants of Queen Victoria and of King Christian IX of Denmark.

Who to marry, and what official role a consort should play, has always been a difficult question for a reigning queen. It was considered inappropriate, and likely to cause faction and rivalry among the nobility, for a queen to marry a subject. Marrying a foreign prince, however, was likely to result in England being drawn into Continental  conflicts.

Mary Tudor chose to marry Philip II of Spain, who took the title of ‘king’, the only consort ever to do so. The match was unpopular in England from the start; there were armed protests against it. Philip took England into his war with France which cost money the country did not have and led to the loss of Calais, England’s last remaining territory in the French mainland. 

Following this, Elizabeth I’s decision not to marry was wise; but a childless sovereign leads to uncertainty over the succession.

Mary II reigned jointly with her husband William of Orange (William III), who was the nearest Protestant male claimant to the throne. After her death in 1694 William ruled alone. He was succeeded in 1702 by his wife's sister Anne. She had married Prince George of Denmark in 1683. Prince George was devoted to and supportive of his wife. He was given the title Duke of Cumberland and the office of Lord High Admiral. This is now a purely ceremonial office, but at this time the Lord High Admiral had overall responsibility for the Royal Navy. 

The last queen's consort before the Duke of Edinburgh was Prince Albert of Saxe Coburg, husband of Queen Victoria. Prince Albert did much to repair the reputation of the monarchy, which had been damaged in the later years of George III by the activities of his sons. Albert and Victoria, with their children, presented an image of happy family life. Albert was unpopular with some. The Queen's husband has no constitutional role and it was thought that the Queen should not involve him so closely in official business. However, his advice was usually good, and he helped to counterbalance the Queen's more impulsive nature. The Queen was devoted to him and inconsolable when he died in 1861.

Like Prince Albert,  the Duke of Edinburgh has not had a clearly defined role. However, he has had a wide range of interests, has worked to promote a number of causes, and has supported the Queen throughout the nearly sixty years of her reign.