Fiction is fun, but don't mess with the history

Saturday, February 26, 2011

'A Little White Death', part 3

OK, let's re-imagine this novel in the style of Stone's Fall. Actually, Lawton himself used a very similar method in Old Flames. Fictional Inspector Troy met historical Nikita Khrushchev during his 1956 visit to Britain and had some interesting conversations.

In case you haven't read Stone's Fall, author David Liss created an ingenious fictional alternative to the recorded historical events surrounding what came to be known as the Panic of 1890 (expertly described by historian Philip Ziegler in The Sixth Great Power: A History of One of the Greatest of All Banking Families, the House of Barings, 1762-1929).

Lawton, in a way, did the same thing. His alternative asks, "what if Ward's death was murder - not suicide?". He also, however, wanted to weave in some of Troy's history and associates from other novels. One advantage to replacing the main historical characters with similar-but-not-identical fictional creations is that the Inspector Troy-style story is less constrained by the historical story. For instance, it's hard to imagine that a murder committed by a Scotland Yard detective could have gone unreported in the press, so the fictional Detective Inspector Blood replaces the actual Scotland Yard vice investigator involved in the Ward case (Lawton notes that the history of real detective Harold Challenor was a partial inspiration for the Blood character). Also, one of the fun things about the Troy novels is the way familiar characters keep showing up in unexpected ways. A Stone's Fall approach would not have given Lawton such latitude. Still, for a reader who, like myself, enjoys the history in historical fiction, there's something unsettling about Lawton's blurring of the lines between the two. I think I prefer Blackout or Old Flames to A little White Death.

Monday, February 21, 2011

'A Little White Death', part 2

OK, to continue the last post, let's see how this novel might have worked with a different approach to the historical characters. How about the no-fictional-characters-at-all approach of I, Claudius? Obviously, that leaves Inspector Troy out, creating a very different sort of novel. The so-called Profumo Affair had enough intrigue, drama and memorable characters to fit very well into that style, especially if you feel free to speculate, as Lawton did, on the behind-the-headlines parts of the spy story. The 1989 British film Scandal does exactly that, fictionalizing the historical characters but staying remarkably (for a film) close to the facts. There was a lot of juicy historical material available, since Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies wrote tell-all autobiographies and Stephen Ward's trial was front page news.

For Inspector Troy fans, the story is more fun as a murder/espionage thriller story, so let's accept the need for fictional characters. How about using all the historical events and characters but running the fictional story in parallel, offering an alternative spin on historical events? That describes Stone's Fall, a 2009 novel by Iain Pears. Next post will explore that idea.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Inspector Troy series: 'A Little White Death' by John Lawton

I know, I should be reading A Lily of the Field instead of the 12-year-old A Little White Death. Well, I only discovered the 'Inspector Troy' series last year; I'm still trying to catch up. Also, it was available at the library.

I won't do synopsis here; I did a one-paragraph summary on Lawton's Wikipedia page. What interested me about this novel was the approach to historical characters.
In the closing Historical Note, Lawton explains his historical inspirations and cautions that "This is not a roman à clef." Although many of the fictional characters unique to this novel are based on historical characters, they are not intended to be seen literally as those characters. Lawton wanted to recreate the historical situation, but play "what if?" with the story.

It's fun to compare this character treatment with other possible approaches; follow-up posts will explore as many as I can think of.