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

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Mission to Paris, by Alan Furst

After months on my local library waiting list, I was able to check out and read Mission to Paris, the twelfth and most recent entry in the series of historical-espionage-thriller novels by Alan Furst that began with Night Soldiers in 1988. As the title makes clear, the city of Paris is once again a leading character in Furst's tale of amateur espionage in the tense years leading up to World War II.

The lead character in Mission to Paris is an Austrian-American actor named Fredric Stahl. Stahl arrives in Paris in late summer of 1938 to star in a movie as part of a studio exchange deal. Those were the days when the big studios owned exclusive contracts with their stars, and were mostly able to dictate when and where those stars worked.

The movie-making business is complicated, however, by the pre-war politics of Europe. Stahl is gradually drawn into anti-Nazi activites, acting as a courier to smuggle secrets out of Berlin. Another complication is a love interest, a German emigre costume designer.
 As usual in this series, several recurring characters from earlier books return in Mission to Paris. In Berlin, Stahl meets the mysterious Russian emigre actress and spy Olga Orlova, who previously appeared in The World at Night and Red Gold. Jean Casson, French film director and protagonist of those two earlier novels, is mentioned in passing when Stahl passes the door of his Paris office. The Hungarian Count Polanyi appears as the owner of a partly-ruined castle used as a filming location. And, of course, the Brasserie Heininger - which I believe appears in every one of these novels - is the setting for a Paris dinner.

Since the twelve novels are so similar in plot and structure, my five criteria can be applied to them as a unit.

The five criteria:
  1. Did the novel inspire me to further historical research?
Yes - less so with Mission to Paris than with some of the earlier books, but the descriptions of the workings of the French and German film industry of those years is interesting. Also piquing my interest are the stories of the Nazi foreign propaganda efforts in those pre-war years.   
Score =3-4
  1. Did the novel include enough history to make it an interesting historical story?
Yes. Furst's novels include more historical ambience than fact, but the settings seem to be accurate in general tone. For example, Stahl happens to be in Berlin on Kristallnacht, but only hears noises and sees running shadows from his hotel window.   
Score = 3-4
  1. Was the depiction of historical events accurate?
Yes. Again, earlier novels in the series contain more historical detail, but Furst's history seems generally to be accurate.  
Score = 3-4
  1. Was the depiction of historical characters accurate?
No historical persons appear as characters in any of these novels, though many are mentioned in background stories.  
Score = 3
  1. Would I read another novel by this author, continuing in this historical period, with these characters (or new ones)?
Definitely. As historical novels go, these are more style than substance but are fun to read, and certainly never heavy-handed with the history.  
Score = 4.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The historical-spy novels of Alan Furst

The period leading up to and during WWII is fertile ground for espionage novels. Few novelists working in this sub-genre are better at the underlying history than Alan Furst. His novels are spiced up with all of the standard spy thriller plot elements: shady and/or murderous characters, dangerous situations, narrow escapes, unexpected plot twists and sex. Beyond mere entertainment, however, Furst makes the historical places and events central to his story lines.

After four stand-alone novels, Furst hit his stride with Night Soldiers (1988). All of his subsequent stories are set in the Night Soldiers world, containing recurrent fictional supporting characters and places, especially in Paris (see the Wikipedia article for lists of titles and characters). After reading a few novels in the series, it's fun to start a new one and encounter a familiar character - with one possible exception. The ubiquitous field operative known simply as S. Kolb sometimes becomes a deus ex machina who arrives with a valise full of cash just in time to get the hero out of jail or out of a country. 

Earlier entries in the series are uniformly strong, while later efforts Spies of Warsaw and Spies of the Balkans live down to their unimaginative titles. I have yet to read Furst's latest, Mission to Paris. Judging only by the title, I'm expecting it to be better. 

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Pompeii: A Novel by Robert Harris

Pompeii (2003) is not the latest novel by British novelist Robert Harris, and I can't say how it compares to his many others. It is, in fact, the first Harris novel I've read. I can say, however, that it was easily good enough to make me want to read more of his work. The novel's attractions for me were fourfold:
  1. It's about ancient Rome - one of my main areas of historical interest
  2. It's not about legions and wars and emperors. That's very unusual and refreshing. Of course, natural disasters are not exactly unexplored territory in fiction, but I haven't found any other novels about the great volcanic eruption of A.D. 79.
  3. It's secondary setting is the great Roman aqueduct, the Aqua Augusta, that brought fresh water from inland springs to the coastal towns around the bay of Naples. The main character is the engineer in charge of maintaining it. As a building designer, the marvels of Roman engineering fascinate me.
  4. It was in my local library - always important to the reader on a budget.
Pompeii has a few shortcomings. The biggest one, for me, is historical. Either Harris was unaware of the pre-Roman history of the volcanic area west of Vesuvius, or else he didn't want to put too many irons in the fire. But any person living in that place, at that time, could not have failed to be aware of the Cumaen sibyl. The Aeneid, written about 100 years previous, was almost certainly one of the best known pieces of Roman literature to an educated citizen such as the engineer Attilius. In the epic poem by Virgil, Aeneas visits the Cumae area to consult the oracle, and is conducted on a visit to the Underworld.

Indeed, the novel mentions that the sibyl lived in the area, but fails to mention the continuing existence of the mystic cult in the area. Judging from archaeological evidence, the story was not a forgotten legend - there are several elaborate underground sites in the area that were probably connected with the sibyl - probably maintained by competing charlatans claiming to be the descendent of the original sibyl. One of the sites even contains a heated, sulferous underground river that could have been easily passed off as the river Styx. Here's a link to a good article in Smithsonian about the archaeological studies conducted there. I can think of many fascinating ways the underground complex could have been incorporated into Pompeii.

To be fair, the central place in the novel is Pompeii, not Cumae or Baiae. Attilius visits the underground reservoir at the terminus of the aqueduct above Misenum (Miseno) and a nearby fish farm, not far from Baiae, but the story gives him no reason to visit the home of the sibyl. Harris shows he's done his research by his description of the reservoir itself (which can be visited today) and the Misenum naval base. Another interesting detail is the mention that Misenum was supposedly named for a character in the Aeneid. The story later features detailed descriptions of the streets and buildings of Pompeii, drawn from archaeological researches that have excavated and studied much of the Roman town buried by that disastrous eruption of Vesuvius.

My second quibble is minor, but is one that's common to most historical fiction: the juvenile style of the writing about relations between the sexes. Yes, the history is the main thing, but real people just don't act the way historical novel characters act toward each other. The scenes between men and women in Pompeii would be more at home in Dickens than in the 21st century (or in ancient Rome). Okay, that's too harsh - not Dickens - a John Ford 50s western movie, perhaps. Of course, 1st-century Romans didn't act like 21st-century Americans, either (or John Ford characters). We do know that upper-class Romans were pretty conservative and tended to be rather prudish, so maybe Harris was not far off in his characterizations.

The five criteria:
  1. Did the novel inspire me to further historical research?
Yes. The whole Bay of Naples area is full of interesting historical and geological sites, rarely visited in other ancient-Rome novels.  
Score = 5
  1. Did the novel include enough history to make it an interesting historical story?
Yes. The novel lacks a bibliography or "Historical Notes" that are so helpful to readers interested in the history, but there's plenty of historical detail.  Score = 4
  1. Was the depiction of historical events accurate?
It seems to be - I haven't done any follow-up research to see how much of the description of events during the eruption is drawn from historical sources. Again, some historical notes by the author would have been enlightening.  
Score = 4
  1. Was the depiction of historical characters accurate?
The only indisdutably historical character in Pompeii, and the only one extensively involved in the story, is the man known to us as Pliny the Elder. At the end of a long career, Pliny served as admiral of the fleet at Misenum, and died during an attempted naval rescue operation of victims of the volcanic eruption. The fictional Attilius is familiar with the writings of Pliny, and enlists the admirals' help in the crisis situation. A few other characters may be historical, but their roles in the story are minor.  
Score = 3
  1. Would I read another novel by this author, continuing in this historical period, with these characters (or new ones)?
Definitely - especially his trilogy of biographical novels about the Roman orator and politician Cicero; Imperium, Lustrum and Conspirata.  
Score = 5.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel

Detail from  Holbien's portrait of Thomas Cromwell 

Bring Up The Bodies is the second book of a planned trilogy of historical novels about Thomas Cromwell,  chief minister to Henry VIII of England. I departed from my focus on 18th-19th century American history to read Wolf Hall, first in the series, and liked it well enough to return for the second installment. In fact, both novels rate in the very top tier of my favorite historicals, earning straight 5's in my five criteria.

 In lieu of my own summarizing, here's an excerpt from an interview with author Hillary Mantel. The entire interview is available online at Amazon.

"Wolf Hall takes in a huge span of time, describing Cromwell's early life, and reaching back into the previous century, to show the forces that shaped England before he was born. The foreground action of the book occupies several years, ending in July 1535, on the day of the execution of Cromwell's political antagonist, Thomas More. The action of Bring Up The Bodies occupies only nine months, and within that nine months it concentrates on the three weeks in which Henry's second wife, Anne Boleyn, is arrested, tried and executed for treason. So it is a shorter, more concentrated read."

I suppose many will find these novels to be slow-paced, lacking in action and/or romance, bogged down in detail. For me, however, these are positive qualities, and the level of historical research is superb. Cromwell has usually been portrayed in a very negative manner; I found Mantel's more complex and balanced characterization both refreshing and compelling. Highly recommended for any who share my passion for the history in historical fiction. I look forward to the completion of the trilogy.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

'Sparrowhawk, Book Four: Empire', by Edward Cline

Sparrowhawk, Book Four: Empire, published in 2004 by Edward Cline, is the fourth novel in the Sparrowhawk series. It's been almost a year since I reviewed book two in the series. Since then, I also read Book Three: Caxton, so here's a brief outline of the historical settings of both. (see the earlier reviews for my general comments about Cline's style and fictional characters). In Caxton, Jack and Hugh both end up in Virginia, owning neighboring farms near the fictional small town of Caxton. There they spend the years of the French and Indian War.

In Empire, Jack and Hugh confront the newly enlarged British Empire and the first few of Parliament's clumsy attempts to increase tax revenues from its North American colonies - from the 1764 Sugar Act to the 1765 Stamp Act. The novel's climax is the debate and voting in the Virginia House of Burgesses over how Virginia should respond to the Stamp Act. Hugh has become a Burgess and is involved in the debates (on the radical pro-resistance side, of course). While in Williamsburg, Hugh gets acquainted with several historical characters, including the firebrand Patrick Henry and a very young Thomas Jefferson.

While the Sparrowhawk novels are not bad, I admit that I read Empire mostly because I couldn't find anything better in my local library. Because of a tight budget, they don't seem to be putting much money into acquisitions these days. The two remaining Sparrowhawk books are pretty cheap as Kindle books, but I'm bothered by the fact that ebooks can't be re-sold as used or donated to a library. Publishers may have finally found a way to put used-book stores and libraries out of business. All readers should oppose this trend.

Even more disturbing to me personally is that I'm having trouble finding good new historical novelists, and the output from my favorites has slowed dramatically. Maybe they're all getting old along with me, but it doesn't seem like younger writers are coming along to receive the torch. Seriously, I saw a novel the other day with the title: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Are there any adults left in the room?

Friday, January 27, 2012

'Scandalmonger' by William Safire (2000)

Scandalmonger - what a great word! (and book title). It's no more than you would expect from Pulitzer Prize winner William Safire, whose On Words column in the Washington Post was a weekly must-read for me. Sadly, Safire is no longer with us, and among his many books are only two historical novels. The other, Freedom, is set in the Civil War, so Scandalmonger was his only foray into the founding period of United States history.

The titular character is James Callender, a Scots immigrant who became a leading journalist in the 1790s before his suspicious death in 1804 - drowning in three feet of James River swamp water. Callender's scathing editorial style and unrelenting criticism of the political leaders of the day earned him many enemies; first John Adams, Alexander Hamilton and the Federalists, later Thomas Jefferson and his Virginia allies James Madison and James Monroe. All of these men appear as prominent characters in Safire's novel, along with many other famous figures, including Hamilton's mistress Maria Reynolds, Aaron Burr, John Marshall and William Cobbett - Callender's main editorial rival.

Scandalmonger joins quite a large group of novels featuring historical characters from this period of American history. A large part of the fun is in how each novelist portrays these supposedly well-known and understood founders of our nation. Given the thousands of volumes of historical studies devoted to the lives of these persons, plus the voluminous correspondence and other writings they left behind, you might suppose that they would assume very similar personalities from one novel to the next. You would, however, be very wrong. Safire's Jefferson is much less Olympian than David Nevin's (in Eagle's Cry). Safire's Aaron Burr, while not devoid of good qualities, is still mainly the standard ambitious, amoral schemer - not much like the thoughtful, misunderstood non-conformist created by Gore Vidal. The most surprising of the characters in Scandalmonger is James Monroe. Most historical writers tend to dismiss Monroe as the least talented member of the Virginia dynasty. In Safire's hands, however, he becomes a crafty, politically astute "fixer". It's Monroe whose behind-the-scenes maneuvers help bring about the political downfall of Hamilton. Later, Monroe is the one who repeatedly steps in to repair the potential political damage wrought by Jefferson's love life and Madison's naivete. And, in the end, it's Monroe who steps in to deal with the volatile Callender, the man who knew too much. I doubt that the real Monroe was such a subtle thinker, but his character is really the glue that holds the novel's plot lines together.

My few criticisms of Scandalmonger relate mainly to the speculative parts of the historical story. Early on, Safire begins to develop a theory that part of the personal animosity between Hamilton and Burr might have come from their rivalry for the affections of Maria Reynolds. That interesting sub-plot is, however, never taken very far. At the same time, the novel fails to mention what many historians believe was the main source of friction between the two - Burr's defeat of Hamilton's father-in-law Philip Schuyler in a campaign for a Senate seat. Later, the novel tiptoes all around the possibility that Callender might have been murdered, but misses an opportunity to write a great climactic scene. Safire was perhaps too scrupulous as a historian to be a superior novelist.

The five criteria:
  1. Did the novel inspire me to further historical research?

Yes. Even though I've probably read more on this period of American history than any other, Scandalmonger proves that the subject is far from exhausted. Score = 4

  1. Did the novel include enough history to make it an interesting historical story?

Yes. The story is nothing but history, except for a few invented details. Score = 5

  1. Was the depiction of historical events accurate?

Yes. At the end of the book, Safire provides a page by page listing of his sources for events and dialogue (most of which comes from the characters' own writing). He explains the rationale behind the few invented details, such as an affair between Callender and Maria Reynolds. Score = 5

  1. Was the depiction of historical characters accurate?

Yes. As noted above, what's remarkable is how, beginning with the same huge trove of historical materials as other writers, Safire created such unique portrayals. Score = 5

  1. Would I read another novel by this author, continuing in this historical period, with these characters (or new ones)?

Definitely. Unfortunately, there won't be any more. At some point I'll move forward into the Civil War period and read Freedom. Score = 3.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

'The Queen's Man', series by Sharon Kay Penman

While in my local library last month checking out Lionheart, I also grabbed a couple of Sharon Kay Penman's forays into the historical-mystery-detective sub-genre; Cruel as the Grave (1998) and Dragon's Lair (2003). I assume that, for historical novelists, sub-genres are attempts to widen the author's normal audience. They generally do this in several ways:
  1. The novels are shorter
  2. There is less history
  3. There is more fictional content in the chosen sub-genre
All three of these are true of Penman's The Queen's Man series of novels. Having previously read the first of the series, The Queen's Man (1996), I expected these two sequels to be equally entertaining, and was not disappointed. These shorter novels tie in to the historical narrative of Lionheart and the other books in the Angevin Kings series, so there's no question that Penman has done plenty of historical research.

The central action in each of these brief novels is, however, a fictional murder mystery. The central recurring character is the fictional Justin de Quincy, who becomes known as a "Queen's Man" because of his loyalty to and employment by the dowager Queen Eleanor, widow of King Henry II. Eleanor is responsible for England while her son, King Richard I (Lionheart) is away battling the "Saracens" for control of Jerusalem. De Quincy is dispatched by his queen to far-flung corners of the island on confidential assignments, and one or more unexplained murders always seem to occur during his pursuit of the Queen's assignments. De Quincy then becomes a sort of amateur detective to solve the mystery.

The formula is simple and well-understood by fans of the genre, including myself. The entertainment value is undeniable. It would be a mistake, however, to read these novels as representative of the lives and minds of persons actually living in those times and places. It's possible that there was someone like Justin de Quincy in 1193, but we have no historical evidence for it. All the written materials we have from those times indicate that people simply did not think in ways that allowed them to solve a murder mystery by the methods de Quincy uses. They didn't examine alternative explanations for events. They didn't look for hidden physical evidence to support or refute a theory. Hard as it is for us to imagine, they just weren't like us. Anything confusing and/or unexplained became the province of the priest, who declared the event to be "God's will".

There's one other aspect of the construction of these novels that strikes me as somewhat facile. The events and persons connected with the murder mystery and its solution do not influence historical events or persons in any discernable way. The fictional story stands apart within a historical setting. This method allows the author to avoid most of the inherent contradictions involved. By contrast, a more ambitious work in this genre proposes fictional events and characters as part of an alternative explanation for historical events. Stone's Fall, by Iain Pears, is an outstanding recent example of such a novel.

Reading these tales, then, requires a huge suspension of disbelief. Having stipulated that caveat, however, I'm not one to let it stand in the way of my enjoyment of a good mystery. I look forward to reading the fourth installment of The Queen's Man, titled Prince of Darkness (2005).