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

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).

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