Tuesday, October 27, 2009


I have read all six of the CWA Ellis Peters Historical Award shortlisted books.
My reviews:

With the huge range of historical crime fiction produced from such a wide chronological range it does seem to be rather strange that four out of the six shortlisted books cover the period 194o-1944, and another [If The Dead Rise Not] straddles the Second World War being set in 1934 and 1954.
In fact two books An Empty Death and The Dead of Winter feature the summer of 1944 when London was under attack from the V1 flying bombs, and I was regularly thrown under the kitchen table.
At the risk of being thrown under a table again I would respectfully suggest it would have been more sensible to have a shortlist exhibiting a wider range of historical periods.

Writing successful historical crime fiction is difficult because not only do you have to produce a plot with believable characters, but also to use your research to create the right ambience and historical atmosphere as well as getting the historical facts correct. Unless you are writing alternative history you cannot alter the stance of any real historical characters you use for your novel, but equally pages and pages of dialogue to establish the social conventions of the time can become boring.

The Dead of Winter, by Rennie Airth, was in my opinion the weakest of the six because of the ponderous pace, and the preponderance of stereotypes among the characters. Also why give away the motive in a prologue?

I was not sure about The Information Officer, by Mark Mills, was it a wartime thriller or a serial killer crime fiction novel, and by trying to be both it just missed the mark for me.

An Empty Death, by last year's winner Laura Wilson, was a very good read with an interesting villain, someone who we really got to know, unlike the almost anonymous killer in The Dead of Winter. But one had to 'suspend one's disbelief' over two key points in the plot, and this eventually spoilt the book.

The Interrogator by Andrew Williams was a great book to read with four interesting main characters and a plot that included a murder as well as the tension of solving a wartime conundrum. The book was also nominated for the CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger, which it failed to win, and because the story was more about anti-submarine warfare and British naval codes than the murder I don't think it will win the Ellis Peters.

We are now left with two very good contrasting books by Shona MacLean and Philip Kerr. I have discussed the Bernie Gunther books at great length and if you click and scroll down you can read all the posts here.

Shona MacLean has written a wonderful novel that brilliantly evokes the atmosphere of Scotland in 1626. The Redemption of Alexander Seaton has been meticulously researched and the reader is drawn back in time so successfully that you constantly expect the baillie and his men to batter down your door and drag you off to appear in front of the kirk session.

Shona MacLean's book is a slower read that requires more concentration and because I like Bernie Gunther and the technique of the split story [Germany 1934, Cuba 1954] I would just pick Philip Kerr's If The Dead Rise Not by a smidgen.
I have a suspicion though that the judges will pick The Redemption of Alexander Seaton by Shona MacLean.


Blogger Philip Amos said...

Thank you for this pithy summation, Norman. I shall certainly read the MacLean. I had not looked at it closely and quite unreasonably, I suppose, assumed it had something to do with Alexander Seaton the mercenary or another eminence of that name active in that period. Wrong, but it did set my mind moving along the Seaton/Seton lines, ending with Major Sir Bruce Lovat Seton of Abercorn, 11th Bart., Edinburgh Academy, Sandhurst, Black Watch, Lord's Taverner, and ---- Fabian of the Yard.

5:22 AM  
Blogger Dorte H said...

Thank you for a very informative post. I am not as fond of historical fiction as you are, but I do enjoy reading one once in a while, and I certainly agree that the atmosphere and facts are important.

1:00 PM  
Blogger Maxine Clarke said...

Hmmm, Fabian of the Yard - most intriguing!
Great post, Norman. I am not sure how they choose these shortlists - whether they are done by the committee of judges so to speak, or whether individual judges choose one each - in the latter case, it would not be unusual to have a list of several novels from one period, by coincidence, I suppose.

Anyway, I'm very interested in your thoughts on these books. I will try to promote "Alexander Seaton" - already on my shelf- in view of your comments. But mainly, I want to thank you for reading all these books and so helpfully summarising their appeal! I look forward to the official announcement and whether the judges are as wise as you ;-)

2:06 PM  
Blogger Bernadette said...

Interesting summation Norman, I hope the judges put as much time and effort into their selections We'll see soon I guess.

2:44 PM  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

Thank you all for your comments.
Hopefully our 'inside girl' will twitter the result from London in between glasses of wine and canapes on Thursday night. ;o)
This is going to be interesting especially after the International Dagger controversy.

4:44 PM  
Blogger Philip Amos said...

Maxine, I'm pleased that bit of trivia intrigues you. Major Bruce Seton, actor, became Major Sir Bruce Lovat Seton, 11th holder of the baronetcy of Abercorn, created 1663, descended from Alexander Seaton of the earldom of Huntly (created 1445), in 1963, seven years after he stopped zooming about in the back of that Humber Hawk as Fabian of the Yard. He stopped acting when he inherited the title. Fabian was his only significant role, to put it kindly, and I suspect stage and screen were not a necessary part of his existence. Barely out of Sandhurst, he resigned his commission in the Black Watch when he was 20, and I'm a bit curious about that.

Anyway, I just happened to know this useless information about the baronetcy because a friend of mine, a very young and very pretty actress in 1956, appeared with him in an episode of Fabian entitled 'The Ribbon Trap'. There is, however, an odd little tie-in with the point Norman makes about the subject matter of the books on the shortlist: Bruce's sister, Marie "Toppy" Seton, was the second wife of Air Marshal Sir Arthur, later Lord, Tedder, a very significant figure in the Air Force command in and around the war years and Eisenhower's deputy as Supreme Commander in Europe. Tedder's first wife died in a plane crash before his eyes in Egypt in 1943, and he married Marie the following year. She was his service driver -- rather as if Foyle married Samantha. Of course, Eisenhower just had an affair with his driver.

So that ties in with the War, and there's also a little link with you, Maxine, in that Tedder's son, John, second Lord Tedder, Sc.D. (Cantab.), held the Purdie chair in chemistry at St. Andrews in his later years, distinguished enough, I gather, to move out of the long shadow of his father.

12:57 AM  
Blogger Maxine Clarke said...

Thank you, Philip, most fasciating!
I do know of (but have not met) a Richard Tedder, a biologist (at Cambridge I think). But whether any relation, I don't know.

2:18 AM  
Blogger Philip Amos said...

I think this may be so, Maxine, for something caught my eye in this regard. There is at UC, London, a most eminent virologist: Prof. The Hon. Richard S. Tedder, Cambridge man, degrees in zoology and medicine, and that 'Hon.' may well come from being the younger son of Professor John, especially as John had a brother named Richard who died in the War. This is the Richard Tedder who wrote to Brian Follett to say, among other things and with notable temperance, that it came as something of a surprise to him that Follett had not seen fit to involve any virologists in his enquiry into the epizootic of foot and mouth. I imagine it did and that he may be the one of whom you know.

5:32 AM  

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