This Pocket Essentials guide to crime writing, Historical Noir, is an invaluable and entertaining addition to Forshaw’s series (Euro Noir, Brit Noir, Nordic Noir and American Noir). Forshaw’s light tone and easy way with detail make for an accessible read. This is a book that anyone with an interest in the growing field of historical crime fiction should treasure. Forshaw, a leading expert on all matters crime, has an eye for balancing the need to be thorough with the need to be concise and to the point.
Even as an avid reader of historical crime fiction I was surprised by how many authors in this volume were new to me. Barry Forshaw meticulously researches his topic. Even though this guide is not meant to be a definitive survey it is pretty comprehensive. I gleaned a lot; you will too.
The first thing Forshaw points out in the introduction is that Historical Noir is a misnomer, or at least a short hand, because this is a guide to historical crime per se and a lot of it is not noir. No one could accuse Ellis Peters of being on the dark side for instance. The guiding principle for inclusion is that the prosecution of the crime and the investigation of it occur in the past.
Undoubtedly there has been an explosion in the amount of historical crime writing being published in Britain. Forshaw notes the influence of Ellis Peters’ Cadfael series (begun in 1977) and Umberto Eco’s proto-detective, William Baskerville in The Name of the Rose (1980). More recently publishers have delved more deeply into the genre. C.J. Samson’s Matthew Shardlake series, among others, has made historical crime very popular.
“C.J. Sansom is the gold standard for historical crime fiction” says Forshaw.
Now there are hundreds of sleuths and detectives spread throughout the course of history, from the Roman era to the Cold War period. The book is set out by era beginning with the Roman world. As we move forward in time the focus is largely on Britain, which is a preoccupation for American writers too, but there are several examples of tales further afield and published in translation. As with the other guides in the series we are treated to a brief analysis of the major authors, major works and their themes.
The interviews with the authors, generally pithy and to the point, are very interesting and one of the best features of the book. Rather than duplicate questions Forshaw has taken different themes with each author to keep it fresh. Lindsey Davis reveals that the popularity of I, Claudius on the BBC made publishers more receptive to the idea of her work. There is a lot of insight from authors you will be familiar with and some much less famous. As usual, Forshaw covers some of the relevant TV and film in the genre too.
Paul Burke 4*
Historical Noir by Barry Forshaw
Pocket Essentials 9780857301352 pbk Apr 2018