Historical Noir by Barry Forshaw, No Exit, 220pp, £9.99
As we rush headlong into an uncertain future that seems at once both disorientating and lacking a moral centre, writers are increasingly looking back and setting their novels in an earlier time; a place where mobile phones don’t buzz and the truth is still something worth fighting for.
Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose came out in 1980 and catapulted historical crime into a new renaissance. I still remember that eerie feeling of transportation as I turned the pages and was hurled back into the day-to-day life of a medieval monastery. Eco cleverly used a crime fiction structure to frame debates about God and nature while utilising Thomistic logic as an investigative tool.
The Name of the Rose looked back at the same time as looking forward. It used a Christian worldview to probe a post-modern world stripped of logic and grand narrative. Forshaw focuses on this tension between past and present in his survey of the varieties of historical crime fiction.
He is the perfect guide, effortlessly taking us across time and space, his capsule reviews almost always whetting the appetite for another plunge into the past. Quoting Hamlet, Forshaw posits that historical crime holds up a (distorted) mirror to nature, showing us the past through the sensibility of the present.
He goes on to argue that this double frame allows writers to stand back from current events while at the same time interrogating history as a means to understanding the present.
Historical fiction, as Forshaw asserts, reminds us of how little we, as human beings, have changed. You can read even the most ancient texts and recognise the same motivations, jealousies and bad behaviour that are present in today’s front pages.
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