IYCRMM: Historical fiction, crime, and journalism

IF YOU COULD READ MY MIND: The four novels today include fine examples of historical fiction, and of how crime fiction today can blend both actual cases in history, and/or humor to great effect. Enjoy!

Of thieves and triflers

‘The Perfume Thief’ by Timothy Schaffert

Set mainly in the Paris of 1941, during the Nazi Occupation, this novel could best be described as making use of historical fiction to offer an account of what that city’s demi-monde and LGBTQ community were up to during World War II—and how, in their own unique way, they served the Resistance. As it’s an American author writing this, it’ll come as no surprise to find that the main protagonist is an American ex-pat: a self-styled con woman who dresses in tweed suits and is often mistaken for a man. But what makes this a unique story is how 72-year-old Clem is also a perfumer. The other main character and a friend of Clem’s, is an African-American chanteuse named Day (and any similarities to Josephine Baker are intentional).

There’s a strong sense of time and place in this novel, and what’s interesting is how this isn’t just occupied Paris but the nocturnal world of nightclubs and bordellos that were allowed to remain open in order to create a life-goes-on semblance vibe. But really it was more about the victors getting the spoils. Keeping them open afforded the German occupying officers and soldiers venues to R&R, and get their taste of French nightlife and women. The connections to the olfactory world are well established, and it’s couched in the hunt for a missing journal/diary of the owner of a famous House of scents. The owner has gone missing, he’s Jewish, and his palatial home has been taken over by a high ranking German officer. Wonderful historical novel.

‘Triflers Need Not Apply’ by Camilla Bruce

You take a true-to-life celebrated murderer, factor in that she’s one of the first women to enjoy such notoriety in the New World—these are events that happened in the 1890’s, on to the first decade of the new century, and you have a taut psychological drama that’s created under the genre of historical fiction. As Norwegian author Camilla Bruce explains, this was also spurred by the fact that the real historical figure, Belle Gunness, is herself an immigrant from Norway who moved to Chicago and then lived on a farm while indulging in her nefarious activities. It’s a fascinating novel that attempts to understand and explore what possessed Belle to be a serial killer of men, while “adopting” so many children and looking like an exemplary mother.

As a ruthless, black-hearted woman, Bruce does make her case for what would be the circumstances leading to the genesis of Belle Gunness as a manipulative, cold-blooded killer of men, ready to exploit their weaknesses and vanities. All this, while aiming for respectability, and never having to solely depend on a man to survive or prosper. With her first husband, she’s Bella Sorenson, devoid of scruples when showing a mean streak to the weak men in her life while desperately longing for children and financial independence. Helpful here is Bruce’s invention of Nellie, an older sister, who’s constantly caught between doing what’s right and staying loyal to kin and blood relations. It does get heavy to read, as we’re always fascinated, wondering how far she’ll go.

Hacking to get there

‘The Quiet People’ by Paul Cleave

As successful true crime authors, the writing team of Lisa and Cameron Murdoch are well regarded in their native New Zealand and all over the world. They’ve often traveled with seven-year-old son Zach in tow. But as we discover from the opening chapter at a local Christchurch fair, Zach can be a handful, with emotional and psychiatric issues that would tag him a difficult child. That night, after several incidents between father and son, Zach rants about running away from home. The following morning, Cameron finds that the boy has disappeared. Given the history of the couple having often joked about how, as crime writers, they’re in a position to commit the perfect crime, it isn’t long before they become suspects.

If there’s something Paul Cleave has achieved here to near perfection, it’s fiendish plotting, a fast paced thriller, and numerous twists and turns that we don’t see coming. Local detectives Kent and Thompson are perfect foils for the writing couple, trying to second-guess what these writers may have concocted to free themselves of an ornery child. As themes of celebrity, of parenting, and of how secrets are kept between couples come to the foreground, we’re often reminded about how what’s staring us right in the face, can often elude us, or be covered up as we establish our own first impressions and prejudices. If there’s a novel that cries out to give us sleepless nights, this is it, as you’ll want to know what happens next. Gripping read!

‘Hack’ by SGM Ashcroft

Set in Portsmouth, England in the 1990s, the hilarious, down-on-his-luck protagonist of this first of an intended series is Llew Sabler, a wanna-be Fleet Street journalist when we first meet him. Inspired by the TV Lou Grant, with whom he thinks he shares a first name, Llew’s first step on the journalism ladder is working as a hack for one a local paper called The Probe. It’s reporting on local news, and submitting articles for consideration at the London papers, that occupies his time. It also entails making colossally stupid decisions like defecating on the local altar to “create” the news, as well as imperiling the life on an intern by putting her in a mermaid costume in the freezing water. Expect this kind of humor to pepper the wisecracking prose that distinguishes this novel.

Matters get worse as Llew helps a local, wheelchair-bound, small-time crime lord set up a mail order porn business. Plus the looming shadow of Llew’s nemesis, Mr. Skinner and his rival local paper, The Tribune, is never too far away. That Skinner is ready to deal with blackmail and criminal activities to keep his local status intact, becomes part of the misadventures that Llew gets embroiled in. There’s always something happening in this fast-paced novel, and the tone is consistently snarky (in a good way) and humorous. On the Probe staff, there’s the intriguing Thirza, beautiful but unattainable for stark reasons; and an editor boss, who’s a real character on his own. Colorful, funny, and with a nostalgic look at news-gathering, this is an enjoyable, light read.