When Genre Novels and Historical Fiction Meet

From The Alienist miniseries. (Photo by Kata Vermes/TNT.)

Many of us enjoy thrillers, mysteries, detective novels, and other genre fiction as an occasional part of our reading mix. And many of us consider it a bonus when those books are set many years earlier than when they’re written.

Yes, that gives us not only the genre fiction experience but the kind of interesting history lesson that “general” historical fiction can offer. We see major real-life events that occurred before we were born, perhaps get some cameos from actual historical figures, and learn about the “primitive” tools used years ago to investigate crime. Shockingly, computers and smartphones were hard to find before 1900. 🙂

I thought about all this as I’m currently reading Caleb Carr’s excellent The Alienist, published in 1994 and mostly set in 1896. It’s a mystery about the gruesome murders of children from New York City’s underclass, and how the novel’s alienist (psychiatrist) and others covertly investigate those killings by using approaches modern for the time. Future president Theodore Roosevelt has a strong secondary role as NYC’s police commissioner, and there are also characters who are the first woman and Jewish people in the NYC police department. Last but not least, it’s fascinating to take in the novel’s many well-researched period details about Manhattan.

Jack Finney’s riveting novel Time and Again partly unfolds in 1970 — the year the book was published — but mostly takes place in 1882 Manhattan as protagonist Simon Morley goes back in time 88 years to find the meaning of a provocatively phrased, partially burned letter. Adventure and romance ensue as we learn (like we do in The Alienist) a lot about latter-1800s NYC — helped by the terrific vintage photos Finney includes.

Walter Mosley’s first two compelling Easy Rawlins mysteries — 1990’s Devil in a Blue Dress and 1991’s A Red Death — are set in late-1940s and early-1950s Los Angeles. We learn a lot about what that city and California were like in the years soon after World War II — and, in the second novel, we also get some education about America’s shameful McCarthy era.

Umberto Eco’s memorable 1980 novel The Name of the Rose is an intellectual murder mystery set way back in 1327 Italy. Readers are schooled about the 14th century and religious matters at the time (the novel is set in a monastery), plus there are plenty of philosophical ruminations.

Daphne du Maurier’s gripping 1969 time-travel novel The House on the Strand is also largely set in the 14th century, and we get the opportunity to see the same English town six centuries apart. It’s engrossing to experience an identical burg both as a barely developed rural area in the 1300s and as a much more populated 20th-century community. The book includes mystery elements.

Jean M. Auel’s six absorbing “Earth’s Children’s” novels — the first of which was The Clan of the Cave Bear — include thriller moments even as the books are more general fiction than genre fiction. They were published from 1980 to 2011, and set more than 25,000 years ago. It’s eye-opening to learn, via Auel’s mix of speculation and deep research, how humans lived back then.

Any genre novels you’d like to discuss that are set years before they were published?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com every Thursday. The latest piece — about my town’s manager being sued for hostile workplace behavior to women employees — is here.

Characters Who Are More Famous Than the Authors Who Created Them

Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers (right) with Mary Poppins actress Julie Andrews and Walt Disney.

A prime goal of most novelists is to create memorable characters. Sometimes, those characters become more famous than the novelists — often with the help of movie adaptations of their books.

I got the idea for today’s post from a reader who comments on this blog as “Anonymous.” That person and I were having a conversation a week or so ago under an old 2016 piece of mine when the subject arose of protagonists who outstripped their creators in renown. I’ll name some of the characters we came up with in that thread, and also mention several others.

In some cases, the characters are way more famous than the authors. In other cases, it’s a closer call.

One example in the first category is Forrest Gump, who skyrocketed to fame in the 1994 movie starring Tom Hanks. Who’s the novelist who first featured Forrest in a 1986 book? The nowhere-near-as-well-known Winston Groom.

A film released 30 years earlier — in 1964 — skyrocketed another book character into wider fame. That character was Mary Poppins, whose creator, P.L. Travers, is not a household name like the magical nanny she thought up.

The kind-of-magical Peter Pan is also much better known than his creator, J.M. Barrie.

Several characters in L. Frank Baum’s 1900 novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz became more famous than the author, in large part due to 1939’s The Wizard of Oz film. They of course include The Wizard himself, The Wicked Witch, Dorothy, Toto, The Scarecrow, The Tin Man, and The Cowardly Lion.

Toto reminds me that Lassie the dog originated in a 1940 novel by someone whose name is barely remembered today — Eric Knight.

Also, James Bond is a bigger celebrity than spy novelist Ian Fleming, as is Dracula compared to author Bram Stoker. And Lorna Doone, with an assist from her becoming the name of a cookie, is more known than novelist R.D. Blackmore. The girl Heidi, too, is higher on the recognition scale than her creator, Johanna Spyri.

Some examples of characters and authors being closer in fame, with the characters perhaps a little more famous:

There’s of course Sherlock Holmes, the detective who’s so iconic he has a somewhat higher profile than much-remembered author Arthur Conan Doyle.

Also, Gigi — the fictional figure from the 1944 novel that spawned the 1958 movie starring Leslie Caron — might be a tad better known than her creator, Colette.

A few other cases where the character might be slightly more famous than the author include Jane Eyre (Charlotte Bronte), Doctor Zhivago (Boris Pasternak), Tom Jones (Henry Fielding), Jo March (from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women), Anne Shirley (from L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables), and Scarlett O’Hara (from Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind).

Anything you’d like to say about this topic, including more examples?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com every Thursday. The latest piece — a fantasy about my town getting duped by a neighboring town for eons — is here.

More Premium Prose Practitioners

Back in 2015, I wrote a post spotlighting novelists with especially impressive writing skills. Among the wordsmiths I cited were A.S. Byatt, Fyodor Dostoevsky, George Eliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Hilton, Henry James, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Toni Morrison, Marcel Proust, Erich Maria Remarque, Mary Shelley, and Edith Wharton.

Seven years later, I’ve of course read various other authors for the first time, so I wanted to mention some additional prose masters in a follow-up post.

I’ll start with Viet Thanh Nguyen (pictured above), whose wonderfully written 2015 debut novel The Sympathizer I’m currently reading. The Pulitzer Prize-winning book’s narrator — a half-Vietnamese, half-French sleeper agent who leaves war-torn Saigon for California in 1975 — has a top-notch facility with the English language that’s exemplified by this paragraph I excerpted:

“America, land of supermarkets and superhighways, of supersonic jets and Superman, of supercarriers and the Super Bowl!…(W)as there ever a country that coined so many ‘super’ terms from the federal bank of its narcissism, was not only superconfident but also truly superpowerful, that would not be satisfied until it locked every nation in the world into a full nelson and made it cry Uncle Sam?”

Another author I recently tried for the first time is Amor Towles, whose novel A Gentleman in Moscow tells the tale of a person under decades of house arrest in a Russian hotel. The prisoner, Count Alexander Rostov, actually leads a pretty interesting and satisfying life within the confines of that building — and Towles’ exquisite writing helps take us along for the ride.

Yet another eloquent author I’ve read since 2015 is Zadie Smith. The two novels of hers I’ve gotten to — White Teeth and On Beauty — mix eye-catching prose, comedic elements, and social commentary in a great multicultural blend.

I’ve also liked the novels Freedom and The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen, who can put words together as well or better than most contemporary authors.

Alexander Pushkin is hardly a contemporary author, but I finally read his 1833 novel-in-verse Eugene Onegin last year. The poetry is off-the-charts good.

I was also bowled over by the prose of another 1833 novel — George Sand’s Lelia, which I read in 2018.

Moving from the 19th to 20th century, I finally started reading various works by W. Somerset Maugham. It’s hard to beat the writing style in novels such as Of Human Bondage, The Moon and Sixpence, The Razor’s Edge, and The Painted Veil.

In today’s popular-fiction realm, I love the writing talent of Liane Moriarty. She offers a real insight into relationships and women — along with humor and surprising plot developments — in novels such as Big Little Lies, The Husband’s Secret, The Hypnotist’s Love Story, Nine Perfect Strangers, and Apples Never Fall.

I have similar feelings about Fannie Flagg — whose novelistic career spans the 1980s to recent years — after reading works like Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion, and A Redbird Christmas.

Herman Wouk offers exceptionally smooth writing about dramatic topics in 20th-century classics The Caine Mutiny, Marjorie Morningstar, The Winds of War, and War and Remembrance.

And a concluding shout-out to Rosamunde Pilcher, whose novels The Shell Seekers (1987) and Winter Solstice (2000) approach prose perfection.

Some of the authors you feel write REALLY well?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com every Thursday. The latest piece — about a local pro-choice rally, a water crisis, and more — is here.

Novels With Novel Premises

Donald E. Westlake. (Photo by David Jennings for The New York Times.)

What are the elements of memorable novels? Great writing and compelling characters, of course, as well as interesting plots. Then there are books with VERY interesting and/or offbeat and/or original premises — and that will be my theme today.

I just read Donald E. Westlake’s Brothers Keepers, and its premise is certainly different: a 200-year-old monastery in midtown Manhattan is threatened with demolition by greedy developers, and the monks who live there have to reluctantly go out in the world to try to save their home. The 1975 novel is a bit of a thriller, a bit of a mystery, and periodically comic. Plus there’s a surprise romantic angle.

A 2004 Jodi Picoult novel with a somewhat similar title — My Sister’s Keeper — tells the unusual story of a girl (Anna) whose parents conceived her to be an involuntary medical donor to an older sibling (Kate) with major health problems.

Wilkie Collins’ 1862 novel No Name also focuses on two sisters. In this case, Magdalen and Norah Vanstone learn that their just-deceased parents weren’t married at the time of their birth — resulting in disinheritance and social stigma for the daughters. Hardly a typical novel for its time.

Two decades earlier, Nikolai Gogol’s 1842 satirical novel Dead Souls featured a whopping premise: Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov travels in Russia to try to enrich himself by “purchasing” deceased serfs.

The word “dead” reminds me that among the Stephen King novels with out-of-the-ordinary premises is The Dead Zone (1979), in which former schoolteacher Johnny Smith wakes up from a long coma to discover that he can see into the future.

How about H. Rider Haggard’s 1887 novel She, whose unforgettable Africa-based title character is 2,000 years old. Not many books with a protagonist eligible to collect Social Security for that long a time. 🙂

Novels with ghosts can of course offer weird plot lines for which we suspend disbelief. One example is Jorge Amado’s Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands (1966), in which Dona Flor’s irresponsible but charismatic first spouse returns after his death.

Any novel-premised novels you’d like to mention?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com every Thursday. The latest piece — again about a bad firefighting deal with a wealthy neighboring town — is here.

Secondary Characters of Color Can Be First in Reader Hearts

On October 2, 1967 — 55 years ago today — Thurgood Marshall was sworn in as a U.S. Supreme Court justice, becoming the first African American chosen for that prestigious position following a long career as a prominent civil-rights advocate. Still, though Marshall had more smarts, accomplishments, and moral stature than virtually anyone to ever serve on the Supreme Court, he was always an Associate Justice — never Chief Justice — before retiring in 1991.

The anniversary of Marshall’s 1967 elevation made me think of supporting characters of color in novels, so I’m going to do a post about that after having written about various lead characters of color in a number of previous posts over the years.

I just read The Judge’s List, another ultra-compelling legal thriller by John Grisham, and a memorable supporting character — the 2021 novel’s co-star, really, to Florida Board on Judicial Conduct investigator Lacy Stoltz — is an African-American woman named Jeri Crosby. Her professor father was murdered by a serial killer who’s also a sitting judge (!), and she’s spent over two decades trying to out that psychopath — slowly making more progress in her brilliant amateur investigation than any police department in the various states where the crimes were committed. It’s noteworthy that Grisham makes Crosby’s color almost irrelevant; some white authors focus too hard on a “minority” character’s race and/or ethnicity. Ms. Crosby is basically depicted as a fascinating person dealing with lots of trauma, which definitely gets upped when the serial killer starts pursuing HER.

Speaking of thrillers, a key Black supporting character in Lee Child’s riveting Jack Reacher debut novel Killing Floor is Oscar Finlay, the intellectual chief of detectives in a southern town. (By the way, he’s played to perfection by Malcolm Goodwin in the Reacher TV series that began earlier this year. I haven’t watched any episodes in their entirety, but HAVE seen many clips on YouTube, and the show is absolute catnip for fans of Child’s books — with Alan Ritchson totally embodying Reacher himself.)

Sticking with crime fiction for one more example, we have J.K. Rowling’s first Cormoran Strike novel The Cuckoo’s Calling. The two major supporting characters of color in that excellent book are supermodel Lulu Landry and fashion designer Guy SomĂ©.

In the general-fiction realm, the parents of teen-girl protagonist Starr Carter are quite well-drawn in Angie Thomas’ intense The Hate U Give. Lisa is Starr’s strict but loving mom who works as a nurse, while dad Maverick is an outspoken grocery store owner with a striking past.

Turning to more literary fiction, we have the eccentric, independent Pilate Dead in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon; the feisty and rebellious but insecure biracial teen Irie Jones in Zadie Smith’s White Teeth; the saddened-by-life-and-marriage Elizabeth Grimes in James Baldwin’s Go Tell It On the Mountain; and Queequeg the charismatic harpooner in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.

Among the many other supporting characters of color who leave a strong impression are scientist/professor Ovid Byron of Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, Brenda Peoples the real-estate partner with political aspirations in Fannie Flagg’s I Still Dream About You, and — to circle back to the courtroom and a Grisham novel — the memorable Judge Harry Roosevelt in The Client.

Any thoughts or examples related to this topic?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com every Thursday. The latest piece — about a bad firefighting deal with a wealthy neighboring town — is here.