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. ๐Ÿ™‚

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 alienistย (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.

70 thoughts on “When Genre Novels and Historical Fiction Meet

  1. “Itโ€™s a defiThanks nite slice of life in China”
    It’s a definite slice of life in China. โœ”๏ธ
    Dave, sometimes in comments the letters and words don’t go where I put them!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. What about “The Good Earth” by Pearl S. Buck?
    Published 1931, it portrays life in China from the perspective of Wang Lung, Olan and other members of the family and household.
    It includes foot binding, opium addiction, slavery, concubines, social castes. It’s a defiThanks nite slice of life in China.

    I can’t remember if it mentions any emperor of the time. The historical story appears to run from late 1800’s to early on into the 1900’s.

    It mentions Wang Lung and family taking the train, which China built in the late 1800’s. It also mentions the 1911 revolution.

    Thanks Dave!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Since Stendhal, in my opinion anyway, might qualify as a genre unto himself, I send in the following to add to examples of the week’s topic:

    An oddity: a battlefield description, containing the sort of on-site details that only an eyewitness might register, yet transposed from one historical encounter to another: In “The Charterhouse of Parma”, Stendhal employs his own memory of and participation in Napoleon’s Russian campaign to make more realistic his description of a fictional character’s experience of another battle out of another time and place: Waterloo, where Stendhal himself never fought.

    Liked by 2 people

    • More: Raymond Chandler in the opening pages of “The Lady In The Lake” (1943) describes workmen pulling up blocks of rubber employed as as a sort of sidewalk in front of a commercial building, now pressed into wartime service, when those on the home front collected metal and rubber. (A sad casualty of the times: the copper-nickel pressing masters used to make78 rpm records. Out-of-print masters were, by most American labels, donated to the war effort, and thus, the best sources for the old music were destroyed.)

      Jack Reacher gets topical on one of those short bits of fiction Lee Child puts, alone, at the end of some of his novels, when he has Reacher run into the Son of Sam, himself a sort of fictional character made real by his own awful acts.

      J. Robert Janes, a Canadian geologist (!), wrote a series of WW2 crime novels. The crimes and the participants, official and otherwise, all fall under the shadow and context of the Occupation. Janes manages to keep a tight grip on how many historical figures figure in to any one of his efforts.

      from wikipedia:

      “His character-rich mysteries set in Occupied France during World War II, and featuring Chief Inspector Jean-Louis St-Cyr of the Sรปretรฉ and Detektiv Inspektor Hermann Kohler of the Nazi Gestapo, are his most popular works and have been critically acclaimed by The Wall Street Journal, amongst others, for their historical accuracy. The U.S.-based Western Society for French History used his writings as a study of the convergence of fiction with history.”

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you, jhNY! I read that Jack Reacher story you brought up, and thought it was excellent. Great mention, along with your other great mentions — including that fascinating Raymond Chandler/78 rpm records reference. And it’s really interesting the way Stendhal transposed battlefield descriptions. I guess in certain ways many battles are alike — all usually horrible, of course.


        • Yes– the detail that stood out most to me was when Fabricio saw the ground by his feet leap up in mysterious small bursts, before realizing the cause was bullets. I also liked how he was unceremoniously dispossessed of his horse by members of a general’s staff, so that the general might ride, after having his own horse shot from beneath him. Such things once seen would be hard to unsee, but very much grist for the novelist’s mill years later.

          Liked by 1 person

  4. This is such an interesting article and comments, Dave. I love reading a book in which I can also learn more about history. In small ways, so many books these days do that because of the rise in technology. For example, mysteries like Sue Grafton’s show us what things were like when a detective had to actually go to the courthouse, dig through documents, follow people around, and look for a phone to use. These days, most of that would be done much more easily with technology. Today’s kids will learn a lot just by reading books featuring no computers or cell phones:)

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Becky! GREAT point about how older novels — whether genre ones or otherwise — can be very educational in terms of how “lower tech” things were in pre-digital days. (Some of which I remember from when I was a young reporter. ๐Ÿ™‚ )

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’ve thought about just the opposite recently– how crime fiction on film and in print is very often a leading employer of the latest technological developments. Sherlock Holmes employs the telegraph, takes the fastest trains available, studies physiognomy and fingerprint classification, etc.
        Pulp fiction detectives are always shouting into the phone, taking clandestine photos with spy cameras,driving the fastest cars, using radio and tracking devices, etc. And real life detection seems to follow the trend, at least such dramatizations as I’ve seen– detectives track phone locations, download search histories from the internet,collect DNA, use locating/disabling mechanisms to stop those in cars attempting to flee,etc.

        It occurred to me that modern police methods have become so dependent on tracing and tracking by phone that sometimes detectives seem to be at a loss for how to proceed, if the suspect merely left his phone at home, where he said he was, when he might have been elsewhere. And should a criminal manage to commit a crime without somehow leaving a trace of DNA, the detectives are left with coercion and sometimes trickery so as to gain an admission of guilt they otherwise, by their own estimation, have too little evidence to act on.

        Bright spot? As the technology improves, the evidence juries require to convict– DNA most especially– tends to point in the right direction more often than eyewitness accounts did in the good old days.

        As much as some of the old ways may be the best ways, both fictional detectives and police detectives, as well as some of the cleverest of offenders, take advantage of the latest technology to solve crimes or commit them. And seemingly, always have done.

        Come to think of it, a great crime is committed in Stendhal’s “Lucien Leuwen” (1834), when the king manages to make a killing in wheat futures by use of the newfangled telegraph…

        Liked by 1 person

        • I totally see what you’re saying, jhNY. Some detective and mystery and other fiction from years ago did indeed feature the latest crime-fighting devices and techniques of their time or even of the seemingly then-future. But a number of those techniques still seem relatively primitive when looked at from a 21st-century lens. No computers, etc., back then.


          • Agreed. I wanted to write a bit more along a similar line– which is how threadbare the certitude and methodology earlier generations of detectives– in fiction and in the history of crime and detection– appear once better methods and technologies are adopted and employed.

            Yet no matter how outmoded and insufficient these methods and technologies seem in hindsight, even among detectives themselves, the belief that they had definitive proof of crime and guilt at the time of their investigation is ever-present.

            The societal will to righteously pursue and punish the guilty, however defined, is constant through the ages– the means and methods of determining guilt change over time, and the evidence sufficient to convince a contemporary jury likewise changes with the changes to means and method of evidence collection.

            The pursuit of justice looks better ahead then from behind.

            Liked by 1 person

            • Yes, reaction to the methods of long-ago detectives is different depending on whether readers read the novel or story when it was published vs. reading it now, many years later.

              And I guess sleuths indeed have to have a lot of confidence in their methods, whenever they lived and whether they are right or wrong.


      • Right! And a lot of it we might not notice so much because we still have our feet in both worlds. But younger people who grew up with just cell phones will certainly notice if someone has to walk over to the hall telephone, for example, and twists the phone cord around their hand as they talk:)

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m reading the Women of Chateau Lafayette right now – a look into the famous Lafayette home during the American revolution, WWI, and WWII. It’s very fascinating reading, especially since two of the three women the story is centered around were real people. The chateau is real as well, which apparently can still be visited today. Another book in this category that popped into my mind recently is “Little” by Edward Carey. It was a somewhat odd tale with a very interesting main character, and I did learn A LOT about the French Revolution!

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, M.B., for those two excellent mentions! It IS educational to learn more about real people, real places, and real events in novels — often more fun than doing all that via nonfiction reading. ๐Ÿ™‚

      Liked by 2 people

  6. Hi Dave, your comments about The Earth Children are interesting to me. I never considered that series to have thriller elements, but more historical life and a romance. My own novel, A Ghost and His Gold is set on a dual timeline of modern South Africa and the Second Anglo Boer War. It has a strong paranormal element. Mae Claireโ€™s Hideโ€™s Hill series is also set on a duel timeline in an American town, going between the present and the past, as is Dan Antionโ€™s new series.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Robbie! The thriller elements were indeed nowhere near the main focus of Jean M. Auel’s series, but there were definitely some intense cliffhanger scenes: Ayla being ousted from the Neanderthal community, Jondalar being injured, Ayla and Jondalar’s dangerous journey to reach Jondalar’s homeland, etc.

      And thank you for those great mentions of your work, Mae’s work, and Dan’s work!

      Liked by 2 people

        • That WAS an amazing scene, Robbie. Totally agree about Jean Auel’s writing ability. I read all six novels, almost consecutively, a few months ago and was never bored. As you know, they aren’t short books, either!

          Liked by 2 people

              • Yes, I did like book 6 of the Potter series best and then book 4. I didn’t like book 7 as much. To much zapping about the countryside and being miserable. It got a bit dull, just like Frodo and Sam’s journey through Cirith Ungol. That got a bit long for me too.

                Liked by 1 person

                • I totally agree about Book 7, Robbie. It did indeed drag for a while before the very exciting ending (and the not-so-exciting epilogue). Hard for me to pick a “Harry Potter” favorite. I realize the first book wasn’t as accomplished as the later ones, but it was VERY exciting being first introduced to the world of wizards, meeting the characters, etc.

                  Liked by 1 person

                  • Hi Dave, I just loved book four: the dragons, golden eggs, mer people, it was great. Book 6 was very dark and I like that too so it worked for me. Book 5 was not as exciting for me as the others. To much Delores Umbridge. My favourite scene of book 7 was the one in the waiting room with the baby. That was quite imaginative and intriguing.

                    Liked by 1 person

  7. Thank you, Dave, for this very interesting thought! I think in this context I can mention “The Devil’s Grin” by ANNELIE WENDEBERG.
    In this book the writer gives a comeback to Sherlock Holmes, the famous detective, who investigates the live of Dr. Anton Kronberg, Englandโ€™s leading bacteriologist in Victorian London and discovers very quickly Antonโ€™s biggest secret, namely that he is not a man but a woman in disguise

    Liked by 3 people

  8. When I was 12, I discovered, โ€œMara, Daughter of the Nileโ€ by Eloise Jarvis McGraw. What an adventure! Mara, a young Egyptian girl became a double spy during the time of Hatshepsut, the woman Pharaoh and her brother,Thutmose.

    Fast forward to August 2022, I discovered the Amelia Peabody series by Elizabeth Peters. I found the first title โ€œCrocodile on the Sandbankโ€ by happenstance and thought that it would be a quick read. The narrative begins in 1884. Amelia Peabody is a confirmed spinster, suffragist and scholar living in England. She inherits a fortune and leaves England to see the world. She ends up in Egypt where dangers (and of course, love) await her. Amelia becomes an unconventional female Egyptologist. H.Rider Haggard is mentioned several time in the book, so it would seem that the mystery and romance of Amelia Peabody was a nod to books written during the Victorian Era.

    The research that went into this book was considerable, so it did not surprise me that Elizabeth Peters was Egyptologist Barbara Mertz (1927-2013) There are 20 books in the Amelia Peabody series, so now I am on Book 2 The Curse of the Pharaohs.

    What Barbara Mertz brought to readers was Victorian Englandโ€™s fascination with Egypt. She also introduced the issues such as appropriation challenges.

    Thank you for another great post, Dave!!

    Liked by 6 people

    • Thank you, Rebecca, for those relevant references! Both that novel and the 20-book series sound VERY interesting. Impressive when novels are written very well AND deeply researched. Egypt is of course a fascinating place — an amazing ancient history (and a problematic place politically in the present ๐Ÿ˜ฆ ).

      Liked by 2 people

      • I forgot to add a quote! Yikes!! How could I forget, especially one that describes Amelia Peabodyโ€™s thoughts on matters of importance:

        Here it is:

        โ€œMost men are reasonably useful in a crisis. The difficulty lies in convincing them that the situation has reached a critical point.โ€ Elizabeth Peters, The Curse of the Pharaohs (Amelia Peabody, #2)

        Liked by 1 person

  9. Oh so many fit your theme, Dave. Several immediately come to mind. Novels about WWII female resistance fighters of which Kristin Hannah’s “The Nightingale” as just one example. My favorite genre novels are a unique blend of Jewish and/or Christian historical fiction. The books “The Dovekeepers” (about the fall of Masada) and “The Marriage of Opposites” (about the artist Camille Pissarro as a child among Jewish รฉmigrรฉs in the Virgin Islands), by Alice Hoffman are excellent. Connilyn Cossette and Lynn Austin are others I like. Austin is a diligent background researcher. Her Civil War novels and the series about the last kings of Judah were engrossing, if one enjoys that sort of thing. ๐Ÿ™‚ They do indeed make for a nice change of pace from more literary works.

    Liked by 4 people

  10. The Name of the Rose is one of my favorite novels, and not only because it’s such a gripping thriller… Two different other types of books set well before the time they were written immediately come to mind: Shogun and Outlander.

    Liked by 3 people

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