Sat
Aug 30 2014 11:00am

Historical Crime Fiction: Writing the Lives of the Erased

Painting by artist Carole BremaudYou only live once. Right?

Chances are, unless you believe in reincarnation and are also peculiarly in touch with your past lives on this harsh and often beautiful planet, then your experience will be confined to one existence (never discounting the kindly tips you’ll pick up from friends and strangers).

Perhaps you are a 32-year old male Caucasian pickle magnate who is taste-testing the most perfect fermented vegetables ever to be jarred, and is on the cusp of driving all competitors out of the market? I’d like to hear your story. Equally possibly, you are a 57-year old female African American deep-sea submarine pilot, and are on the verge of retiring to your dream cottage in the West Indies? I’d adore that story too.

No matter who you are or how specific your experience, we all share in the deeply human desire to hear stories both foreign to ourselves in situation, and familiar in emotion.

You really felt that way, as a glamorous jewelry broker in the 1920s, doubting that your lover would stay?the modern real estate magnate thinks. Or, You really felt ostracized and hated when you arrived in America in the 1840s as a Catholic? the recent immigrant thinks. In any case, or every case, sharing anecdotes and feelings is valuable. But what of the people who weren’t glamorous, who weren’t posh or predictable—what of the people who never recorded their musings for posterity?

History is written by the victors, we are famously told. But so much of the joy in historical fiction lies in imagining what it would have been like to be that other person. The losing general, the girl who sat in the corner, the lad whose disability defined him, the criminal whose defense was never heard, the mother whose skin tone prevented her leaving a diary.

The erased, to put it simply.

Several of the main characters in my historical novel Seven for a Secret are members of the New York Committee of Vigilance, an organization formed to combat the horrifying practice of slave catchers kidnapping free people of color and selling them as escaped chattel to Southern plantations. The Vigilance Committee men did meticulously record their thoughts and intentions, but hardly had the channels to trumpet them, and I salute every ounce of courage they expended in trying to keep the black community intact.

Many readers will be familiar with this disgusting form of identity theft from Twelve Years a Slave, an autobiography by Solomon Northup that—incredibly, if we’re honest—was not only published, but survived to become a major motion picture showered with deserved accolades. When I set out to write the second Timothy Wilde novel, however, no inkling of this film had yet reached my ears; I wanted to create a narrative that included people who would have been voiceless at the time apart from brief anecdotes in American Slavery As It Is: Testimony of A Thousand Witnesses by Theodore Dwight Weld, a book that collected stories from people who couldn’t tell their own.

American Slavery As It Is: Testimony of a Thousand WitnessesHave I also read the diary of an African American chimney sweep working in the year 1846, for verisimilitude and historical accuracy? No—most were illiterate, and countless died before they reached adulthood. By countless, I mean that the number could not be counted, as they themselves were never counted in the first place. Are there plenty of third-party chronicles regarding what happened to such children? Absolutely. Did I want to share their stories? You bet your antique porcelain buttons I did. Historical fiction, I find, is about filling in gaps that most of us didn’t know existed in the first place (including myself).

Child prostitutes were practically overrunning the metropolis according to George Washington Matsell, the first New York City police commissioner, when he reported on the problem in 1846, using dire—almost pleading—terms. A continuing character of mine is another of these erased people—a little girl forced into sex work who escapes as so few others did, and makes her way as best she can.

I’m proud to say that I did not need to scour the archives in order to find a queer antebellum man living in New York City upon which to model a character. Walt Whitman was never erased—he was visible, penning torrential, tumbling waterfall poetry against a backdrop of love and sweat and dirt.

Meanwhile, other authors of historical fiction are constantly succeeding at the goal I always strive for: making erased humans visible. And a refreshingly massive number of these novels have to do with crime, which tickles my fancy from page one. I don’t need to remind anyone that brilliant writers like Alice Walker and Toni Morrison recreate violent scenarios in works like The Color Purple and Beloved (respectively) that both punch us in the heart and remind us how brutal our history is. Their work is extremely important to our culture, and I applaud their every letter.

They are not alone, however—I cherish crime fiction authors like Louis Bayard, for instance, who, by giving Timothy Cratchit a voice in Mr. Timothy (yes, there’s loads of crime), enables us to see the strong adult who was once characterized as a crippled child by Charles Dickens, a man who himself spoke for abused children in ways no one else could. I adore Lynn Shepherd’s canon, starting with The Solitary House, a tale taking place along the periphery of Bleak House by Charles Dickens that lends a voice to women suffering from mental illness. And I relish The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon, a book that imparts a voice to an Alaskan colony of Yiddish speakers who didn’t even exist.

The point I’m trying to make here is that empathy is absolutely crucial in this day and age if we want to start treating each other better, and historical crime novels help to empart us with empathy, or they do for me when I read them. There’s nothing better in my book than tarnished heroes and sympathetic villains. In the realm of television (and books, too, in the latter case) take Breaking Bad or Dexter as an example—we’re all rooting for drug dealers and serial killers. Swerving back into print, read J. R. Moeringher’s Sutton, a book that turns a real-life hardened gangster born in the Irish slums in 1901 into an utterly loveable protagonist. Would you like to know more about desperate and estranged Americans? Try The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell, or The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe.

America isn’t a melting pot, not really—it’s a vibrant, fresh salad still being dizzied in the spinner. What humbles me as a historical fiction author and reader is that I’m allowed to imagine what previously-erased people might have thought and felt. I won’t get it right, not 100%—I couldn’t possibly. But if the weavers of historical narratives take the step of talking about these individuals? Maybe then we’ll all become better at seeing the people who surround us, the ones whose voices we may not be hearing clearly, because we didn’t know we were meant to be listening.

Leading image from a series of paintings by artist Carole Brémaud.

 

This sweepstakes has ended.

Seven for a a Secret, a Timothy Wilde historical thriller by Lyndsay FayeComment below for a chance to win a paperback copy of  Seven for a Secret by Craig by Lyndsay Faye. To enter, make sure you're a registered member of the site and simply leave a comment below.

TIP: Since only comments from registered users will be tabulated, if your user name appears in red above your comment—STOP—go log in, then try commenting again. If your user name appears in black above your comment, You’re In!

Seven for a Secret Comment Sweepstakes: NO PURCHASE NECESSARY TO ENTER OR WIN.  A purchase does not improve your chances of winning.  Sweepstakes open to legal residents of 50 United States, D.C., and Canada (excluding Quebec), who are 18 years or older as of the date of entry.  To enter, complete the “Post a Comment” entry at http://www.criminalelement.com/blogs/2014/08/historical-crime-fiction-writing-the-lives-of-the-erased-lyndsay-faye beginning at 12:00 p.m. Eastern Time (ET) August 30, 2014. Sweepstakes ends 11:59 a.m. ET September 6, 2014. Void outside the United States and Canada and where prohibited by law. Please see full details and official rules here. Sponsor: Macmillan, 175 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10010.

 


Lyndsay Faye is the international bestselling author of the Edgar-nominated Timothy Wilde series from G. P. Putnam's Sons. She has been translated into 14 languages and is part of the Baker Street Babes podcast. She tweets @LyndsayFaye.

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112 comments
Carl Ginger
2. cgin56
I liked the article by the author, Lyndsay Faye and would love to read this book.
Linda Leonard
3. linsleo1
Thanks for the post Lyndsay and the many references to additional readings. Would really enjoy reading your book and listening to your characters unveil their lives.
4. Raymond Stone
In it to WIN it! Thank You!
Stephen Bristow
5. Vanesmantha
Well, I know nobody listens to me.
I think, though, if they did, they'd laugh and smirk a little, the kind of half-spiteful, half-pitied half-smile (people moslty do things by half, don't you think?) that gives away only half of what they really think: "Did someone say something? I was too busy being absorbed with myself."
Thanks for the chance!
Irene Menge
6. Goldenmane
It always adds to a tale when the thoughts and feelings of a character are revealed, even a very minor character. I dislike minimalism and much prefer to become immersed in the experience.
Chris Teel
7. Teelioli
I am happy that you included physically handicapped people in this. I was born with Spina Bifida, a birth defect that doesn't get much attention, but devastates it's victims. As a result I have had countless surgeries, losing a leg at age 12 among the worst.
While I felt overlooked through my school years, not fitting in well with any group, and I have certainly struggled with this my whole life, at age 50 I can say that while it effects me every day in almost every aspect of my life, it does not define who I am.
I applaud authors like yourself who include the overlooked people, as it gives us a feeling of inclusion that we don't often get to experience.
lynette thompson
8. LYNETTE52
this looks like a great book. good luck everyone and happy Labor Day to all
HESTER MAYO
11. ellhesmay
I would love to add this book to my collection!
Jeffrey Malis
13. bravejam
Intriguing premise! Looking forward to reading the book and discovering more... Thank you for the great article and the opportunity!
Janice Santillo
14. themommazie
sounds like a real interesting book. Would love to read.
16. Shannon Baas
I would like this.
20. Shirley Y
Sounds like a great read for the long cold winter evenings that are coming
22. Deb
Very interesting. I would love to read this book.
25. AlisonJames
<3 to win this. Good luck everyone!
29. fritter
Sounds really interesting.
30. storm391
Sounds like a good book. love to win
Jackie Wisherd
32. JackieW
A very interesting sounding book. I would enjoy reading it.
babs allen
33. babsji
Sounds interesting, I'll have to see if thr library has the first one. thanks for the opportunity.
Andra Dalton
34. andra77
Wow!! What an interesting read this will be!! Can't wait to get a cup of expresso brewed, snuggle up,& read this!! Thanks for the opportunity & good luck to all who enter!!:)
Janet Robinson
35. Robinsoncat
Would love to win a copy for my public library.
Lori Provenzano
36. Mountainesque
Yes, history is exceedingly more complicated, horrible and fascinating than the abridged and/or edited versions that gain prominence. 'Seven for a Secret' sounds like a compelling read.
Charlee Griffith
37. Possum
What a thought-provoking article! Thanks for writing it.
Michael Carter
39. rubydog
I love Faye's writing.
Yes, please enter me in the sweepstakes.
Thanks!
42. sparkplug54
This sounds right up my tree. I want it.
Mitchell Glavas
44. MitchellGlavas
I enjoyed Lindsay Faye's first novel, and I'm happy to see her recommend Louis Bayard's Mr. Timothy, which I've been talking about for years!
Joyce Mitchell
47. JoyceLm
Interesting - thanks for the chance to win.
L
48. LStirling
Wonderful article. It really made me think about the value and need to give these people a voice and the stories we need to hear today. This makes me very eager to read your book and discover what your characters have to say. I would love to win this copy!
Anna Mills
49. Anna Mills
Everything about this one, Criminal Element. You have picked a very good one.
Suzanne Gonneville
50. Thumbs
I'm anxious to know the seven and to learn what kind of empathy I have for each.
Lori Rutherford
51. keirma
I have read a few book that have been mentioned and look forward t reading the others.
53. Larry Coven
I had the pleasure to review Seven for a Secret for I love a Mystery and can assure you guys this Miss Faye definitely has a voice and a strong one, as she makes pre Civil War NYC come alive in all its filth and greed and humanity. The mystery is a complete delight to try your deductive abillities on, and there are some very strong parallels to a certain consulting detective from across the pond who whose historical time-line is some years away yet from actually getting started. Read it, and then read all her books.
Pat Murphy
55. murphyp2011
I enjoy historical fiction and "what if" books.,ex. What if Kennedy hadn't been shot; what would the world be like. I am interested in reading this book.
Marjorie Manharth
56. mmanharth
Wow! If the book is as interesting as the article I certainly don't want to miss it!
Jeanette Barney
61. eyeluvbooks59
I love reading historical fiction. I would love to win.
elizabeth findlay
62. eafindlay
Historical crime fiction is right up my alley.
63. Amanda Leigh
This sounds like a good book
Sally Winkleblech
64. sallyw
Would like to win this book, a crime story that will make you think about our fellow humans. An interesting concept.
Beth Talmage
66. wordygirl
What a coincidence! One week ago I was telling my UPS driver how excited I was about the new Louise Penny novel he was delivering to me. He then told me about his friend's wife, who is an author: Lyndsey Faye! I did some research and added one of her books to my wish list; today, when my UPS pal arrived again, I thanked him for the recommendation. Winning this giveaway would make both of us very happy. :)
Michele Amos
67. amos122902
A very thought-provoking article. I would love to read more by Ms. Faye.
Helen Warrener
69. Warrener
This looks really interesting and look forward to reading it
Melissa Keith
70. melly801
What an awesome post! I enjoy Historical Crime Fiction. And I have several of the books you mentioned. One of my past life personas wants to read SEVEN very badly. He is an African American sailor. It was just Labor Day for goodness sake. We hope we win. Thanks!
72. Cooper25
And now I have how many more books to be added to my TBR pile! Thanks for some additional interesting sounding historical titles for me to dig into!
MARY
73. FIBERONE
Seven For A Secret sounds very interesting and I would like to read it.
76. Teacher Librarian
Wow! I would love to read bout the erased. It seems like history has so many spaces that need to be filled.
77. jer iverson
I would love to have a copy, winning this would be great. There is so much to learn through history -- particularly the true story behind the individuals and events.
Jane Schwarz
78. Janeschwarz
Sounds like an interesting read. Thank you for the opportunity to win a copy.
Heather Martin
79. CrystalMirror
Historical fiction devopled my love of history. To see an authors passion is wonderful. This article put you on my must read list.
Mildred Mayo
80. Mildredmayo
As a bookaholic with a love of historical fiction , this book is tempting. Thank you for the opportunity to win.
81. Missy
This books looks great! Definitely on my to be read list
84. Deb Esling
Interesting premise. I don't read much historical fiction (at all!) so this would be a new genre for me.
Mary Songer
88. LabRat517
I always enjoy well done historical fiction. When I can read for pleasure and learn something too it adds to the experience and I find I retain the information longer.
Kathy Fannon
89. Kathy F
I would love to win this- then it would be a matched set for the" Gods of Gotham"
90. littlehummel
I want to read this series!
Nia Williams
91. Nini511
I have just discovered a love of historical crime fiction after reading the railway detective. Would love to add this book to my library
lynette barfield
92. lynette
Sounds Interesting I would really like a copy
94. Regina m
I could, and would love to become immersed in this book.
Brenda Elsner
99. brat52101
I would love to add this to my book collection. Sounds like an interesting read. Thanks for the chance to win it!!
101. Tim H. Moss
Good deal, count me in!
102. Rickie Hinrichs
seven the perfect number.
Wayne Lecoy
103. hotrodguy
I am entering your giveaway.
It would be great to win a paperback copy of
Seven for a Secret by Craig by Lyndsay Faye.
Thank you for having this giveaway!!!!!!!!!!!!
Buddy Garrett
104. garrettsambo
It sounds like a great read. I want to read it. Thanks.
Heather Cowley
106. choochoo
Thanks for the info, Larry! Always looking to supplement my Sherlock!
Susan Robinette
110. susanrob
Loved Dust and Shadow and Gods of Gotham. Looking forward to Seven for a Secret, and would love to win it.
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