Historical Crime Fiction: Writing the Lives of the Erased

Painting by artist Carole Bremaud
Painting by artist Carole Bremaud
You 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 https://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.

Comments

  1. Gordon Bingham

    Exteremely good series…

  2. Carl Ginger

    I liked the article by the author, Lyndsay Faye and would love to read this book.

  3. Linda Leonard

    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!

  5. Stephen Bristow

    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!

  6. Irene Menge

    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.

  7. Chris Teel

    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.

  8. lynette thompson

    this looks like a great book. good luck everyone and happy Labor Day to all

  9. Lynn Marler

    Hope I win; thanks for the chance!

  10. Mary Ann Brady

    Sounds great.

  11. HESTER MAYO

    I would love to add this book to my collection!

  12. Karen Mikusak

    Would love to win!

  13. Jeffrey Malis

    Intriguing premise! Looking forward to reading the book and discovering more… Thank you for the great article and the opportunity!

  14. Janice Santillo

    sounds like a real interesting book. Would love to read.

  15. L L

    Interesting post

  16. Shannon Baas

    I would like this.

  17. HESTER MAYO

    What an imagination!!

  18. Denise Sachs

    Thanks for the chance!

  19. Barbara Lima

    I look forward to this.

  20. Shirley Y

    Sounds like a great read for the long cold winter evenings that are coming

  21. Vicky Boackle

    i will love it.

  22. Deb

    Very interesting. I would love to read this book.

  23. dawn k

    interesting

  24. JAMES LYNAM

    Sounds like a great read. Hope I WIN!!!!

  25. AlisonJames

    <3 to win this. Good luck everyone!

  26. Deanna Stillings

    This sounds terrific.

  27. ravensfan

    Would love to win this.

  28. Barbara

    I love historical fiction. I want to win!

  29. fritter

    Sounds really interesting.

  30. storm391

    Sounds like a good book. love to win

  31. Mary Hopper

    Love her books!

  32. Jackie Wisherd

    A very interesting sounding book. I would enjoy reading it.

  33. babs allen

    Sounds interesting, I’ll have to see if thr library has the first one. thanks for the opportunity.

  34. Andra Dalton

    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!!:)

  35. Janet Robinson

    Would love to win a copy for my public library.

  36. Lori P

    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.

  37. Charlee Griffith

    What a thought-provoking article! Thanks for writing it.

  38. Deborah Dumm

    can’t wait to read!

  39. Michael Carter

    I love Faye’s writing.
    Yes, please enter me in the sweepstakes.
    Thanks!

  40. jodi scott

    Sounds great

  41. Karl Stenger

    Would love to read the book

  42. sparkplug54

    This sounds right up my tree. I want it.

  43. Linda Knowles

    Sounds good! I’d love to read it.

  44. Mitchell Glavas

    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!

  45. Lisa Hartjes

    I love historicals of almost every genre.

  46. Peter W. Horton Jr.

    Not to be erased! Yes!

  47. Joyce Mitchell

    Interesting – thanks for the chance to win.

  48. L

    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!

  49. Anna Mills

    Everything about this one, Criminal Element. You have picked a very good one.

  50. Suzanne Gonneville

    I’m anxious to know the seven and to learn what kind of empathy I have for each.

  51. Lori Rutherford

    I have read a few book that have been mentioned and look forward t reading the others.

  52. Anastasia

    I’d love to check this out!! Count me in 🙂

  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.

  54. Justine Heredia

    This look great!

  55. Pat Murphy

    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.

  56. Marjorie Manharth

    Wow! If the book is as interesting as the article I certainly don’t want to miss it!

  57. Steven Wilber

    sounds like an interesting read. Count me in

  58. Brenda Peterson

    Great article. Would love to win a copy!!

  59. vicki wurgler

    looks like a great book thanks

  60. Diana Meyer

    Cannot wait to read it.

  61. Jeanette Barney

    I love reading historical fiction. I would love to win.

  62. elizabeth findlay

    Historical crime fiction is right up my alley.

  63. Amanda Leigh

    This sounds like a good book

  64. Sally Winkleblech

    Would like to win this book, a crime story that will make you think about our fellow humans. An interesting concept.

  65. Desmond Warzel

    Count me in, please!

  66. Beth Talmage

    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. 🙂

  67. Michele Amos

    A very thought-provoking article. I would love to read more by Ms. Faye.

  68. Laura Morris

    Sounds interesting!

  69. Helen Warrener

    This looks really interesting and look forward to reading it

  70. Melissa Keith

    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!

  71. Angela Barnes

    Hope to Win

  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!

  73. MARY Mclain

    Seven For A Secret sounds very interesting and I would like to read it.

  74. Saundra K. Warren

    I want to try this!

  75. Karen Mikusak

    Would love to win!

  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.

  78. Jane Schwarz

    Sounds like an interesting read. Thank you for the opportunity to win a copy.

  79. Heather Martin

    Historical fiction devopled my love of history. To see an authors passion is wonderful. This article put you on my must read list.

  80. Mildred Mayo

    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

  82. Mike Rogers

    Looks interesting.

  83. Rena

    This book looks interesting.

  84. Deb Esling

    Interesting premise. I don’t read much historical fiction (at all!) so this would be a new genre for me.

  85. Julie Earhart

    mememememememememememe!

    fingers crossed youpick ME!

  86. Mihaela Day

    Would love to win! 🙂

  87. Daniel Morrell

    sounds like a fun one!

  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.

  89. Kathy Fannon

    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!

  91. Nia Williams

    I have just discovered a love of historical crime fiction after reading the railway detective. Would love to add this book to my library

  92. lynette barfield

    Sounds Interesting I would really like a copy

  93. Lisa Pecora

    I’d like to read this!

  94. Regina m

    I could, and would love to become immersed in this book.

  95. philip halter

    sound really great love to win

  96. Susan Smoaks

    i would love to win

  97. Daniel Vice

    This would be great

  98. Linda Peters

    Love to have this, thanks

  99. Brenda Elsner

    I would love to add this to my book collection. Sounds like an interesting read. Thanks for the chance to win it!!

  100. Sand Lopez

    Sounds good!

  101. Tim H. Moss

    Good deal, count me in!

  102. Rickie Hinrichs

    seven the perfect number.

  103. Wayne Lecoy

    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!!!!!!!!!!!!

  104. Buddy Garrett

    It sounds like a great read. I want to read it. Thanks.

  105. Jason Steinmetz

    This looks interesting

  106. Heather Cowley

    Thanks for the info, Larry! Always looking to supplement my Sherlock!

  107. Carolyn Dileo

    One thousand times yes! Thanks!

  108. JULES M.

    i would love to read this book

  109. Michael Gonzales

    I enjoy reading historical fiction.

  110. Susan Robinette

    Loved Dust and Shadow and Gods of Gotham. Looking forward to Seven for a Secret, and would love to win it.

  111. elaine fisher

    needed a gift … thanks

  112. Carl White

    [b]The description had me at pickle magnate.[/b]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *