Would You Like Some Accuracy To Go With That Crime?

L. C. Tyler, author of the A Masterpiece of Corruption takes a look at accuracy and how much of it should be desired when writing crime fiction.

Depending on where and when you’re reading this, you may or may not have watched The Bodyguard, which achieved record TV viewing figures when screened by the BBC in the UK this autumn. Its plot, about a troubled war veteran assigned to protect a controversial politician, kept audiences gripped every Sunday for six weeks. Yet at the same time, it came under criticism for almost every type of inaccuracy, from the major (no police protection officer would have an affair with the person they were protecting) to the minor (the police sergeant was wearing the wrong epaulets on her uniform)—though my favorite criticism was that the train that arrived at Euston station in the first episode was, completely improbably, on time and had enough seats for all of the passengers.

The question of accuracy is a vexed one for crime writers in particular. The problem, summed up briefly, is that crime readers tend to read an awful lot of crime fiction. If you get something wrong—ordinary Borough epaulets on a specialist police officer, say—it’s guaranteed that somebody will pick up on it and give you one-star review on Amazon, headed “Poorly Researched.”

It’s even worse for those of us who write historical crime fiction. First, you may research your period as diligently as you wish, but you always face the “unknown unknowns”—the things that you had no idea were there. Ariana Franklin used to tell the story of having incautiously included a rabbit hopping through the wood in one of her 12th Century crime novels. She was apparently inundated with protests from people who pointed out that, although there were wild hares at that time, all rabbits were kept in captivity. As she said, how was she supposed to know that she didn’t know that? In a draft of one of the earlier books in my John Grey series, set in 1658, I had the narrator looking across the moonlit Thames at the dome of St Paul’s. Fortunately, I quickly remembered that the now familiar dome post-dated the Great Fire of London in 1666. Old St Paul’s, which John Grey would have noticed in 1658, had had a spire. I breathed a sigh of relief and substituted spire for dome. It was a couple of years after publication that I read that the spire of St Paul’s had been destroyed by lightning in 1561 and so John Grey would have seen only the stumpy tower. None of my readers have yet written objecting to this error and, should you ever meet one of my readers, I hope you won’t mention it to them.

And then again, how much period detail does the reader actually want? I have to confess that I groan every time a character is (say) served “manchet bread.” Is it a clue? Does the sweeter taste of that type of bread disguise the poison in it? No? Then just bread is fine. Manchet bread—thrown onto the breakfast table, unexplained—is merely showing off. And don’t get me onto hanging, drawing, and quartering. Approximately once in a lifetime do you need a detailed description of what that involved and what got cut off when. After that, I’m happy to skip it. Yes, really. I’d rather keep my manchet bread down, if that’s okay with you.

Next, there’s language. My historical novels, as you will have already gathered, are set in the 17th Century. Some 17th Century English—I’m thinking of Pepys’s diaries here—is lively and still very readable. But most isn’t. If I wrote genuine early modern English, the way it was written then, it would seem stilted and tedious. Not only might you struggle with the meaning, but the characters themselves would appear stiff, overly-formal, and old-fashioned. That’s not how they would have seen themselves—in 1658, anything mid-17th Century was absolutely at the cutting edge of modernity. These are people living in (their) present with all of the same feelings and ambitions that those living in our present have. So, I have an unspoken pact with the reader. I write something that has the feel of 17th Century English without sticking slavishly to it. In essence, I use good 21st Century English with any modernisms removed—say, nothing clearly post-1950. Hence, nobody is allowed to say “as if!” or describe somebody as “woke.” And I throw in the occasional antique phrase for atmosphere—so my characters may agree to meet at five of the clock, this day sennight—but I make sure, as far as I can, that the meaning is clear.*

Attitudes are trickier. You can’t make all your characters 21st Century liberals who just happen to be dressed in velvet and lace while eating their manchet bread. Nobody could read Pepys and think he would support or even comprehend the #MeToo movement. He would have thought that everyday sexism was not merely okay but ordained by God specifically for his benefit. Then there are all the other -isms. When the Great Fire of London happened, nobody needed to be told that it was definitely the Catholics who started it, and one of the first things they did after the fire was to put up a plaque saying just that. You do your readers no favors by pretending that racism and sexism were absent from early modern England. On the other hand, you might lose a few of the same readers if you presented these views with unqualified approval. My solution (such as it is) is to make one of my main characters, Aminta, as liberal as the seventeenth century permitted a woman to be, while John himself is a slightly more representative male of the period (though Aminta is educating him).

It’s all part of the pact with the reader that I have already alluded to. The writer of historical crime fiction would be unwise to try to pull the wool over his readers’ collective eyes—they know too much. Hence the notes at the back of my books saying what is real and what is made up. But you don’t want to overwhelm the reader with irrelevant facts or, frankly, come across as a smart arse. The primary aim must be, as for all writers, to tell the story and not let anything get in the way of the telling. You need just enough facts, just enough accuracy. No more, no less. So, hanging and drawing by all means, but let’s hold the quartering, shall we?


*A sennight is a week, just as a fortnight is two weeks. I bet you’ll use that all the time, now you know. No need to thank me, just buy my books and don’t give me a one-star review for lack of research.

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