Category Archives: Historical Fiction

Aye, see him: The house with Green Shutters by George Douglas Brown (1901)

This is a classic of Scottish literature that many non Scots will not have come across. Actually, a lot of Scots won’t have come across it either. This is most likely because it was only Brown’s second book – he died the year after it was published, and the other was published under a pseudonym. It is generally seen as a rejoinder to the sickly, sentimental fiction known as the Scottish kailyard, popular in the late nineteenth century.

I could perhaps best summarise this book as Lewis Grassic Gibbon meets the Mayor of Casterbridge, to give an idea of what it’s about. It shows rural Scots society in an altogether different light from that of the Kailyard, and I’m sorry to say, it’s a portrait that I still recognise to some degree in contemporary Scots culture – all small minded niggling and ‘ah kent his faither’.
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Kissing cousins: Next of Kin by John Boyne (2006)

Set against a background of the abdication crises of 1936, with the plot deftly woven between real events, this erudite and entertaining historical thriller has a neat twist at the end.
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Shooting Lions & Tigers: Manly Pursuits by Ann Harries (1999)

This book had been sitting on Mt TBR for over two years before I finally got around to reading it the other week. It started off well, and I was enjoying it, but it seemed to run out steam a bit, or perhaps I did, and it took me far longer than I would have liked to finish it. It is well written, ludicrously funny in places, and yet it never really sparked for me.

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Stabbed through the heart: The Wounded Name by DK Broster (1922)

This is another of Broster’s adventure tales set during the French Revolution, similar to Mr Rowl, which I read 18 months ago. Like that book, it features two protagonists one of whom is a French royalist who displays a demeanour of noble suffering, which I have to say, is entirely self inflicted. It has a very slashy subtext, which I am beginning to realise is true of much of Broster’s work, although I’m sure this wasn’t intentional.

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Red express: Last Train to Kazan by Stephen Miller (2007)

This is another sequel. I read Miller’s UK debut, A Game of Soldiers last year and loved it. This, if anything is even better. Miller continues with his gritty depiction of early 20th century Russia, here in the grip of the revolution. He is showing himself to be a master at the sort of historical plot I adore where a fictional story is woven imperceptibly between what we know of real events.
Everyone knows something about the last days of the last Tsar of Russia even if it is only that he and his family were murdered. But there were always stories that one of more of his children survived, such as the notorious case of Anna Anderson, who claimed to be Anastasia. I recall seeing advertising in a magazine from the twenties using a testimonial purportedly from Tatiana about how useful she found so and so’s cough mixture now that she had to earn her living as an opera singer! Miller uses this tradition and brilliantly pulls it off.

It is July 1918. Miller’s morose protagonist, former secret policeman Ryzkhov has spent the last few years in the trenches fighting for the French. Now circumstances and blackmail have brought him back to Moscow, where further blackmail forces him to work for the nascent Soviet secret police, and gives him the task of identifying what has happened to the Tsar and his family. Heading to Yekatarinburg, he is caught up in the bitter conflict between the Whites and the Bolsheviks, but continues with his task, only to discover all is not as clear cut as it first appears…

The only disappointing thing about this book, which I read in the UK paperback edition, was the simply appalling proofing. I’ve read self-published novels from Publish America with better proofing and that’s saying something. This really is unfortunate as it detracts from what is an excellent and thoroughly gripping read. It’s real edge of the chair stuff, and had me turning the pages as fast as I could read them to see if Ryzkhov pulls it off. I loved the twist at the end. Strongly recommended.

End of the Romanovs

Stephen Miller

Cut to pieces: The Butcher of Smithfield by Susanna Gregory(2008)

I have previously been much enamoured of Gregory’s Mathew Bartholomew series set in mid 14th century Cambridge, but I hadn’t yet come across Thomas Chaloner. The Butcher of Smithfield is apparently the third Chaloner novel, and I’m sorry to have missed the first two as Chaloner is an engaging character. Unlike Bartholomew who was a doctor, Chaloner is a Restoration spy. This is a period I am not hugely familiar with, but I have read several Restoration set mysteries over the last few years e.g. Parliament House by Edward Marston and this is far superior.

After four months away on a special mission, Chaloner returns to a London slowly sinking into the mire, both literally and figuratively. It never stops raining, and shady characters abound. One of these, who runs a protection racket centred on Smithfield market has gone and got himself murdered… perhaps, although the general assumption is that he has died from a surfeit of cucumbers. Chaloner’s boss, the Lord Chancellor wants him to investigate, but he’s not keen, wanting to find out why a friend needed to speak to him urgently but then died. Strangely, this friend also seems to have died from too many cucumbers. The chase begins, galloping us along to a conclusion that neatly links everything with a twist I certainly never guessed, although I was near.

Chaloner even has a blog!

Susanna Gregory on Wikipedia

Mistress of the art of death, Ariana Franklin (2007)

This is that rare historical whodunnit – one which manages to have a female protagonist who really isn’t just a modern woman in fancy dress. It was a deserved winner of the CWA Ellis Peters Historical Award.

The mistress of the art of death of the title is Adelia Aguilar, a medieval pathologist from Salerno. This is perfectly plausible as the Salerno medical school in 12th century when this novel is set, accepted women.

Children are being murdered in Cambridge and the local population have fixed on the obvious culprits, the local Jews. Cash-strapped Henry II is non too pleased as the Jews are responsible for generating much of his revenue. He sends to Salerno for assistance which comes in the reluctant form of Dr Aguilar who must then overcome local prejudice to identify the real killer.

This well written and pacey thriller had me turning the pages as fast as I could read them without once going near my historical howler button. Impeccable research, engaging characters and a deft plot make this a novel well worth reading.

Announcement of Franklin’s CWA win

Another review