Historical thrillers anyone?

maxresdefaultHelga’s Post # 120:

Those of you who have followed my blog posts know that I am a writer and devoted fan of reading fiction. Especially historical suspense fiction. British author John le Carré’s espionage novels have long topped the list of my reading pleasure.

But writers need to be flexible, casting their nets wide in search of worthwhile morsels for their own stories. With this in mind, I thought I should check out a non-fiction title on the list of my on-again-off-again book club: ‘Dead Wake – The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson.

The WHO? I was intrigued by the subject, admittedly unknown to me. What would motivate me to read a four hundred plus page book about a passenger ship (other than the Titanic) going down during WWI? Not that there is ever an event where lives are lost that is insignificant. Every one of them is. But in the overall scheme of history, aren’t there just as many, or more, sensational events to read about?

I was curious. There must have been SOME reason for my book club to select this particular title. When I brought it home from the local library I researched the author who at this point was unknown to me. My eyes widened. He’d written at least six highly acclaimed books, most notably In the Garden of Beasts – Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin. Most of his books had garnered solid five-star reviews.

In terms of Dead Wake, according to The New York Times Sunday Book Review, few tales in history are more haunting, more tangled with investigatory mazes or more fraught with toxic secrets than that of the final voyage of the Lusitania, one of the colossal tragedies of maritime history. It’s the other Titanic, the story of a mighty ship sunk not by the grandeur of nature but by the grimness of man.

I continued researching other works of the author. His next title, Thunderstruck, was equally starred. That story too had me going. Here, Larson gives us history, stranger than fiction, brought to life by his attention to detail and skilled writing:

“The saga of how the lives of the inventor of wireless and of Britain’s second most famous murderer (after Jack the Ripper) intersected during one of the greatest criminal chases of all time. The inventor was G. Marconi, the young Italian genius; the killer was Hawley Harvey Crippen, who murdered his overbearing wife and fled Britain with his mistress, unaware that Scotland Yard was hot on his heels. The book—an instant New York Times bestseller—brings to life a host of forgotten characters, including spirit mediums, ghost-hunting physicists, Scotland Yard inspectors, and one of the great pioneers of forensic science. The climax occurs during a trans-Atlantic chase which, thanks to the miracle of Marconi’s invention, was followed by millions of people around the world—with Crippen and his mistress completely unaware.”

History, told at its best. History that reads like the best of thrillers.

Larsen captured four more historical events that, by themselves, may hold little interest for the average reader. But with his meticulous research and skilled writing, he was able to forge these events into fascinating, richly coloured stories. His books are truly hard to put down after the first page or two.

What fascinates me about these non-fiction books is the way they are written. They lure me to keep on reading, even though I have never heard of the Lusitania before. It’s the detail that has me snared from the get-go. And this is what I would like to do in my own writing, in historical suspense fiction. Take Larsen’ first paragraph of Dead Wake:

“On the night of May 6, 2015, as his ship approached the coast of Ireland, Capt. William Thomas Turner left the bridge and made his way to the first-class lounge, where passengers were taking part in a concert and talent show, a customary feature of Cunard crossings. The room was large and warm, paneled in mahogany and carpeted in green and yellow, with two fourteen-foot-tall fireplaces in the front and rear walls. Ordinarily Turner avoided events of this kind aboard ship, because he disliked the social obligations of captaincy, but tonight was no ordinary night, and he had news to convey.”

What news? I had to keep reading. And the suspense increased with every page. And yes, the devil is in the detail – Larson made good use of archives and cleverly weaved in those seemingly unimportant and gossipy snippets of dialogue and letters that readers are so fond of.

In all, a good, no excellent, example of how skilled writing, with attention to detail – especially small detail – and relationships between various characters can propel a story to bestseller status. Even better if the context of the story is a true historical event. In a previous post I wrote about this topic between a captured Russian spy and his American defender (Tom Hanks) in the movie Bridge of Spies. Here too the actual event is overshadowed by the characters’ relationship and the small details that made it so memorable.

There is no moral to the story, to my post. Just random musings about how we writers can harvest useful morsels from a variety of sources – and enjoy ourselves in the process. Readers love to read about characters, their relationships and conflicts, interesting dialogue, colourful settings and detail, and especially if the context is a historical event.

Add a good dose of suspense and readers will be along for the ride. From page one to The End. Fiction or non-fiction.

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13 thoughts on “Historical thrillers anyone?

  1. Thanks for your review/blog. I too hold John LeCarre in especially high regard. You reminded me of the writers task, and the skill with which to spin a story that is available and interesting. thanks.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Judith. Yes, there are so many ways we can spin a story. I am discovering new ones whenever I read a good book.
    Yeah for another LeCarre fan!

    • I love it too. Captures a lot of the tension of the moment. Now if I could just mirror that same emotion in my novel, I would be a happy camper.

  3. Hello from another Le Carre fan — with a large *ouch*. “Historical suspense”? I remember when his first books were published, and they weren’t meant to be “historical”; they were topical and up-to-date. Well, within ten years — his Cold War novels took place in the Fifties and were published in the Sixties, but there was still plenty of tension behind the Wall, so it meant something more than history to those of us looking nervously eastward. I have always considered his writing to be lyrical, and he emphasizes the human factor above the events, which, as you say, is what keeps us reading. It’s the detail that makes it thrilling.

    • Eugenia, you are so right – Le Carre’s writing is lyrical, and I admit that’s one aspect that draws me to his books. He is also an incurable romantic, which, in the context of the grimness of his topics, is another reason I am a fan. Thanks for stopping by and commenting, I am honored! Will definitely plan to read your book ‘Last Party in Eden’ to start with. I can relate to that era.

  4. Thanks for some great reading recommendations, Helga, but more importantly for the insights into what makes them great. Story, story, story … where every detail is a hook, like a tiny claw on a burr, that sticks with the reader and won’t let go. The way Larson uses the detail of the reason the ordinarily unsocial Captain joined the first class passengers at the concert – because he had news to deliver – is a perfect example of such a hook, used to link the sequence of events in a smooth but unpredictable flow to create a compelling narrative. Love it. Wouldn’t I give my right arm to be able to master this! But things seen, understood and appreciated are things we can learn to do. Thanks for the inspiration!

    • I heard a lot of positive feedback on Garden of Beasts, it’s on top of my reading list after ‘Dead Wake’ which I enjoy very much. Thanks for commenting, Liz!

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