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The English historical thriller is still growing

The English historical thriller is still growing

Two new novels honor this hugely popular genre across the channel. “Les Régicides” delves into England's bloody 17th century, and tackles trench warfare “like we're ghosts.”

English-style thrillers that relive the past. Photo by Patrick Hendry (Unsplash CC)

By Yoann Labroux Satabin

Published on December 29, 2023 at 2:00 pm.

I am“It's hard for a writer to resist the crash of cartwheels on cobblestones” Once upon a time novelist Peter Lovesey (Peter Lovesey delivered remarks at the 2007 Cerisy-la-Salle conference on “Police Fiction” by librarian Michael Vita). Perhaps even more so when you're British… because across the channel, the wave of historical thrillers is nothing new. Some date earlier Daughter of time (1951), Written by Scottish director Josephine Dey (1896-1952), it features a bedridden Scotland Yard inspector conducting a historical investigation into Richard III. The craze began in 1977, when author Edith Barketer (1913-1995) began publishing The Investigations of Brother Godfael under the pseudonym Elise Peters. “Medieval Whodunit” (a kind of medieval Cludo).

On the 21ste The century, subgenre of the historical thriller has established itself as a veritable trend in the United Kingdom. In 2010, Publishers Weekly, Even the British Publishers Weekly newsletter spoke up“Explosion, in Quantity and Quality” For the decade 2000-2010. In recent years, we have remembered Abir Mukherjee's excellent series of thrillers set in 1920s British colonial India (from which four volumes were published by Liana Levy. Calcutta – Darjeeling Attack, in 2019).

If not the novelist's skill as a storyteller, what makes a historical thriller successful? Because while deep and thorough documentation makes a good history book, it doesn't necessarily make a good novel. “This attention given to the romantic aspect of the story is precisely characteristic of the Anglo-Saxon historical thriller, Underlines Karine Vershave, editorial manager at Belfontein. This makes him very popular among French-speaking audiences. Rhythm, rhythm, always rhythm. » But where to go? “If the structure in America is largely European, Arnaud Hofmarcher, literary director of Sonatine Editions, observes. English historical thrillers often take the history of Great Britain as their theme. »

Robert Harris in the midst of the English Restoration

One of the masters of this genre, Robert Harris, focuses on his latest novel (records) After and following the chaotic bracket of Oliver Cromwell's Protectorate (1653 to 1659), when the monarchy was re-established, those who participated in any way in the execution of King Charles IR. The author imagines a dark, powerful romantic character: Richard Naylor, an ardent royalist who has some reason to devote intimate hatred to Edward Whalley and William Gough. From the stark depiction of the perilous sea voyages to the executions (both conservation and restoration), Harris recreates all the darkness of the era through his focus.

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Exiled in America, the two regicides are quickly forced to move further and further west, and the novel sometimes takes on a great western look, in this grand heartland, ahead of its time. In its most brilliant passages, the novel questions what drives these characters forward at all costs. Beginning with religious faith, the last part of the story is put to the test by a series of events that spans from the Great Plague of London in 1665 to the great fire that ravaged the capital the following year.

A psychology that never starts a sacred rhythm. With these constant shadows, the novel sometimes takes on the appearance of a spy story. And, if we are to believe Carine Verschaeve, “The spy novel, especially when nuclear power is at issue, is on the rise”, Pointing to a resurgence of intrigue surrounding the Cold War. “This is certainly explained by the troubled times in which we find ourselves and the reaffirmation of the East/West camps. »

Philip Gray on the Somme front

Another strong trend (and not just among the British): history was told from the point of view of women. “Authors portray intelligent female characters, often unfairly mistreated by a very conservative and patriarchal British society, Belfond's author continues. This is especially true of the convenient historical crime that is full of propositions in this spirit. » In We are like ghosts, Written by Philip Gray (for whom this is the first novel under his own name, although he has published many under several pseudonyms), the reader follows Amy Vaneck, a young Englishwoman who sets out on trial before the Somme in 1919 to understand what happened. For his missing companion. Its tenacity is reminiscent of Mathilde – a young woman torn between landscapes after the First World War, haunted by death.A long engagement on Sunday, Sébastien Jabrizot (1991) – soon discovers that not all corpses are necessarily connected to war.

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Unsurprisingly, the World Wars are another favorite theme of English historical crime fiction. The detective genre then plays on the conflict between the era of chaos and the detective's search for truth. Not to mention the “Bernie Gunther” series by Scotsman Philip Kerr (1956-2018) and his ambivalence in Nazi Germany. To create a story We are like ghosts, Philip Gray says he was inspired by his fighting grandfather, like director Sam Mendes, who drew on his ancestor's experiences for his film. 1917 (2019)

He also shows that the Great War can still be surprising: his novel highlights some of the more unknown aspects, such as the presence of “mercenaries” of Chinese origin to clean the trenches, or the role played by drugs (especially opium). Didn't notice. The author also explores the psychological change caused by war on people, including the most pacifist, which on a purely literary level allows his reader to move from one hypothesis to another, imagining all possible fates for its characters.

“The English historical thriller, Arnaud Hofmarcher notes, is characterized by the seriousness of the documentation – it is rarely a question of pure entertainment – but by the quality of the writing, the authors do not hesitate to follow the true stylistic biases. Era. » With Robert Harris, as with Philip Gray, style is embedded in language (Harris, for example, was careful to use idioms that stuck to the 17th century).e century) as well as in the architecture of the story, whose keystone emerges in the final pages.

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R records, By Robert Harris, translated from the English (United Kingdom) by Ann-Sylvie Homassel, ed. Belfonte, 560 p., €23.90.
K We are like ghosts, By Philip Gray, from the English by Elodie Leplot, ed. Sonatina, 496 pp., €23.90.