Two summers ago, I read two historical fiction books in pretty close succession, both mysteries, that, while gripping enough in the act of reading, I found less than satisfying afterwards. I was a bit puzzled as to why this was, because one of them, The Dante Club, was written by an author I had previously enjoyed immensely (Matthew Pearl), and the other, The Blackest Bird, was written partially about an author I consider a favourite (Edgar Allen Poe).
I read The Dante Club first and decided upon finishing it that I hadn’t liked it enough to keep it. The mystery was compelling, deeply involved with complications surrounding interpretations and translations of Dante’s Inferno, with sufficient stakes and convincing psychological factors coming into play around it. The plot itself, murders staged and executed like punishments from the different circles of Dantean Hell, is a fascinating concept fit for a thriller of the highest order. While the very first murder, within the first few pages, had the misfortune of being one of the most stomach-turning kind (even making me put off reading the book for while), I in no way hold that preferential choice on the part of the author against him or the rest of the book. So what was it?
I came to the conclusion that the reason this book didn’t resonate with me after I finished it was that the central, driving characters, while significant literary and historical figures, were ones I did not know or care much about: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russel Lowell, and J.T. Fields. While I had heard of the first two (and Lowell vaguely rings a bell), I am not familiar with their work, or even much interested. The nearest I came to knowing any of them is the firm conviction that I have read a poem or two by Longfellow in my school days, and that, previous to starting The Dante Club, I made sure I read Longfellow’s translation of Inferno (it had been on my list for a long time anyway) so that I wouldn’t be walking in blind. But it wasn’t until I read The Blackest Bird by Joel Rose that I fully realised the reason behind my indifference to both books.
The Blackest Bird began unfortunately for me as well, but in a different way–third person limited perspective from the point of view of the murderer. Of course, the murderer was not named, but the glimpse into the psyche and actions of the murderer, be it ever so brief, comes so early in the narrative as to render it meaningless in the grand scheme of things. Would the book suffer from the omission of this little two-page murderer’s-feet-shot in the tradition of film noir? The scene of the crime is later spelled out in the process of investigation, so why state it initially, redundantly in this teaser shot of the crime? Because it is just that: a teaser, a trailer, a hook. I, for one, am against cheap hooks. By all means, snag your reader’s attention right at the beginning, but not by forced and artificial means. Throwing them into the start of the investigation, or even the immediate aftermath of the crime scene sans murderer, would do just as well and flow more naturally into the narrative. But I digress. Again, this possibly preferential difference between myself and the author does not form a significant part of my prejudice against the book. There are other books that start similarly that escape my censure through the excellence of the rest of the narrative, The Interpretation of Murder by Jed Rubenfield being one that comes to mind. So there must be something else.
The Blackest Bird somewhat cleverly intertwines three separate historical crimes and weaves them into a complete narrative of seduction, betrayal, and ambition. The “main” character is the historical High Constable Hays, a detective trying to solve the murders in his city. The story did not promise to be extensively about Edgar Allen Poe, but mentioned his works in the back-page blurb as containing clues to the crimes. About midway through the book, Poe himself began to appear quite frequently as a character and even a suspect in one of the crimes. Now I may be idealistic in my opinion of Poe, but I wasn’t overly fond of the way he was portrayed. But it’s fiction and I could have forgiven a lot if it had just been more–more compelling, more understandable, more progressive, more anything. I partly understand the hesitation an author of historical fiction has with portraying real people as characters, but hang it all! You’re the author. You’re writing fiction. So what if the character you’re writing was a living person once? They ceased to be real the moment you put them in your story. And this is what I realised went wrong for me with both books: the characters.
Both The Dante Club‘s foursome of literary sleuths and the frequent pairing of constable and poet in The Blackest Bird fell flat because there wasn’t sufficient character, either individually or collectively/relationally. Granted, there were moments when the members of the Dante Club rubbed each other the wrong way and made for a briefly interesting group dynamic, and there were momentarily interesting interactions and reactions between certain characters in The Blackest Bird, but these characterisations fell short of actual character development. I can only guess this may have to do with a delicacy on the authors’ parts about ascribing things to historical people that aren’t accurate.
The Dante Club left most of its characters where they were at the beginning, barring a few slight injuries and general shakiness as a result of their solving of the gruesome mystery, and what little change a character did go through was so slight as to be rather forgettable. The characters weren’t compelling or overtly likeable in the first place, so change was the only hope for most of them and it didn’t happen in a big enough way. Several times in The Blackest Bird a new character would appear with an extensive introduction scene and I would become prepared to learn more about them, watch them grow and change. The more scenes they were the subject of, the more I hoped this would be an important character in the end. But then several characters’ construction halted inexplicably yet they continued to appear in the story, half-built until the end. It seemed like I was baited into caring for these characters only to be left out in the cold. And as for the “main” characters, I already complained about Poe, but Hays is quite possibly worse. He is a smart man, rather, and manages to solve the case in the end, but does it change anything for him? His motivation to solve the case isn’t compelling enough to justify his obsession with it or to make me root for him, and the effect of the solution on him lacks profundity. I just want the mess over with by that time, and the author hasn’t given me any material with which I can fabricate anything like caring for the characters.
So, if you want a mystery for one read-through, peopled with historical figures that you won’t get attached to in spades, The Dante Club and The Blackest Bird fit the bill. If you want a good historical story with solid characters you’ll remember, look elsewhere, such as The Gods of Gotham by Lyndsay Faye or the previously mentioned The Interpretation of Murder. I think it only fair to add that, while historical accuracy may be the greatest flaw to me in terms of enjoying The Dante Club and The Blackest Bird, that same historical accuracy has also gotten me interested in extending my own knowledge about the characters through reading works mentioned in the books. I do not mean to imply I think reading these books is a waste of time–I think reading them twice would be a waste of time. Historical fiction writers should take a lesson from Sir Walter Scott: “You must get over all these scruples, if you would thrive in the character of a romantic historian… what is the [true historian] to you? The light which he carried was that of a lamp to illuminate the dark events of antiquity; yours is a magic lantern to raise up wonders which never existed.”