Confidence

With any work of fiction, it’s vital that the reader have confidence in the author. A few details set down wrong, and that confidence is sorely damaged, perhaps gone forever. Writers of historical fiction need to be especially painstaking.

I thought I’d give Alex Grecian’s The Black Country a try. It’s set in a mining town in England, in 1890. Let’s see if you can spot the problem in the following passages. First, Inspector Walter Day of Scotland Yard steps off of the train:

He was a solid block of a man with dark hair swept straight back from his face….

A couple of pages later, Sergeant Nevil Hammersmith likewise steps down from the train:

The sergeant was tall, and rapier thin, and his unkempt hair hung over his eyes.

Have you got it? Neither of these men is wearing a hat. They’re bareheaded. I’m not a trained historian, but that strikes me as very wrong for 1890.

A few pages further on, Day and Hammersmith have arrived at the local inn and are being introduced to a few people gathered around a fireplace in the great room:

“This is our schoolteacher, Miss Perkins,” the vicar said.

“Please call me Jessica, Inspector Day,” the young woman said.

Ack! This woman is immediately offering to be on a first-name basis with a complete stranger! In 1890. This was a significant social distinction at the time. Mr. Grecian claims to be writing about 1890, but his work is far too slapdash to be believable.

In the same scene, we learn that a great many people in the village have fallen ill. Inspector Day says, “What are they sick from?” (Not a very British phrase, that.) The village doctor replies, “I don’t know yet. It’s all I can do to treat their symptoms.” This is a more subtle error, or perhaps several errors compounded. A village doctor would have a term for it — the grippe, for example, or “a bloody flux.” There were no research facilities that he could have turned to to provide a more definite answer. He would quite likely have viewed himself as a man of importance, a man of knowledge, and on that basis he would not have said, “I don’t know yet” in front of other villagers. He would have claimed to know even if he didn’t — or if truly baffled would have gone on at some length about the odd symptoms that had baffled him. This is an error of characterization.

Beyond that, the inspector does not inquire about the symptoms. Inasmuch as the inspector has arrived to assist with a missing persons case, the possibility that the missing family fell ill while away from home would certainly have occurred to him, so his failure to inquire as to the specifics is poor police work.

But really, between the missing hats and the altogether too forward schoolteacher, I see no reason to read further.

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