The Times Crime Club Newsletter, February 2023

About a quarter of a century ago, I was sitting in a bar at a London station and waiting for a train. I fell into conversation with the man next to me. He asked what I did for a living. I said I wrote novels, crime fiction. He stared at me in a pitying way. ‘I only read true fiction,’ he said.

True fiction. The phrase has stayed with me ever since. The sort of crime fiction I write is by definition made-up: indeed the characters and stories in my novels are wilfully untrue, joyously unreal. But recently I’ve begun to wonder whether the boundary between true and untrue is always as clear-cut as I had thought.

The protagonists of the The Ashes of London series, James Marwood and Cat Lovett, are fictional, and so are the murder mysteries that drive the stories forward. But from the start they have been deeply rooted in historical events. Ashes begins when the Great Fire of London is at its height, and Charles II is only one of the historical characters who play significant parts in the unfolding of the plot.

The historical elements aren’t merely wallpaper: they are fundamental to each story. In one sense, they are the story. I want to find out what really happened in Restoration England. And why.

What we don’t know about history far exceeds what we do know. Even academic historians can only interpret the evidence they have. Like detectives, real and imaginary, their theories about a case are influenced by their own prejudices and exist in a constant state of flux.

The Marwood and Lovett series continued with The Fire Court, which focuses on the work of the ad-hoc court set up to decide the many property disputes that hindered the rebuilding of London after the Fire. The King’s Evil is about scrofula, the hideous disease that was endemic in 17th-century England and that, it was believed, could only be cured by the touch of the king, a form of political theatre.

I realised that I was using a crime series not just to tell stories but to explore major political events and personages of the period. The Last Protector was about the hapless Richard Cromwell, son of the better-known Oliver, whose later life was blighted by the fact he had briefly ruled England after his father’s death. The plot of The Royal Secret draws on the intrigues surrounding the politically explosive secret clauses of an Anglo-French treaty.

History rarely repeats itself but it’s full of echoes. The latest in the series, The Shadows of London, concerns the pimping of a young Frenchwoman to Charles II, a man roughly twice her age who was all too willing to find a pretty young virgin in his bed. The pimps were the French ambassador, with the approval of Louis XIV, and Charles’s leading minister.

Hilary Mantel, I think, once said that her novels ‘interrogated’ history. Now I know exactly what she meant. Novelists can do this in a way historians can’t. Perhaps it comes naturally to crime novelists, who are used to sifting evidence and juggling theories. Maybe that’s what my Marwood and Lovett series has become: not just historical crime novels but also a form of true fiction.