How to decolonize the mystery of the golden age? Read more historical fiction! ‹ CrimeReads

Ever since travelers first bought their place by the fire with tales of distant lands, stories have served to transport us to worlds beyond our own experience. One can live a thousand lives through fiction, gathering the wisdom of experience in a jiffy. And it doesn’t matter if the outlook changes: the ironic observations of the world as it is become, for future generations, an archive of what once was, and the familiarity of the here and now becomes an exotic fantasy.

Growing up in scorching, tropical Singapore, Agatha Christie was my escape to the cooler UK climate. We had no vast country houses – or if we had any, I certainly had no knowledge of them – and my apartment building would never stand among the cottages and country lanes of St. Mary Mead. Along with a host of other British authors ranging from Enid Blyton to Anthony Trollope, Christie was compelling for the insight she gave of another world and another time.

And that’s the point, isn’t it? Even though the written world is familiar, we’re still drawn to experiences different from our own – the pressures of a murder investigation, the joys of an unlikely romance, or even just a unique point of view. A book is an invitation, as both Agatha Christie and Lewis Carroll say, to “come, tell me how you live”.

A book is an invitation, as both Agatha Christie and Lewis Carroll say, to “come, tell me how you live”.

I think it was Christie and his contemporaries at the Detection Club that first attracted me to the 1920s and 1930s. Or maybe it was the imagery – the fashions, the music, the social mores – that I found elsewhere, in films and images. Or maybe it was because those interwar years were a liminal age between the electric present and the candlelit past: the perfect balance, for me, between the familiar and the strange. Maybe it was just the exhilaration I felt in all these things, sort of – the joy of a world that had just escaped the horrors of the First World War.

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I could go on for pages about the relationship between the Great War and the Jazz Age.

Anyway, the charm of historical fiction in general, whether written in the past or in regards to the past is that even though the events are made up, you know the setting is real. This is how the world once looked, and that part is entirely true. The experience is all the more convincing for being authentic. But while it’s the truth, it’s not the whole truth – and it never can be. Our view of an era is limited by what writers of that era can see of it, and no writer ever has access to all of these at once. What I saw of the 1920s and 1930s was only the white European view of it, since the writers I was exposed to were almost universally white Europeans – and if they weren’t, then they were white Americans.

And the world is bigger than that. History tells us it’s bigger than that. The Singapore I knew was then a British colony, and where was that in Christie? Where were the Asians of London and Liverpool, or those citizens of the outer reaches of the British Empire? Obviously, Christie didn’t write about them because she didn’t know them, and it would be unreasonable to demand that of her. But they were there.

The usual argument for diversity in the media is the desire for representation. It would be nice, the argument goes, for people of color to see their own faces from time to time among the heroes of Western literature. But I would rather suggest that diversity is desirable because it represents a broader experience of the world and a new view of what we think we know. Especially in the context of historical fiction, an alternate point of view gives us a better understanding of what the world was like. And why do we read fiction, if not for new experiences outside of what we know?

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Let’s look again at the 1920s and the images we attach to the period. As a musical backdrop, we invariably turn to jazz, a musical genre whose roots go deep into African-American culture. So shouldn’t we see that culture reflected on the page? Just as we cannot embrace the exhilaration of the era without acknowledging the war trauma from which it was born, we cannot separate the sound of the era from the people who made it. Fortunately, this gap is being filled: as recently as last year, Nekesa Afia gave us dead dead girls, a period detective story with all the flash and glamor of a Prohibition speakeasy, plus behind-the-scenes grit. Its detective hero, Louise Lloyd, is a young black woman who enjoys her nights on the dance floor, but is assigned by the police to help investigate a series of serial murders. As Afia says, echoing our own desire to see the world through Louise’s eyes: “She could get into places that a tall, well-dressed white man couldn’t… This was her home; he was just visiting.

But lest we imagine the black experience was all centered around jazz music and speakeasy, Patricia Rayon offers us a counterpoint in all that is secret, featuring a theologian navigating a city ruled by the KKK. Professor Annalee Spain is no Louise Lloyd, but she lives in this world of the 1920s, facing doubt and discrimination as much as a young black professional, and a woman on top of that… not to mention her crisis of faith. In progress.

My own Anglophilia mainly keeps me across the pond, where the British Empire at that time was still very active. In A rising man and its consequencesAbir Mukherjee takes us to British India and the Raj, with a layer of war trauma and resulting addiction for good measure. Mukherjee’s Sam Wyndham is an ordinary Englishman, but the environment he was thrown into is not; and neither is Sergeant Banerjee, the subordinate who is our first link to the Indian population and who could have, in a different world, been the hero of these stories instead.

MeanwhileSujata Massey steps away from growing Anglo-Indian tension – or at least Wyndham’s experience of it – and deeper into the cultures of India itself, with Perveen Mistry and The Widows of Malabar Hill. Perveen was the only female lawyer in Bombay in the 1920s, a fact that comes in handy when dealing with women who observe purdah, strict abstinence from contact with men. In this, she becomes our guide into a secret world still encompassed both in the British Empire and in a growing society towards our modern times.

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Finally, it would be remiss of me not to mention Singapore, which was as much a part of the British Empire at the time as India, but different in both history and flavor. Ovidia Yu Crown Colony series starting with The mystery of the frangipani, are set a little later than the other books I’ve mentioned, covering a period from the 1930s to the end of World War II — and taking us out of the historical period that I hold so dear. Chen Su Lin is a mission school-educated Chinese girl, and her story opens with a culture shock that, though familiar to me from the stories of my parents and grandparents, might seem that other readers come from a different world.

And it’s not wrong. British Singapore was still the British Empire, but it been a different world – once seen through different eyes. For the reader who loves the mysteries of the interbellum, these voices are like a kaleidoscope twist, the familiar motif reflected and refracted in new and exciting ways. It is a fuller truth and a broader understanding of the world as it then was. And as I said before, why do we read at all, if not for that?


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