A singular type of novel that shouldn’t be suspenseful, but nonetheless is

May 6, 2018 at 2:20 pm (books, Mystery fiction)

There needs to be a special subgenre designation for novels in which the occurrence of an overarching historical event is commonly known from the outset. This event will – must –  affect the characters’ lives in ways they could never have anticipated as the narrative gets under way. In effect, the reader is vouchsafed crucial knowledge to which the characters themselves have no access.

I can think of three titles I’ve read that fall into this category:


I read Beryl Bainbridge’s novel of the Titanic disaster when it came out in 1996. I don’t  remember any of the particulars, only that I enjoyed it tremendously. Bainbridge has a unique take on historical fiction that’s worth seeking out. According to Queeney, the story of Dr. Johnson and his rather bizarre attachment to the hapless Hester Thrale, is my other favorite from among her works.

As for Pompeii, well, we all know the sad fate that overwhelmed the denizens of that city as well as those of Herculaneum in 79 AD. In the novel, Marcus Attlius Primus, an hydraulic engineer, has been to the region close to Mt. Vesuvius in order to investigate a malfunction of one of Rome’s famous aqueducts. (Again I must apologize for the vagueness of my recollections. I also read this book when it came out, in 2003.) At one point in the narrative, he and some others are talking and imbibing a liquid (wine? water?). A full glass is set down on the table before them, and for reasons not apparently obvious to those present, the surface of the liquid becomes strangely agitated.

For several years now, we’ve been making our morning coffee  with a Keurig machine. We always have a plastic cup filled with water at the ready so as to top up the machine’s reservoir. As the coffee is being made, the machine emits a low, rather loud droning sound for several seconds. As it does so, this happens to the surface of the water in the cup:

Every time I see it happen, I think of Pompeii – and Pompeii. (When I was in Italy, I noted the name was spelled Pompei.)

Robert Harris is an amazing writer. He seems to be able to tackle any kind of scenario, whether historical or contemporary, and tell a story so gripping that you want only to be left alone to read it.

  The third work I’m thinking of is not concerned not with a cataclysm that is part of the greater historical  record. Rather, it has to do with the fate of one family. How then is the reader apprised of this particular event that waits malevolently in the wings? Simple: the author of A Judgement in Stone, Ruth Rendell, states bluntly in the first sentence:

Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.

What Rendell has done is to set up the pull of an enormous dread that runs throughout the novel. It is a gigantic thread whose strength the reader struggles against even as it grows ineluctably stronger. Can nothing be done to prevent this horror – to save these blameless people? you ask yourself. Of  course, the answer is no, nothing can.

In Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part Two, the King cries out in anguish: “O God, that one might read the book of fate…” A Judgement in Stone can make you feel relieved – even glad – that you cannot do so.

This line of thought was occasioned by my recent reading of The Throne of Caesar, Steven Saylor’s superb new novel of Gordianus the Finder.





  1. Michelle Ann said,

    I think you have discovered two new genres here Roberta – perhaps ‘History Lit’ and ‘Backwards Lit’! I also enjoy both, and they would be helpful categories.
    A recommendation for each would be ‘The Doomsday Book’ by Connie Willis for history lit – it starts as a comic novel of time travel in a future Oxford – a researcher intends to go back to a safe period in medieval times, but due to a glitch, ends up in 1348, and we know the black death is on its way.
    For backwards lit I would recommend ‘White Tiger’ by Aravind Adiga. A deceptively light-hearted novel set in modern India that starts with the narrator confessing to a murder, which then goes back to show how it came about. It is a very well told story that also highlights, as intended, the terrible conditions in which many Indians still live.

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Michelle Ann,
      Thanks so much for your insightful comments and recommendations.

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