I like reading history books especially ones about very particular things–particular persons, places, crimes, and engineering projects. I’d really rather read about an individual train station than the history of the island of Manhattan. Unfortunately, problems arise when finding history books worth reading. As I complained about Eric Larson’s The Devil in the White City:
Larson devotes a couple chapters to Holmes murdering young women. If you take the time to read over the end notes (who does that?), you’ll find the admission that these scenes are almost completely fiction.
An author is bound to take certain liberties with an historical subject; it’s impossible to know everything. But the more “popular” a book tries to be the more the author seems to lose sight on the fact that what he’s supposed to be writing about is something that actually happened. It is quite possible to make a work exciting and interesting without resorting to writing something almost indistinguishable from a novel both in style and fact.
I began, today, to read a book called The Year of Fear by Joe Urschel. It’s about gangsters, the 1930s, the FBI… seemed like a good follow on to Killers of the Flower Moon. I didn’t make it past the first page of chapter one. It begins, however, with an introduction and the line:
As J. Edgar Hoover lay asleep in his home in the early morning hours of July 22, 1933, he was fitfully aware of the tentative hold he had on the job he had come to know and love.
Never mind that one generally isn’t “aware” of anything while asleep, how does the Urschel know what J. Edgar was thinking on any particular morning in 1933? It is simply a hamfisted way of getting across that Hoover might not have been sitting pretty at that moment in time. One often sees authors claiming that someone thought this or that in order to segue into relevant information. It’s not a bad enough line to stop one reading right there but it isn’t good.
Then in the third paragraph of chapter one we have this describing Kathryn Kelly getting dressed:
When she finished tucking and smoothing, she snapped the waistband closed with a definitive click, like the sound of a .38 slug sliding into its chamber.
I confess some ignorance on the matter of women’s clothing, especial that of the 1930s, but do skirts usually “click”? Well, maybe there’s some type of super clicky snaps or whatever. I don’t know. But I do know what .38s sound like and I don’t think the author does. We have gone beyond taking liberties in the realm of absurdity. Urschel is making crap up and then describing it as if he’s writing a potboiler. I wouldn’t want to read this if it were fiction.