Ten Thrilling Reads Drawn From History
When I was a paperboy for Newsday on Long Island, I’d look through the change I collected on Saturdays for old coins. And they’d be in there—pennies or nickels that were older than my father. I’d hold them in my hand and I would think about my grandparents and their dreams for a family that didn’t even exist when the thing I was holding was minted.
I know. Weird.
So if I tell you I majored in History in college and set my first thriller, In Secret Service, against the real backdrop of World War II, maybe it will establish my bona fides as I share ten of my favorite books on the ways history—that is, reality-in-the-rearview-mirror—can be manipulated for thrilling effect by great writers and their often devious characters. And the first one isn’t even fiction.
The Man Who Never Was, by Lt. Cmdr. Ewen Montagu, is drawn from history and the blow-by-blow account of Operation Mincemeat, a real-life British hoax that convinced the Nazis the invasion of Sicily would come somewhere else. It entails a corpse dressed up as an officer, faked documents, a faked girlfriend (!), a study of the tides off the Spanish coast, and even a submarine. What more could you want?
Another thriller drawn from history of a wartime insider is Ian Fleming’s From Russia With Love. Fleming was assistant to the Director of British Naval Intelligence, and he knows whereof he writes about nasty spies, beautiful women, and East-West intrigue in Istanbul. I like him so much I co-opted his character to “narrate” my first book.
Maybe the greatest Cold War thriller drawn from history is John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. Seen through the eyes of a downtrodden British agent named Alec Leamas, The Spy Who takes our notion of good guys vs. bad guys and runs it through a Cuisinart. The book depicts the means and methods of those in the espionage game. And it underscores the axiom politics makes strange bedfellows.
Okay, let’s talk serious history. The year is 1327, and friar William of Baskerville arrives at a monastery in Northern Italy just as monks begin to die under mysterious circumstances. He’s asked to investigate and runs up against—among other things—the Inquisition. I liked The Name of the Rose, this debut novel by Umberto Eco, so much that I set the prologue of my upcoming book in a monastery as well.
Erik Larson chose a slice of history more than half a millennium later in which to set The Devil in the White City, a novel based on real-life serial killer H. H. Holmes running amok in Chicago during that city’s World’s Fair of 1893. Like someone sitting through a horror movie, I found myself trying to warn the procession of innocent young women: “Don’t go in that house!”
Ken Follett also chose a lone wolf getting the better of unwitting sheep when he created Faber, the Nazi spy who learns an immense secret that could win WWII. Now that I think of it, The Eye of the Needle includes all my favorite stuff, like history don Percival Godliman, a scholar “who knew more about the Middle Ages than any man alive.” I love it when people who think are turned by circumstance into people who act. Babe, the graduate student in William Goldman’s Marathon Man, comes to mind for the same reason.
Alternative history is that novelistic technique that goes back to a moment when things hung in the balance and then imagines a different path for history. Think Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, or SS-GB, by Len Deighton, novels that imagine the Nazis victorious in the war.
I don’t even know what to call Richard Condon’s Winter Kills, based on JFK’s assassination and its aftermath. Condon, author of The Manchurian Candidate, gives us Nick Kegan, brother of a murdered president who comes across a dying man who claims to have been the gunman. The author will then undermine that story and substitute another one. And another one. The Cubans did it. The Mafia did it. The Russians—too bad the Warren Commission didn’t have Condon’s imagination.
History makes for great reading…no matter how you slice it.