My pal Michael Davidson, who's a thriller writer - and, as it happens, a 30-year career CIA vet - said one of the things he likes about my Cold War stories is that they take him back to another place and time. Berlin, and the Wall.
It got me thinking about why we like historicals, and why I like writing them.
I'm not talking so much about Mary Renault, say, and the Peloponnesian War, or Bernard Cornwell and Waterloo, as much as I like those writers and their books, but more recent history. In my case, the Placido Geist bounty hunter stories take place in the years just before America's entry into the First World War, and the Mickey Counihan stories just after WWII, the late 1940's. These are turning points. It's not in dispute that the Great War changed both the world and our worldview. Everything that comes after, in the 20th century, is foreshadowed by it. Total mechanized warfare, chemical weapons, targeting civilian populations. Mass trauma, in other words. And the late 1940's see the atom bomb, jazz, Jackie Robinson in the Dodgers' dug-out, television, the Red Scare.
First off, we have the lure of historical irony. Major league baseball has been integrated for sixty years, the Soviet empire collapsed (sort of, anyway), and nobody smokes Chesterfields anymore. Back then, all of this was just around the corner. But the future, as John Crowley says, is at right angles to the present. In the moment, or at the time, none of it was even a glow on the horizon.
Secondly, and related to the first, if you can immerse yourself in an era, not just the period detail, but a state of mind or a habit of thinking - because the past, in many ways, is a different country - it's liberating. This might seem counter-intuitive, since you can't avoid historical incident (the Titanic does, in fact, sink), but it actually gives you a lot of latitude. You have to work your way into it, you have to inhabit the landscape. It's like learning a foreign language. Once you've got the grammar down, you begin to pick up the idiom. And when it becomes familiar enough, you can think in that language, instead of stumbling through an awkward mental translation.
Third, and this comes back to Davidson's original remark, when I revisit Berlin, in that time, the landscape is entirely vivid, in my mind's eye. More importantly, I transport myself into an era - not simply a physical place, but a place with a specific density. Berlin, in the here and now, is only a template. I'm walking the streets of memory. But that place is so complete that I can stop worrying about the landmarks. I don't need to look at a map. It's all there in my peripheral vision, and the imagined city is more immediate to me than anywhere in the present day. You could call it my comfort zone. I'm not saying it was a simpler time, or that the world was any less dangerous, but it's almost like a parallel life, one I did in fact experience, only now I'm just a visitor.
We see the past through a lens, from the perspective of this day and age, and we think of it as a distant reflection of our own time, as if Beowulf, or Genghis Khan, had the same mindset we do, and accepted out agreed reality. Which is backwards. We're the reflection. We mirror the past, not the other way around. Beowulf is about as far removed from Shakespeare as he is from us, but the Elizabethan playwrights are still accessible to us, while Old English might as well be written in runes. (It more or less is, as I remember.) BEOWULF is still a rousing yarn, and so is
MACBETH. However. You can make out a shape, a continuity, in the literature, BEOWULF to Chaucer to Shakespeare, and it's a window into an older age of man. Of course, we see it with our own eyes. How not? The witches in MACBETH, for example, might in the modern reading be imagined as a projection of Macbeth's own ambition, preaching to the converted, but to an Elizabethan audience, they were simply evil spirits, manipulating a weak man, and they were real. Grendel's mom, to our mind, might be some earth-mother, the female principle made flesh, a threat to the male warrior mentality, just emerging into the Iron Age. But to a bunch of people in bearskins, sitting in a smoky room inside a stone barricade, somewhere up by Hadrian's Wall, she was a cannibal monster. The meta-drama doesn't play. The subtext is hindsight. These people understood a different reality. They were beset by genuine monsters, predators, Viking raiders, early death in childbirth, disease. To reduce their struggle, against a hostile environment, is to betray their trust, and our legacy.