Sunday, December 4, 2011
The Satan League, by James Lincoln Warren
You may well accuse me of piling on the bandwagon, since my friend James yesterday won the Black Orchid Novella Award. But, as ever, I calls 'em as I reads 'em, and this week, the best of the bunch was a historical novella by Mr. Warren.
He has written a number of stories about Alan Treviscoe, an investigator for Lloyd's in late 18th century London. In this case Treviscoe is asked by a lady he met in an earlier tale to look into the death of her betrothed. This is no ordinary death, because the victim was found, burned and crushed, in the middle of Stonehenge, on the same night that mysterious lights were seen in the sky.
Since in addition he was the founder of a scientific group called the Luciferian Society, the suspicious naturally see a demonic element in the death. Treviscoe, as you can imagine finds a natural solution to the crime, but as he notes, "in my experience, murder is always the work of the Devil."
One of the trickiest bits about writing historical fiction is making the language sound right. The difficulty of this is sort of a bell curve, I think. It gets harder as you go back into the nineties, the eighties, etc. and probably hits a peek of trouble when you hit Shakespeare's time. After that I think it is less difficult simply because readers understand that you can't be expected to write Chaucer's English, or for that matter, Caesar's Latin, because we wouldn't be able to understand it.
My point is that Warren has the task of sounding appropriately eighteenth century, while still being comprehensible. He succeeds well, I think, not drowning us in jargon, but capturing the atmosphere nicely. And so we have references to Treviscoe "making his leg," the meaning of which the reader can deduce from the context. Or the nicely antiquated dialog: "What's this, sir? I to remain in London, whilst you place yorself in danger? In the company of a stranger, yet? It will not do." The letter written by the villain is a particularly choice and delightful example, revealing personality as well as grammar.
In that regard I can't resist noting that Treviscoe observes that the bad guy "lies like a French lover." What a treat..