Friday, 16 October 2009

"The Best of Men" by Claire Letemendia

A looming deadline for my own next book has meant that I have not been as active as I should have been in book postings. I actually read this book some time ago but read it through again quickly yesterday to refresh myself.

As the name suggests ("our best of men" refers to Oliver Cromwell and was used by Antonia Fraser as the title of her well-known biography) this is work of historical fiction set around the English Civil War. I liked the fact that Beaumont, the central character, had been off fighting in various European wars. This did actually happen, and quite a few of the Englishmen who ended up fighting out of principle against their fellow countrymen had actually been fighting for money as mercenaries but shortly before.

It is difficult to say very much about the story without giving away the plot, but Beaumont becomes involved with a plan to assassinate Charles I, and there are some nice twists and turns.

One of the central problems with any historical fiction is just how much period detail you should go for. Costumes, surroundings and background events are essential, and you need to get them right, but what about speech? P.G. Wodehouse memorably starts a chapter in one his Jeeves and Wooster books by saying "I'm never sure how much scenery to chuck in", and these sentiments could surely hold true of dialogue too. Nothing is more sudden death to a novel than a surfeit of the "Gadzooks, Madam, but I'll slit the scoundrel's gizzard" type of thing. I know this is a contentious area but I personally believe Daphne du Maurier ruined various of her books in this way. Patrick O'Brien, on the other hand, got it just right, I feel.

Letemendia deals with this problem largely by ignoring it and using more or less modern dialogue throughout. After the first few pages, this works surprisingly well , but there are times when it goes a little too far. I could not really suspend my disbelief to the extent of accepting that a seventeenth century person would say "I suppose ...". This is not even English, but American. Even today an English person would say "I suppose so"; only an American would say "I suppose", or "I guess". Back then they probably said something like "perchance", or "very like" in much the same way that in Yorkshire even today they say "happen", or rather " 'appen".

However, this is a minor quibble. This is a very well crafted story which rattles along at a fine pace and is set against what seems to be a very accurate historical background. I know this period pretty well as I studied it for A-level, and I did not spot a single real blunder.

"The Best of Men" is published by Random House under ISBN 978-0-224-08937-1

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