My publishers and readers sometimes have difficulty in describing my writing genre. Even I do myself on occasion. But in so far as all my books to date contain crimes, have twists and turns and have action that took place fifty or more years ago, I will happilysettle for the category of ‘Historical Thrillers’. Usually, the narrative takes place against the background of major events, and the presence of real figures from the time helps anchor the period for the reader and can add authenticity to the story. Despite that, though my first book was entitled Mussolini’s Chest the man doesn’t appear in it!
However, my second novel, Unwritten Rules, includes the Profumo Scandal and I wanted Profumo himself to have a minor role. I was initially troubled by the phrase that appears on the frontispiece of the novel, “This work is entirely fictitious and bears no resemblance to any person living or dead”. But, when I thought about it, real people crop up in historical fiction all the time and always have done. I remembered reading Jill Dawson’s novel, The Crime Writer, in which the central character is Patricia Highsmith, the great crime novelist. The book also features the now 100-year-old, Ronald Blythe, author of Akenfield. I am reasonably certain that Patricia Highsmith did not do everything her persona does in that book. The reality is, I believe, that for the purposes of a novel the real person in question becomes a fictional version of themselves. So, their dialogue and their actions may never have actually been said or done but, and this is my own view, they will still be in tune with the actual character and personality of the true person. More of that later.
Reflecting on Jill Dawson’s novel, I wondered how common it is for real people to figure in mystery novels. Of course, there are the Jane Austen Mysteries by Stephanie Barron but in checking these I have found at least three other authors who have written mystery novels with Jane Austen in the title. It’s a wonder Jane Austen found the time to write her novels! I soon realised I was merely scratching the surface of the material available. I mentioned to Lizzie Sirett that I would like to write an article on the subject, and she told me she had already produced a list of sixty novelists who had written mystery novels with a real person portrayed either as a character or the central figure of the detective who solves the mystery. She sent it to me and what a cornucopia of surrealism it is. My thanks to Lizzie for saving me a lot of groundwork.
Among the many real people who have been portrayed as detectives in novels are: Alexander the Great, Leonardo da Vinci, Nicolo Machiavelli, Dr Samuel Johnson, Benjamin Franklin, Canaletto, Edgar Alan Poe, Oscar Wilde, Enrico Caruso, Eleanor Roosevelt, Groucho Marx, Elvis Presley and several members of the British royal family, including a dabble by the late Queen Elizabeth II. Some of these are more likely to have been investigated by the police rather than actually doing the detective work, I feel. Of course, the list also contains others who would be more obvious candidates for detective work like Arthur Conan Doyle, Wilkie Collins and Ian Fleming. It will come as no surprise to learn that the range of real people who have featured in mystery novels in one role or another could fill several volumes of Who’s Who.
Clearly, having a real person as one’s sleuth has the advantage that the author has a ready-to-go character with a back story and their own personality. For example, Elliot Roosevelt, who wrote novels in which his mother, Eleanor, was the sleuth, obviously had an intimate knowledge of her character though this may present a problem in that the punctilious writer might find themselves constantly thinking, “She wouldn’t have said that” or “he couldn’t possibly have done it”. Indeed, it is surely important that the reader finds the depiction of the ‘real person’ in the book compatible with the qualities of the true-life version. One cannot imagine the frail Edgar Alan Poe tackling a thug or Alexander the Great bothering to play good cop/bad cop when he has an empire to run and cities to sack. One way round this problem of character incompatibility was chosen by Steve Allen, the American comedian, who wrote a series of detective novels in which he himself was the detective. Who better to judge what the real person could be capable of if given free rein in a novel as a fictitious version of themselves than the writer? The mind boggles at the possibilities if novelists indulged their own egos by creating fictitious super-versions of themselves to live out their fantasies; autobiographies do enough of that already.
Using real people as characters in the book, other than as the main figure, is useful in adding authenticity to the narrative and making it seem almost partly ‘based on a true story’, one of the hooks used in marketing novels. When we do so I think we owe it to our ‘free’ character to try to keep the person, if not their actual role in the story, as true to themselves as possible. One could hardly portray Ernest Shackleton or Horatio Nelson as cowards, the young Florence Nightingale or Albert Schweitzer as idle or Mae West or Frank Harris as prudish. Personally, I have never considered using a real person as the main protagonist in a novel because of the limitations that a true portrait of the person might impose. I prefer them to be rather lower down the cast list, though I have noticed with each novel I write the real persons get a bigger billing. In my next to be published book, Follow the Master, John Maynard Keynes is very prominent and other members of the Bloomsbury Group have more than a walk on part too. However, I am taking a break from real people: the current novel I am writing contains none at all, at least not under their real name.
Graham Donnelly was born and grew up in London. His varied professional background includes government service, international banking and lecturing in Economics and Management. His first five books were written in the 1980s and 90s and related to his academic work. His first novel, Mussolini's Chest, arose out of his interest in modern history and how ordinary people react to extraordinary situations and is based on true events. His second novel, Unwritten Rules, draws on his own experience in the Home Office and his knowledge of the state security issues at that time. He lives with his wife near Colchester and has two children and three grandchildren.