Books: Pure by Andrew Miller, Crucible Of Secrets by Shona MacLean, Sacrilege by SJ Parris

Thomas Quinn Feb 24, 2012

"Historical settings have never been as popular in fiction as they are now... Andrew Miller's Pure is a treat, an historical novel that is a 21st century smack in the eye"


Pure (Sceptre, £8.99) by Andrew Miller

Crucible Of Secrets (Quercus, £12.99) by Shona MacLean

Sacrilege (HarperCollins, £9.99) by SJ Parris, out in paperback on April 26 

I have a romantic view that reading should be about personal discovery and not daytime television hosts telling me what paperbacks to buy. Still, there are times when even a literary award throws up a title I’m eager to read.

Indeed, I couldn’t really understand why I had not heard Andrew Miller’s Costa Award-winning Pure calling my name out in a bookshop: read me, read me. Then I remembered there are no bookshops any more (barely) and started to worry that my Amazon algorithm might need updating.

Pure is a treat: an historical novel that somehow manages not to be a pastiche at all but is instead a highly intelligent 21st century smack in the eye. Set in 1785, in Paris, it tells the story of an idealistic young engineer, Jean-Baptiste Baratte, who is charged with the task of emptying out Les Innocents cemetery, which by this point in time is so stuffed full of human remains it is literally overflowing into the neighbours’ houses and the whole neighbourhood stinks of decay.

Of course, tearing up a cemetery is the kind of subject which should come with a big flashing red Metaphor Alert. Miller is asking whether we should sweep away the past in the name of progress, as well as confronting set ideas about what makes us human in the first place.

But don’t worry about the message. Miller relishes the kind of earthy detail TV costume dramas routinely gloss over. His pre-revolutionary France isn’t populated by bewigged puppets, but by men and women just like us, who feel hunger, lust and fear while being motivated by money and superstition. His Paris is packed with fops, fools and bawdy saloons. Another reason why I enjoyed it so much is that his prose is a damn sight more readable than, ahem, Hilary Mantel’s. (Yes, for all its genius and sales, I found Wolf Hall a tough read.)

Historical settings have never been as popular in fiction as they are now. Indeed, history has never been as popular (reflecting current anxieties, perhaps). Just what would Queen Elizabeth I have done about the euro? There are almost as many Oxbridge dons on our TV talking Greek pots as there are Essex beauticians getting spray tans.

One rather delicious trend is mixing history with crime. If the Middle Ages ring your bell you can dip into Ellis Peters’ Cadfael books or Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose. A more recent bestseller has been CJ Sansom’s series about the hunchback lawyer Shardlake – including Heartstone (2010) – which brilliantly evokes Henry VIII’s Tudor England as a sort of gangster court.

In a blatant if-you-like-those-you’ll-like-these-link, check out Shona MacLean’s Crucible of Secrets, a detailed fictional rendering of Aberdeen (of all places) in the 1630s (of all decades) with learned sleuth, Alexander Seaton. 

MacLean is a terrific storyteller – as is SJ Parris. (What is it with these initials?) Sacrilege, the third book in her series of Elizabethan thrillers featuring Giordano Bruno, an ex-monk turned secret agent and magician, comes out in April. Parris writes densely plotted and highly enjoyable narratives. 

And another thing…

February marks the bicentenary of Charles Dickens’ birth. His influence is everywhere: from JK Rowling’s Harry Potter to John Irving’s Garp and Tom Wolfe’s New York. So give an urchin a tanner and roast a goose in his honour, why don’t you?