Thursday 16 June 2016

Guest post: Making Sense of the Past by Martin Lee

It is my pleasure to welcome historical novelist Martin Lee to my blog.

Martin Lee has spent most of his adult life writing in one form or another. As a University researcher in history, he wrote pages of notes on reams of obscure topics. As a social worker with Vietnamese refugees, he wrote memoranda. And, as the creative director of an advertising agency, he has written print and press ads, TV commercials, short films and innumerable backs of cornflakes packets and hotel websites.

Now he's written a guest post for my blog!


This is the first line of L P Hartley’s great novel, ‘The Go-Between’, made into a wonderful film by Joseph Losey in 1971.

It strikes me that, as writers of historical fiction, one of our jobs is to bring this ‘foreign country’ to life, and make the things they do ‘differently’ comprehensible to modern readers.

Personally, I write historical crime fiction and there’s a whole host of things I can’t do in my books on Shanghai in the 1920s and Pepys’ Restoration that more modern authors are allowed.

For example, I can’t simply call up DNA evidence to prove the presence of a criminal at a scene. In Death in Shanghai, I do have a pathologist, Dr Fang, who performs medical examinations but his guiding book was written during the twelfth century in China. It’s called ‘The Righting of Wrongs’ and was the world’s first book for medical examiners.

I also can’t pick up a mobile phone to call somebody. Everything takes far more time, and a copper looking for help has to blow his whistle or look for the nearest police box (and no, he won’t find Dr Who there!)

I can’t even use luminol to detect blood at a crime scene. You know, the stuff the CSI guys spray prodigiously on walls in the dark. The chemical wasn’t discovered until 1927 and its use at crime scenes not introduced until 1939.

So the historical crime writer has to create an old world to modern readers weaned on the fast fix of one hour TV programmes. A world where an investigator uses his mind to solve problems rather than science. Where poison, knives or a revolver are used as weapons rather than an AK47. And where human motivation for a crime is far more important than the scientific detail of the crime itself.

The latest book I have written, The Irish Inheritance, had a whole different set of problems.

How can a modern day investigator reveal the truth of the past?

And in this case, how can she discover who is the father of a young boy when he is listed as being killed in the Great War, eight years before the boy was born?

In this novel, there is no crime to be solved, but there is a story to be uncovered, a truth to be found. Here, the skills of genealogical and historical research come in. Parish registers, lists of war dead, interviews with veterans, meetings with relatives, old books and old pictures, all can be brought to life to reveal the truth.

Like all historical writing, it’s a foreign country waiting to be discovered. And it’s different there.

Our job is to make it comprehensible and believable, so that readers immerse themselves in the period.

Whether it’s the wars of Anglo-Saxon England. A murder in Art- Deco Shanghai. The theft of a diary in Restoration England. Or finding the real father of a young boy.

It’s one of the beauties of writing historical novels. There are thousands of foreign countries to be discovered in the past.

And our job is to make them our own country.


When he’s not writing, Martin Lee splits his time between the UK and Asia, taking pleasure in playing with his daughter, researching his family history, practicing downhill ironing, single-handedly solving the problem of the French wine lake and wishing he were George Clooney.

He can be found at, on twitter @writermjlee and Facebook as, you guessed it, writermjlee.

All his books can be found on Amazon. His latest release, a genealogical mystery called The Irish Inheritance, is launched on June 15th.

Buy it here:


  1. After reading "Death in Shanghai" I am looking very much forward to this new book. Thanks for sharing :-)

  2. I hope you enjoy it, Christoph, thanks for the guest post.