From The Da Vinci Code to Shiva trilogy: Why historical mysteries form great backdrops for bestselling thrillers
Some of the most successful books across the world have been contemporary thrillers with a historical underpinning.
Fiction is more relatable when there is a ring of reality to it.
There is a desire to reclaim our heritage, to reinterpret the powerful symbolism of our myths and to look for role models among the heroes and heroines of legends.
This desire to find identity and anchor through connecting with our past is playing itself out in the global arena too.
Step into the crime or thriller section of a bookstore, and you can be forgiven for thinking that you have chanced upon a somewhat colorful version of the history section. Starting with Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, which was released in 2003, some of the most successful books across the world have been contemporary thrillers with a historical underpinning. India is no exception to this trend, with books such as those from Ashwin Sanghi’s Bharat series and Vineet Bajpai’s Harappa series routinely topping the bestseller charts.
At one level, this is not surprising. The feature common to most thrillers is, to quote James Patterson, the world’s most popular thriller writer, “the intensity of emotions they create”. With history having the power to inspire, kindle, arouse and even inflame, it is not surprising that thriller writers have looked to it as fodder for their stories. This is even more so for a country like India where history is intertwined with the present, with thousand-year-old temples are still thronged by devotees for daily prayers and where the release of a movie based on historical characters still inflames passions.
But is that all there is to it – history as a convenient, plug-and-play backdrop? Or is there something deeper going on?
To understand that, it might make sense to dwell on the genesis of the modern thriller.
Stories such as the Odyssey and our own Mahabharata are probably precursors to the modern thriller, with their stories involving danger, intrigue, war and a complex plot with numerous twists and turns. More recently, nineteenth-century works of authors such as Edgar Allan Poe and Alexandre Dumas have many elements in common with modern thrillers. The early twentieth century, with the likes of Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers, was the era of the ‘Whodunit’, with the reader following a detective setting out to solve a crime, often a murder.
The thriller as we know it today, with its grand plot, multiple threads and high stakes, probably came into its own towards the middle of the twentieth century, as we moved from detectives with magnifying glasses to the grand theatre of the cold war. Those were the days when John le Carrée, Len Deighton, Ian Fleming and Frederick Forsyth ruled the charts, when thrillers were populated with geopolitical conspiracies, double-crossing spies, morally ambiguous characters and the threat of a world war looming at every step like the sword of Damocles.
The collapse of the Soviet Union in the late-1980s almost signaled an existential crisis for the spy novel. Various thriller sub-genres flourished in the vacuum that was created, including legal, medical and psychological thrillers. Somewhere in that chaotic world, historical mysteries have carved out a large space for themselves. Dan Brown’s success has been followed by other popular novelists from this genre, including Steve Berry, Matthew Riley and James Rollins, who are regulars on the bestseller lists.
Fiction is more relatable when there is a ring of reality to it, and historical mysteries, starting as they do from a concrete point of historical reference, provide an underpinning of authenticity which a synthetic plot cannot. A well-written thriller would obviously be well-researched, but would reveal just enough fact and detail to provide that base of truth, without tipping into the zone of descriptive non-fiction. And it is gaps or inconsistencies in the historical narrative which provide the window of opportunity for mystery and intrigue which make this genre so appealing to readers.
In the Indian context, there are larger trends too which are at play. Looking around, it is hard to miss the resurgence of interest in our heritage. Food product advertisements touting ancient recipes, spiritual gurus expounding on YouTube and Instagram, a spurt in yoga and meditation classes, and so on. This trend has progressively gained momentum, revealing a nation eager to connect with its roots and reinterpret its heritage in a modern context.
This trend itself has its genesis in history. While India has always had a strong oral tradition of passing on stories from generation to generation, colonial rule disrupted traditional channels of preserving societal memory. Local legends and culture were evaluated, often harshly, under the cold glare of the Western paradigm, and English emerged as the preferred language, displacing native languages. While this infused freshness and a certain measure of objectivity into the understanding of our history, there was the danger of throwing out the baby with the bath water.
And so, seven decades after independence, with the coming of age of a generation unburdened by the colonial hangover, there is a desire to reclaim our heritage, to reinterpret the powerful symbolism of our myths and to look for role models among the heroes and heroines of legends. The fascination for a radical, fictionalised re-telling of history also signals a desire to move away from the narrow, dry, academic narratives of textbooks to the more relatable, vibrant medium of a mass-appeal story.
Fortunately for Indian authors and screenwriters, we have a rich storehouse of material in our history and mythology to tap into for inspiration, starting from the Indus Valley Civilisation right up to the freedom struggle. For instance, as I was working on my book, I found it intriguing to create the backdrop of a dark secret from the days of the freedom struggle to craft a contemporary thriller. When I discussed the book with my publisher TreeShade Books, the metaphor that jumped up at us was the powerful imagery of KaalKoot, the primordial poison that had the power to engulf all of creation, and that eventually became the title of my book.
Our myths and legends play out human emotions and predicaments against a giant canvas, and successful books are replete with such imagery – such as the arresting portrayal of the all-encompassing great deluge in Vineet Bajpai’s Pralay and the vivid hues of Shiva’s personality that held an entire generation in thrall in Amish’s Shiva trilogy.
This desire to find identity and anchor through connecting with our past is playing itself out in the global arena too. The era of the Cold War was also the era of a bipolar, well-defined world. The end of that era paved the way for a more ambiguous and complex world, where it is unclear whether the biggest threat will come from guerrilla groups, rogue regimes or robots with artificial intelligence. Cities too are melting pots, no longer definable in traditional terms of ethnicity or language. Our smartphones seem to know us better than our closest friends, and social media likes are often our closest brush with reality.
In this chaos, we seek direction and anchor, authenticity and earthiness, and what better place to look for it than in our past. In the drama of yesteryears, we seek almost seek reassurance about the timelessness of human emotions. As technology fundamentally reshapes human interaction, we yearn for the past – not just for the sake of nostalgia, but to discover new meanings in it and to relive it through the emotions that it kindles. And maybe, to heed its lessons.
S Venkatesh is the author of the bestselling Kaalkoot: The Lost Himalayan Secret. He previously headed India equity research at JP Morgan.
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