Down these Mean Streets the Historian Must Go

Go to a dinner party with unknown academics and you might well come away with the idea that for diversion they read Dostoevsky and Kafka, sparing the occasional sneering glance for the annual recipient of the Booker Prize. When you get to know them better, you are as likely to discover that they really devour thrillers on a massive scale.

I know colleagues in this country, in America and in Europe who easily admit to reading around a hundred every year. Robin Winks from Yale University ended up reading so many that a major American magazine gave him his own column devoted exclusively to thrillers. Until recently, I had never wondered seriously why historians, as opposed to English dons or bank managers, should be so especially hooked on what the French call Serie noire. After all, it seemed unremarkable that after a day teaching the lower sixth about the Thirty Years War or lecturing on German Unification, that a historian might look forward to an uncomplicated evening with Ed McBain. Escapism as an explanation, however, cannot be confined to historians.

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