Monday, August 13, 2012

From the Annals of Awesome Historical Research

In other blog posts I have gone on at (too great) length about issues of historical accuracy. I do my best, and feel like the setting of my books is one of my book’s strengths, but I recently found en example of research that boggled my mind.
For those of you who don’t know him, Steve Hamilton has written a number of memorable mysteries, including a series about a former cop Alex McKnight, and The Lock Artist, a stand-alone novel that won the 2010 Edgar Award for Best Mystery. After reading The Lock Artist, I dove into his earlier novels, starting with A Cold Day in Paradise. (The McKnight series is set in the town of Paradise on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.)
In Hamilton’s third book, 2001’s The Hunting Wind, McKnight is visited by an old friend with whom he played minor league baseball. Unlike McKnight, Wilkins was called up to the big leagues and pitched briefly for the Detroit Tigers. Here is where things got interesting, at least for me. Wilkins tells McKnight about his trip to The Show:
In 1971, when I went up to Detroit, there were a few of us who got called up together. You remember Marvin Lane, the outfielder, and Chuck Seelbach, the other pitcher? A couple guys from double-A, too.
 Do the names Lane and Seelbach ring any bells? Probably not, and if you’re like me, you assumed that Hamilton invented them. I mean he invented the rest of his characters, right? I mean why not make up names? They aren't actually characters, and who in their right minds would research the names of people who don't even appear in the novel?
I don’t actually know the answer to that last question, but in a tremendously strange coincidence, I do know Chuck Seelbach. After getting off to a great start as a pitcher, Chuck hurt his shoulder, and we now teach history at the same school (University School outside Cleveland, OH). 
This sort of attention to detail raised a variety of questions that I am still trying to figure out. First, given the long odds that anyone would recognize Lane’s and Seelbach’s names, why in the world would Hamilton go to the trouble of digging them up? In this, Hamilton seems to have two possible constituencies. The first of these is his readers, but the number of people who would recognize the names has to be vanishingly small. (I suppose it is possible that Tigers fans might be a bit more in tune with pre-Watergate roster moves, but there can’t be many of them who know that Marvin Lane isn’t a street in Ypsilanti.) 
Then there are the people (not many, I hope) who read that passage and then ran for their copy of Baseball Reference to see if these people existed. (Looks like they may not have had to go as far as I'd thought. I just checked, and the online version of Baseball Reference has been around since 2000. I find that kind of amazing.) In any event, I have to think that the number of people who a) recognized the players; or b) did not recognize the players, but cared enough to look them up is extremely small.
So we are back to the question, why did Hamilton bother? If it’s not for the readers, who is this detail for? The answer, I think, is that he did it for himself. He wanted to get every possible detail right, so he did the necessary legwork.
And that’s kind of cool.          


  1. Sam, you're pretty much on the money. I did it for myself, because why not get it right? But also, I did it for diehard Tigers fans who'd recognize a couple of old names. (It only takes a quick glance at the 1971 expanded roster...)

    Anyway, thanks for the good words!

    Steve Hamilton

  2. nice post! I appreciate this type of attention to detail, ESPECIALLY when done naturally.