Pet peeve: fictional details in non-fiction

I just finished reading In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, by Erik Larson. The book, about an American family in Germany during Hitler’s rise to power, is a ripping read, like Larson’s Devil in the White City, Thunderstruck and Isaac’s Storm before it. In case you aren’t familiar, Larson’s forte is what I think of as “historical non-fiction”—books that are based on well-researched historical periods or events, but that have been narratively gussied up to read like a novel.

There’s a conceit to the genre that can drive me crazy. In their zeal to set a scene, authors of historical non-fiction will add atmospheric details that they almost certainly have made up or have conflated from historical accounts. When the story is gripping enough and is well-told, as Larson’s usually are, these quasi-fictional details don’t get in the way too much. But the following passage, discussing a car trip through the German countryside shared by two of the main figures in the story, stopped me cold:

“They drove through a bucolic landscape softened by heat haze that rose from the fields and forests around them. Riders on bicycles overtook and passed them, some carrying small children in baskets over the front fenders or in wagons pulled alongside.”

OK, the “heat haze,” part is bad enough. Is that detail really mentioned in primary source material? Perhaps, but I doubt it. But what the hell is with these bicyclists, carrying or towing children but riding fast enough to pass a motorcar? Please.

Larson is more restrained with these embellishments than most, which I guess is why this goof stuck out. As the title of the post says, this is just a pet peeve. Overall, I recommend the book.