Monday, February 1, 2010

The History of Mystery

Murders have been committed since the beginning of human relationships. That’s arguably because the most common motives for murder (e.g. fear, gain, revenge, love and sex) have always been a part of human interactions. That’s one reason that it can be so interesting to read about murders that have been committed in the past. It’s also arguably why historical mysteries have such a following among mystery lovers. Not only do readers get to learn about a different time and place, but they also are reminded that some aspects of human nature seem universal.

One challenge that historical fictional sleuths face is that they don’t have access to modern forensic techniques. So these sleuths have to use other means to solve mysteries. Some of them use specialized knowledge. Others use their positions of power. Still others have other skills or knowledge that they use to solve mysteries. For example, Lynda S. Robinson’s Lord Meren is chief investigator and councilor to Pharaoh Tutankhamun. In fact he is “The Eyes and Ears of Pharaoh.” He’s not able to use modern technology, but he does use keen observation and he’s got the implicit trust of the Pharaoh. That gives him access to the highest circles. With the frequent help of his adopted son Kyson, Lord Meren uses his knowledge of human nature and his understanding of palace intrigue to solve murders.

Lindsey Davis’ Marcus Didius Falco is also an investigator. He’s a Roman, living in the time of Vespasian. Falco is a former member of the Roman army who was born a plebian. However, he’s married a patrician wife, and after solving several cases successfully, he’s now considered more respectable. Falco isn’t a high-ranking court official or a member of the Roman Senate. But he is well-connected and he manages to hear all of the political gossip. That, as well as military training and his investigative skills, helps him solve cases.

Another example of a sleuth who uses what he learns about intrigue is Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael. Cadfael is a 12th Century Welsh Benedictine monk who lives in Shrewsbury Abbey. He’s a former soldier – a veteran of the Crusades, so he has somewhat more of a “checkered past,” than other monks. Cadfael doesn’t have access to modern medicine, forensics or a modern system of law enforcement. However, he’s an herbalist who knows quite a bit about folk medicine. He’s often able to use that knowledge to help him find out the truth behind a mystery. He’s also got solid diplomatic knowledge, which helps him negotiate the often-treacherous political landscape of the England of his time. He doesn’t get involved himself in the political intrigue going on around him, but he’s well aware of it, and frequently uses that information as well as his medical and herbal knowledge.

Peter Tremayne’s Sister Fidelma also doesn’t have the advantage of modern detection techniques, medicine or forensics. Sister Fidelma is a 7th Century Irish lawyer and nun, who often solves her cases with the help of her partner and later, husband, Brother Eadulf, a Saxon clergyman. Although Sister Fidelma doesn’t have access to modern technology, science and medicine, she does have several assets. One of them is her noble birth. At the time the novels take place, royal birth gives one several advantages, and Sister Fidelma has them. She was born a princess of Munster, and that noble birth gave her access to an education, which would have been impossible for a woman of “lesser” birth. That education has led to Sister Fidelma’s legal knowledge. She’s a dailegh, or Irish lawyer, so she has an intricate knowledge of the legal system of her time. She’s also well-enough connected so that she’s fully aware of “palace politics.”

Some historical mysteries feature actual historical figures as sleuths. What’s interesting about these sleuths is that in some sense, we feel we know them already. That allows the reader to identify with the sleuth. For example, Stephanie Barron’s Jane Austen features the author as an amateur sleuth in the Regency England in which she lived. In these novels, we follow Jane as she writes her novells, has them published and moves through her life. So not only does the reader get the chance to figure out the solution to a crime, but also to learn more about the real Jane Austen.

Susan Wittig Albert has created the Beatrix Potter Cottage Tales mysteries. These stories take place in Edwardian and wartime England, when Beatrix Potter lived. The stories follow her adventures as she moves from London to the country, and interacts with the people that she meets. Wittig makes this series unique by creating characters much as Potter did. There are both human and animal characters, just as there are in Potter’s own work. While this series is often labeled “young adult,” it’s also come to be very appealing to adult readers who enjoy English cozies.

Another fascinating mystery series that features an actual historical figure is Elliott Roosevelt’s Eleanor Roosevelt mystery series. As the sleuth’s name suggests, those novels take place during the Great Depression and World War II. Since the sleuth in this series is the First Lady, the mysteries typically center around murders that take place in the political circles of Washington. In the series, Eleanor Roosevelt is especially concerned that her husband’s presidency remain stable, and that his safety be assured. That’s frequently what motivates her to solve crimes. She’s anxious that nothing damaging to her husband’s presidency should get into the press, so she does all that she can, including amateur sleuthing, to protect the presidency. What’s particularly interesting about this series is that the author was Eleanor Roosevelt’s son.

One of the most fascinating examples of historical sleuths is Browser, the Anasazi War Chief created by Kathleen O’Neal Gear and W. Michael Gear. He and his friend and deputy, Catkin, solve the mysteries of several unexplained deaths in this series which is partly set in the 13th Century. At the same time, the same remains are studied by modern-day archeologist William “Dusty” Stewart and anthropologist Dr. Maureen Cole. It’s that juxtaposition of timelines that makes this series unique.

Historical sleuths are fascinating just because they can’t always use a modern legal system, up-to-date technology or forensics to solve cases. They have to use their own special skills, backgrounds or connections. A well-written historical mystery, too, goes much further than just describing the murder, the investigation and the solution. We also learn a great deal about the period of time during which the sleuth investigates. In fact, they're so interesting that Agatha Christie set one of her mysteries, Death Comes as the End, in Ancient Egypt, in the house of ka-priest Imhotep. In that novel, Imhotep's household erupts into chaos when he introduces his new concubine, Nofret, into his household. Jealousy, fear and greed reign when he announces that he's going to disown the rest of his family and that Nofret will inherit his weath. When Nofret is found dead, Imhotep's daughter, Renisenb, has to find out who committed the murder, before she herself becomes a victim.

What’s your view? Do you enjoy historical mysteries? If you do, which are your favorites? Or do you think historical mysteries are too overburdened by historical detail?


  1. I really enjoy Tasha Alexander's Lady Emily series. I find the writing witty and well-paced, the research thorough but not hit-you-over-the-head with knowledge, and the mystery well-placed in history.

    I also love learning about history, so reading historical fiction is fascinating to me. Another series I love is The Alienist and the following book (can't remember the title) by Caleb Carr. Talk about brilliantly written!

    I have toyed with writing one, but we shall see...I am such a perfectionist I am almost afraid to try.


  2. Michele,
    I agree - I like the Caleb Carr books, too, so I'm glad that you brought them up. They really are quite well-written, aren't they? Did you mean Angel of Darkness, by the way? If you did, I agree; it was a very well-done book.

    It's funny, when you mentioned Tasha Alexander's Lady Emily series, that reminded me of Deanna Raybourn's Lady Julia series. The two protagonists are different, and have different outlooks, but since both series take place in the Victorian Era, they're often associated in my mind.

    I haven't tried my hand at historical mysteries. I'm a perfectionist, too, and I would want to get all the details just right. That doesn't make for relaxed writing : ). I give you credit for toying with the idea.

  3. I love history and the historical mysteries I love best are usually the archaeological ones. I was sad to learn that in September, Lyn Hamilton passed away - far too young. She was author of the eleven Lara McClintoch Archaeological Mysteries. Top-notch series. Thanks for this, Margot!

  4. Bobbi - Thanks for the reminder of Lyn Hamilton/Lara McClintoch. I confess, I haven't read that series, but there was so much wonderful praise for it that I feel I should have. Time to put it on my TBR list!! I agree with you that archeological mysteries are really engrossing. That's what I like about the Gears' series. They get involved in that archelogical/anthropological aspect.

  5. I like the historicals, too. The Daisy Dalrymple series is also fun. I've got the Beatrix Potter series on my TBR list.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  6. Generally I prefer that historical crime stories do not go too far back in time. 19th + 20th centuries.

    With one important exception: I am reading Hamlet with my students right now, and I really enjoy this ´murder most foul´

    My students asked, ´did Claudius really kill him by pouring poison into his ear?´ They are quite impressed by Claudius´ method, and as modern young readers they enjoy that there are ghosts in it :D

  7. Elizabeth - You're not alone. A lot of people have really taken to the Beatrix Potter series, even though originally, it was thought of as a YA series.

    Dorte - Hamlet is definitely an excellent play, isn't it? Claudius certainly does use an original way of committing murder, and of course, the characters are so memorable. The ghosts are a "draw," too :). It's funny you mention that your general preference for historical mysteries is for more recent eras. I'm a history buff, so I like some of the mysteries that are set in the distant past quite a lot; for instance, I like the Cadfael series very much. However, I think I identify much more easily with historical mysteries that are set in the more recent past.

  8. As a historian I love historical mysteries. I too enjoy the Cadfael mysteries but I also like more recent mysteries. I just read a new novel about a real mass murder in the Old West called Deep Creek by Dana Hand. I recommend it.

  9. Barbara - Thanks for mentioning Deep Creek. Folks, Barbara's fine review of the book is here. It's interesting how somewhat recent historical books can really hold our attention, isn't it? Sometimes they're even more compelling than mysteries with an older or ancient setting. Possibly that's because it's easier to identify with more recent characters.

  10. Since I'm writing a historical mystery (with plans to write at least 3 more) I hope the popularity of this genre continues!

    As a reader, I like to get the reality of the era in question without feeling I'm at a history lecture. For instance, in the period and locale I'm placing my mystery, telephones were rare. There's only one phone in the entire 'upstairs' part of the country house. Quite normal. Telephones in the country were viewed as 'emergency only'; normal communication between the country and London were conducted by telegram.

    If international current events play into the plot, then tell me. But don't tell me so you can impress me with the prodigious amount of research you've completed.

    Edward Marston has written a fun mystery series that centers on a group of Elizabethan actors. I recommend them for a light read but with wonderful pictures into life at that time.

  11. Elspeth - I was hoping you'd share your thoughts, since this is your subgenre : ). I agree with you, too, that it's important that an historical mystery have an authentic sense of time and place. As you say, if, at the time the novel takes place, telephones were rare, then there shouldn't be many telephones. On the other hand, you're right; there's always a risk of overburdening the reader with information about a particular era in an historical mystery. So it's just as important that the author keep the focus on the mystery at hand. Finally, thanks for the tip about the Marston series : ).

  12. I don't often read historical mysteries though in a fit of pre-internet madness I once bought the first 20 or so of the Lindsay Davis books on the basis of having enjoyed the first, then had to plough through them all. I went off them half way through but persevered till the end! (Have not read any more since, though). I did once read a Brother Cadfael and thought it OK but not enough to seek out more, and of course I read The Name of the Rose but thought it too long and pretentious (ducks!) for the content. (I suspect I read more murder stories than this particular author. Literary authors seem to think they are being frightfully original and clever when they write crime, but usually they are treading well-read ground!).

    Prof P has just read and enjoyed Mistress of the Art of Death by Arianna Franklin, which is a compliment indeed as he ususally reads dense historical fact books.

  13. Maxine - Historical mysteries are definitely not for everyone. On one hand, of course, a corking good mystery is a corking good mystery, no matter when the story takes place. But I've heard lots of other people tell me (and write me) that they're just not interested in historical mysteries. So I'm not surprised that you're not as sanguine about this subgenre as about others.

    You make a very interesting point, too, about crossing genres between other kinds of literature and crime fiction. Crime fiction really does have its own history, parameters, etc., so when authors in other genres write crime fiction, it's most effective if they're familiar with the way the genre works.

    I'd actually heard that Mistress... was a good raed, so I'll have to put that one on my TBR list. Thanks (and thanks to Prof. P, too : ) ).