Thursday, November 4, 2010

Don't Know Much About History*

One of the interesting things about crime fiction murders is how often they have their roots in the past. I’m not talking here about the characters’ pasts (although that, too, is fascinating!), but of our collective past. Sometimes, history plays a very important role in a modern-day murder, and some well-written crime fiction also includes interesting history. As with many other things about crime fiction, this requires a delicate balance. Not enough history and the plot may not make as much sense or be as rich. Too much and the history weighs the plot down and takes away from it. Still, when it’s done well, a bit of history in a crime fiction novel can add to the story.

In today’s world, we think of the Victorian era of Arthur Conan Doyle as history, and of course, it is. But to Conan Doyle, that era was present-day, and it’s interesting to see how the mysteries he wrote are sometimes connected to the more distant past. For instance, in The Musgrave Ritual, Sherlock Holmes tells Watson of one of his very early cases. A college friend, Reginald Musgrave, asked Holmes' help in explaining some very strange occurrences at his home of Hurlstone. He’d caught his butler, Brunton, looking through family papers and especially interested in one paper that outlines an old Musgrave family ritual, a seemingly meaningless series of questions and answers. Shortly afterwards, Brunton and one of the maids, Rachel Howells, disappeared. Nothing was stolen, though, and Reginald Musgrave wanted Holmes’ help in untangling the mystery. According to what Holmes tells Watson, he traveled to Hurlstone with Musgrave and was able to use the old ritual questions and answers to find a surprising connection between the Musgrave mystery and the English Civil War. One of Reginald Musgrave’s ancestors, Sir Ralph Musgrave, had been a noted cavalier, and his connection to the history of the war is the key to this mystery. While the story isn’t inundated with information about the English Civil War, there is interesting information about it that relates to the story that Holmes tells Watson.

We see the history connection in Agatha Christie’s Postern of Fate, too. In that novel, Tommy and Tuppence Beresford have decided to retire to the village of Hollowquay. Soon after their arrival at their new home, Tuppence finds a cryptic message in one of the books left behind by a previous owner. The message refers to the death of Mary Jordan, a half-German nurse who lived in the village during World War I. At the time, it was believed that she’d died from accidental poisoning when the wrong greens were mistakenly picked and served at a meal. After all, other people who shared that meal were also made sick. But the message says that Mary Jordan did not die naturally. So Tuppence begins to wonder whether there’s any truth to the accusation. She and Tommy, each in a different way, begin to investigate the history of Hollowquay and the people who lived there. What they find is an important connection to World War I espionage, and a group of German spies who operated in the area. A thread of history runs through this novel and ties past and present events together.

Colin Dexter’s The Riddle of the Third Mile also includes some interesting history. The novel begins with a tragic incident during the El Alamein campaign of World War II. Years later, Albert “Bert” Gilbert, who was involved in the incident, has cause to remember it when he comes across the name of Dr. Oliver Browne-Smith, who was also involved. Gilbert now works for a moving company that’s engaged to do a job in Browne-Smith’s department. Shortly afterwards, Browne-Smith disappears. Later, a body wearing his clothes is discovered, and Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis investigate the murder. As they examine Browne-Smith’s past, Morse and Lewis discover his connection to the El Alamein incident, and that piece of World War II history plays a role in the novel. So does the fact that Browne-Smith was Morse’s mentor at Oxford. It’s interesting that both personal history and world history figure into this story.

That’s also the case in Rita Mae Brown’s Murder at Monticello. Archeologist Kimball Haynes is leading a team that’s excavating the ruins of a cottage discovered at Monticello, the Virginia home of U.S. President Thomas Jefferson. Mary Minor “Harry” Haristeen, postmistress of tiny Crozet, Virginia and Brorwn’s sleuth, is invited, along with several other residents, to a gala at Monticello to officially start the excavation. In the course of their work, the dig team unearths the skeleton of a man who died in the newly-discovered cottage. The team is very excited to make this find, especially when the body turns out to be that of a man who died in 1803. Then, Kimball Haynes is shot. Now, Sheriff Rick Shaw and Deputy Cynthia “Coop” Cooper have a modern-day murder to investigate. Harry gets curious about both deaths, all the more so when it seems that a local resident might be a link between them. In this novel, the history of slavery in the U.S. is integrally woven into the modern-day investigation.

We also see the effect of history on the present in Kathleen O’Neal Gear and W. Michael Gear’s Anasazi series. In those novels, archeologist William “Dusty” Stewart works with forensic anthropologist Dr. Maureen Cole to find out the truth behind several sets of ancient remains that are found in the modern-day New Mexico desert. At the same time, in parallel fashion, we learn the story of those ancient deaths from the point of view of War Chief Browser, an Anasazi warrior, and his deputy and friend Catkin. The history of the Anasazi people is woven into this trilogy as the modern-day archeology/anthropology team works to find out what happened to the people whose remains they’ve found.

A few of Deborah Crombie’s novels include some interesting history as well as present-day investigations. For instance, Now May You Weep begins in 1898 Scotland, and tells part of the history of Scottish distilling. At the same time, we follow the story of a holiday that Gemma James takes to Scotland with her close friend Hazel Cavendish. Hazel’s traveling to her family home in the Scottish Highlands, and has persuaded Gemma to join her. Once the two arrive at Innes House, a Guest House run by John and Louise Innes, Gemma slowly becomes aware of just how little she really knows about Hazel. Then, Donald Brodie, a local distiller, is murdered and Hazel is accused of the crime. Gemma’s sure that Hazel isn’t guilty, so she determines to clear her friend’s name. She asks her lover Duncan Kincaid to join her, and together, the two begin to look into Brodie’s murder. What they find is that it’s connected to a long-standing feud between two families. The history of that feud, and of Scottish distilling, is integrated into the plot as the two detectives, and Hazel Cavendish, try to find out what really happened to Donald Brodie.

In Crombie’s In a Dark House, it’s the history of London firefighting and some famous Victorian-era fires that figure into a series of modern-day disappearances and a murder. When a warehouse in London’s Southwark district burns, it looks at first like some sort of terrible accident – until a body is found in the debris. Duncan Kincaid is called in to help investigate. With help from his partner Gemma James, as well as firefighter Rose Kearny, Kincaid slowly connects the body to four mysterious disappearances, to a shelter for battered women, and to the history of London firefighting. Throughout the novel, we learn about some famous London fires and the way they were fought during Victorian times.

And then there’s Jo Nesbø’s The Redbreast. In that novel, police detective Harry Hole works with his partner Ellen Gjelten to track down the source of a new kind of gun that’s being smuggled into Norway. They connect that arms smuggling to a neo-Nazi group that Hole’s been watching, and to World War II collaboration with the Nazis. So parts of this book describe the history of Norway’s involvement in that war, and the activities of those who collaborated with, and who resisted, the Nazis.

There’s also an interesting look at World War II history in Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s My Soul to Take. When Reykjavík attorney Thóra Gudmundsdóttir is hired by Jónas Júlíusson, she is looking forward to a stay in the posh spa and resort he owns. She’s not, however, looking forward to the case he wants her to prosecute: he believes that the land around the spa is haunted, and that the former owners didn’t tell him. So he wants Thóra to help him sue the former owners. As she begins to look into her client’s allegations, Thóra gets more than she bargained for. First, the body of Birna Hálldorsdóttir, an architect staying at the same spa, is discovered. Then, Thóra learns about the activities of some Nazi sympathizers in the area, and how that’s related to the tales of haunting. With help from her lover, Matthew Reich, she’s able to connect that history with the mysterious 1944 disappearance of a little girl, and both pieces of history to Birna’s death.

These are just a few of the many novels that tie in historical information with modern-day murders. That history can be interesting and add much to the story if it’s woven in well. But what’s your view? Do you enjoy that taste of history? Or do you find that it detracts from the modern-day investigation?


*NOTE: The title of this post is the first line from Sam Cooke’s Wonderful World.

20 comments:

  1. This is a terrific topic for discussion. My recent "Hammett and history" post discussed Hammett's invocation of relatively recent Chinese history in one of his early stories.
    ==========================
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
    http://www.detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

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  2. I love it when a modern day mystery is based on something that happened long ago and the author gives us historical background...as long as it's relevant to the plot and doesn't drag on too long.

    What I like even better, though, are well-plotted mysteries that take place in interesting times. I recently read David Fulmer's New Orleans series starting with "Chasing the Devil's Tail" and thought it was excellent. Lots of history there, and none of it was intrusive.

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  3. I always enjoy when an author weaves 'real' history into a fictional story...it gives the book a greater sense of reality.

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  4. Peter - Thanks :-). You're right; that post of yours is terrific, and certainly relevant. Folks, do visit Peter's blog. It's a great resource for all things crime fiction.

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  5. Patricia - Oh, you're right. It can be fascinating if a murder mystery takes place during an interesting time. That's one thing I like about some of the great historical mysteries I've read. And thanks for that suggestion about the New Orleans series, too :-).

    For modern mysteries, I agree with you that the most essential thing is relevance. If the history part is not relevant, it really takes away from the plot.


    Suzanne - You make a good point. When the author does a solid job of integrating history, then yes, the story does have a sense of authenticity. I think that requires that an author do her or his homework, too. If the author is really familiar with the history s/he's discussing that can add a layer of realism to the story.

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  6. "We see the history connection in Agatha Christie’s Postern of Fate, too." (Oh, this is one of my favorite novels! I always look in old used books hoping to find a story or clue that may lead to a mystery or something... I love it when people write notes in their books from 1910 or something...)

    I'm currently watching a Whitechapel season that's about copycat killings based on murders that took place in the 1950s with the Kray Twins. Very interesting look at the past.

    Also, I love the history of the Mormons (although false) portrayed in the Sherlock Holmes novel.

    "Do you enjoy that taste of history?" Yes! I love it. Especially ones that talk about (a) Jack the Ripper (b) Stonehenge (c) any British Royalty or (d) unsolved mysteries.

    Great post.

    CD

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  7. Clarissa - That old-book part of Postern of Fate definitely added to the story, didn't it? And I do the same thing; whenever I get a very old second- or third-hand book, I look for margin or flyleaf notes :-).

    That Whitechapel series does look good; thanks for the mention of it. We can't get it where I live, but it sounds terrific.

    And thanks for the mention of A Study in Scarlet. That certainly does share the history of the Mormons, doesn't it, even if they are not presented in a very positive way.

    It's funny; I'm really interested in Stonehenge and Avebury, too. In an odd way, I'm content not knowing precisely how those places were used, even though my academic's mind wants to know as much as possible. And I have to say, my daughter agrees entirely with you about unsolved mysteries. She's got a few that really fascinate her.

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  8. I blush! Many thanks.

    I have great sympathy with the tension between history and mystery in historical crime fiction. That's why such a nugget as the Hammett passage comes as such a pleasant surprise, such a great reminder that crime fiction can portray the world at least as well as other kinds of writing and better than many.
    ==========================
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
    http://www.detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

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  9. Great post, Margot. The historical dimension of books set in either the present day (eg Kate Ellis' work) or the past (eg Andrew Taylor's) adds an extra layer of fascination, and a good writer will not allow an excess of detail to get in the way of the story.

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  10. Peter - You put that quite well. When it's well-written, crime fiction really can do as well as other genres and better than many at reflecting the world. And that Hammett passage is a good example of that. But as you say, there is a certain amount of tension and definitely a delicate balance between the "history" part and the "mystery" part when a crime novel touches on history. Some authors manage it well.



    Martin - Thanks :-). You're right about Kate Ellis and Andrew Taylor. Both weave history through their novels without overburdening the story. And when there is a well-written touch of history, this can add an interesting layer to a novel. You do that quite well in your Lake District series, too.

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  11. I enjoy it when history is included in a story. It feels like you're going an extra bonus, a great story and learning at the same time. I think that is one of the reason I enjoy Tony Hillerman's stories so much. There is a lot of history there. Great post.

    Mason
    Thoughts in Progress

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  12. Mason - Thanks :-). And you're absolutely right. Not only does some history let the reader learn, but it also adds a layer of interest. Thanks for mentioning Tony Hillerman, too. There's some fascinating history woven into those novels, isn't there?

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  13. I never liked history class. I'd much rather have learned it through fiction. I love learning any new stuff while I'm reading. Of course, one has to trust that the author's facts are accurate.

    Terry
    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

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  14. Terry - Actually, you hit on a point that I often make when I'm doing workshops and presentations. Fiction is a very effective way to teach content. Lots of people are more interested in fiction than in their content classes, and teachers can use fiction to get students vested in the content.

    As you say, though, that depends on the author being accurate. Conscientious authors do their homework...

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  15. Of course I love when history is brought into a present-day case or the sleuth discovers the motive for the present-day crime has its roots in the past! I have to say this of course, since one of my characters has a (shall we say kindly) somewhat obsessive interest in Richard III and his role in the disappearance of the Princes in the Tower.

    Elizabeth George's "A Place of Hiding" deals with how the history of the Occupation still haunts the residents of one of the Channel Islands. I highly recommend it - not the least because the investigators are Simon St. James and his wife instead of Lynley and Havers.

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  16. Elspeth - I like Simon and Deborah St. James very much, so I'm glad you mentioned that book :-).

    The more you mention your novel, the more keen I am to read it :-). I love it when characters have particular interests or obsessions that set them apart and make them unique. It sounds like your character is one of those folks, and that's great :-).

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  17. As we already know our own time so well, I enjoy fiction that takes me back to ´the good old days´ though they weren´t always so good. Old grudges or old secrets offer great opportunities for the crime writer.

    Examples? Half the crime novels I have read, I guess, but I could mention McDermid´s Dead Beat which I reviewed today. Or an old favourite: Minette Walters´ The Ice House.

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  18. Dorte - I think you put that quite well. We know our own time, so it's not perhaps as interesting as older times. Good or not, those old days can be fascinating. And yes, those old crimes, secrets, grudges - all are delicious fodder, aren't they? ;-).

    And thanks for mentioning both Dead Beat and The Ice House They are terrific examples of novels that weave history into the modern-day plot. Folks, do check out Dorte's excellent review of Dead Beat.

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  19. Another great post. There are actually three kinds of such stories- ones like Musgrave Ritual which actually have a historical story woven into them, stories that are set during an interesting (for us historical) period so you learn from the context, and stories set in (for us) interesting places.

    And I love them all. Study in Scarlett is one I would like to add, though Five Orange Pips would qualify too.

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  20. Rayna - Thank you :-). You know, I hadn't thought of it that way - organised into three categories, but that really is true, come to think of it. And I agree; all of them can make for excellent novels. The real key is a plot, characters and mystery that keep the reader engaged.

    I'm also glad you mentioned A Study in Scarlet. I hadn't thought to mention it when I was writing this post, but it certainly does fit. So does The Five Orange Pips.

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