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.