Newsletter - History and Mystery by Jack

Saturday Feb 01 2014
by Jack

Both historical fiction and crime fiction have long been staples of popular fiction. Each goes back well into the nineteenth century, where they developed quite separately. A number of authors – including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – have written in both genres. But it took quite a while for the two to be linked together in a single work. One of the first examples of such a linking had quite an unusual origin. The Dutch diplomat Robert van Gulik began researching in early Chinese literature, and discovered a whole genre of folk novels written during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and later, in which government officials investigated and solved crimes, often meting out punishment as well. Gulik translated one of these 18th-century stories into English and published it in 1949 as Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee, subsequently creating a successful series of stylized novels featuring Judge Dee as a detective. At about the same time a number of British authors of the Golden Age of Crime also began experimenting with historical settings. Agatha Christie, who was not only a well-known writer of crime fiction but also the wife of a distinguished British archaeologist, produced in 1944 a crime novel set in ancient Egypt entitled Death Comes as the End. Modern critics tend to be dismissive of Christie, but this is one more example of her much-neglected innovative side. Josephine Tey in 1950 wrote The Daughter of Time, which is not set in the past but involves a modern detective doing historical research to resolve a historical mystery (the death of the princes in the Tower). Also in 1950 the Anglo-American writer John Dickson Carr, who had previously messed around with paranormal crime fiction featuring time travel, published The Bride of Newgate, a straight historical whodunit. Curiously enough, Georgette Heyer was a successful author in both historical and crime fiction, producing a series of best-selling “Regency Romances” and a dozen popular mystery novels. However, neither she nor her husband (who apparently wrote the plots for the crime books) had much notion of combining the two genres, although The Talisman Ring (1936) circles around a mystery element in its plot. In 1943 the American librarian, Lillian de la Torre, began a series of short stories featuring Dr. Samuel Johnson, perhaps the first use of a historical personage as a detective. A number of other authors followed the early lead given by writers like de la Torre, and historical short stories (but not novels) continually popped up in the mystery magazines and short story anthologies. In the 1950s and 1960s. These can be best accessed in The Mammoth Book of Historical Detectives (1995).

In 1970 the British author Peter Lovesey produced the first of a series of Victorian detective novels featuring Sergeant Cribb, but the real breakthrough came in 1977 when the Welsh writer Edith Pargeter, writing as Ellis Peters, published the first in a lengthy series of books about the Benedictine monk Brother Cadfael, set in Shrewsbury in the late 12th century. Pargeter, like Doyle and Heyer, had a long record of writing both mysteries and historical fiction, but found the combination of the two sold really well. The Cadfael books showed some familiarity with the historical period, but were not intended to be very authentic. Indeed, Peter Lovesey in 1977 wrote “All we ask of the historical mystery is that it tell a story consistent with known facts and that those facts arise naturally from the plot. If we want a history lecture, we can go to college.” Lovesey obviously had no awareness of alternate history, which would within a few years became another variation on the theme. Not long after the first Brother Cadfael (and Lovesey’s comments) appeared, in 1980 the writer Umberto Ecco published in Italian his blockbuster novel The Name of the Rose, set in a carefully limned Italian Benedictine monastery in the fourteenth century. In its attention to historical detail and to larger literary conceits such as semiotics, The Name of the Rose obviously came from a different universe than Brother Cadfael or Sergeant Cribb, and its success encouraged other historical novelists to pay more attention to deep detail as well as the plot. Deep detail, especially the workings of everyday life, are far more difficult to research than royal shenanigans. Not surprisingly, most writers followed Lovesey rather than Ecco, and beginning in 1979 Ann Perry entered the field with the first of her two Victorian detectives, Thomas Pitt. Perry’s Victorian Age was not deeply researched, but it was ubiquitous, and there would be no turning back.

Historical crime fiction since 1980 has generated a number of different faces. One important development has been the increasing use of historical characters as sleuths, thus following in the footsteps of Lillian de la Torre. Several of these detectives are literary figures (Jane Austin, Josephine Tey). Another has been the introduction of novels with alternate or even fantasy timelines. The most successful of the alternate books has probably been Robert Harris’s Fatherland (1992), although this work is more a thriller than a mystery and to my mind is nowhere near as good as Len Deighton’s SS-GB (1978) which shares the premise that Britain lost the Second World War. Neither of these works was a pioneer; Eric Norden’s The Ultimate Solution (1973) was the first to posit a Nazi victory. A more consistently whodunit series set in a similar universe is one by the Canadian writer Jo Walton, in a series of three books (Farthing, Ha’Penny, Half a Crown) located in a 1950s Britain which has surrendered to the Nazis and survives as a shell of its former itself – even more of a shell than the real Britain. The premise of a British defeat in 1939/40 is a powerful a concept for many authors. C.J. Sansom has employed it once again in his recent book Dominion, ($22.95)

Today historical mysteries are pumped out at an astounding rate and cover large chunks of the historical past across the globe. There are at least four series set in ancient Egypt in the 1400s and 1300s BCE, the high point for the pharaohs and the building of pyramids. There is also a series starring a 19th-century American archaeologist (Amelia Peabody) who solves crimes involving the digging up of ancient Egypt. Ancient Greece has at least four ongoing series, and Rome even more. Two of the Roman series are extremely well-written: Lindsey Davis’s Falco books and Robert Harris’s short series beginning with Pompeii. A number of works have featured female sleuths. Ireland in the 7th century has Sister Fidelma by Peter Tremayne, England in the 12th century has the female physician Adelia Aguilar (trained in Arab medicine in Sicily) by Ariana Franklin, and England in the fifteenth century has Dame Frevisse by Margaret Frazer. Tudor England is blessed by what is in my mind the best historical series of them all: the books on the early English Reformation, written by C.J. Sansom, featuring the hunchback lawyer Matthew Shardlake. The first of the Shardlakes is set in 1537 in a monastery on the eve of dissolution and is entitled Dissolution. It is a worthy rival to The Name of the Rose – and there are four more books after it!

Although the historical periods and geographical regions covered by historical mysteries are really quite astonishing – there are even books set in medieval Japan – some periods and regions are clearly more popular than others. Most of the writing focuses on Europe; Canadian, American, and Antipodean settings are far less common than one might expect, and British stuff constitutes perhaps more than half of the total output, aided no doubt by the fact that British history stretches back a lot further than North American or Australian. The English periods producing by far the greatest amount of publication are the Tudors (especially the reign of Elizabeth) and the Victorian (greatly aided by the prolific production of Anne Perry). British authors are also far thicker on the ground than those of any other nation. It must be added that by far the places and periods most focused upon, particularly in recent years, have been in Europe between World War One and World War Two. Well over two dozen books have been set in Berlin between the wars-- a concentration doubtless encouraged by the phenomenal success of Philip Kerr’s “Berlin Trilogy,” a series featuring a German private eye in the Nazi city which has turned into an ongoing production stretching well beyond 1945, now up to eight volumes. In recent years Stalinist Russia has been added to Hitler’s Germany as a frequent setting for books in the genre. Curiously enough, Mussolini’s Italy has not much benefitted from this development. Although one-off titles continue to appear regularly – one thinks, for example, of books like Robert Harris’s Enigma or Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicron, both of which explore the fascinating world of code-breaking in World War Two – the staple of historical mystery writing, like crime fiction generally, is the ongoing series. Some series, like the Brother Cadfael one of Ellis Peters, stretch to double digits.

A brief note about Canadian titles. As I suggested above, there are really not very many, a result partly of the relatively undeveloped state of Canadian history among the general readership in this country, at least by comparison with British or even American. Among the best are the Klondike series by Vicki Delany, the Canadian rebellions series by Don Gutteridge, and a Newfoundland series by Thomas Rendell Curran. This last is set in colonial Newfoundland at the end of World War Two before the coming of Confederation, and is a wonderful evocation of a time and place combined with a  well-plotted police procedural. It gets my vote as the best Canadian work in this complex genre.

Whodunit? has put its new historical mystery books in a separate section in the store, and readers will find there a title to suit virtually every mood and taste.

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