Historical fiction has always had a powerful appeal for me, and it’s probably partly because of my love of mysteries. Didn’t Voltaire say that history is “little else than a picture of human crimes and misfortunes”? Think of the poison plots of the Borgias, the murder linked to Mary Queen of Scots, or the treachery of Rasputin.
The historical mystery novel is relatively new on the scene, at least as a recognized genre. But mainstream historical fiction, a centuries-old form, has always contained elements of mystery. Think of Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, which turns around extortion, kidnapping, and treason. What justifies the classification of a work as an “historical mystery” is usually the centrality to the plot of a murder that must be solved.
Scott’s Ivanhoe employs some real historical figures, as do several notable novels that belong inarguably to the mystery genre. Perhaps the best of them all is Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time, which deals with the question of whether Richard III was really the murderer of his nephews, the little princes in the Tower. Ellery Queen thought such mysteries the most difficult of all to write. “It is really a monumental task,” he said. “. . . The historical figure has to be convincing as well as authentic, and the theme, time, speech, and manners have to be projected with equal authenticity.”
In our submissions, I rarely come across real historical figures with more than cameo roles; the viewpoint character is usually conjured from whole cloth. I have, however, more than once received submissions in which Benjamin Franklin featured as sleuth, not a surprising choice given the curiosity and inventiveness for which the real Franklin was known. (For those interested in seeing a skillful use of Franklin as detective there are the books by Robert Lee Hall.) At least one other real figure is an obvious choice for mystery writers. Edgar Allan Poe is not only the father of the mystery; his life held many genuine elements of mystery, not least the lack of a known cause for his death. He was discovered delirious on a street in Baltimore and died soon afterward. The best mystery novel I know of that casts Poe in a starring role is Louis Bayard’s The Pale Blue Eye, which deals with Poe’s days at West Point.
Whether a historical writer uses real characters or not, the difficulty remains that the world being recreated has to come across as something so real the reader could step right into it; it must therefore relate in some way to the contemporary reader’s experience, and yet it can’t deviate too jarringly from known historical fact.
The historical writer’s task may get easier the closer a work comes to our own time, but even stories that involve a retrospective look at an earlier period in the author’s own lifetime require skills all good historical writers have: the ability to convey things that no longer exist without weighing the story down with explanation; the avoidance of anachronisms both technological and cultural; and a talent for conjuring the spirit of a bygone time. I consider mysteries set in the fifties and before historicals. This may seem an arbitrary cutoff point, but so many of the attitudes and mores of the 1960s and ahead are still with us today that I’m less inclined to include stories set in those decades in the category.
The differing values of societies preceding ours present a particular challenge for historical mystery writers, it seems to me. It’s important in our genre—more so than in other areas of fiction, I think—that readers are left with a sense that justice has been served. I was struck by this problem as I read Marilyn Todd’s submission of “Cover Them With Flowers” (EQMM November 2012) a couple of years ago. It’s a tale set in ancient Sparta, where male children judged not to be physically strong were disposed of by being thrown into an abyss. The heroine of the story risks death by torture to rescue the potential victims of this policy—a course that makes her very sympathetic to modern readers, but involves attributing to her attitudes probably not very likely in someone of her time. I think the author made the right decision in breaking with historical realism here: telling a story that readers can enter into emotionally comes first, and we get a strong sense of what Sparta was like despite the importation of contemporary points of view. But it’s a fine line to walk. An author who too often veers too far from what is commonly known about the attitudes and values of a bygone culture won’t be able to pull us into the story either.
Historical settings have advantages as well as disadvantages for writers, of course. For one thing, as Mary Jane Maffini pointed out in her post about Golden Age mysteries on this site, taking a step back into the past can make it easier to tackle certain elements of plot. Go far enough back and you won’t have to research either forensics or police procedure, for forensic science only became significant to the solution of crime around the 1960s, and there were few organized police forces anywhere in the world prior to the mid 1800s.
Not having the distraction of all that scientific detail can be a blessing for the reader as well. If you like reading tales painted with a broad brush, opening wide vistas to the mind, what can be better than a genre that brings to life past cultures, where by necessity the reader must fill in much of the detail with his or her own imagination? How different that is from the kind of modern mystery that employs expert knowledge in excruciating detail, on subjects the ordinary reader knows nothing about. I certainly enjoy learning the things modern forensic mysteries can teach, but often what I want more than that kind of information is a place for my imagination to roam, and I find that historicals offer that space more reliably than most other forms of the mystery.—Janet Hutchings