Sunday, January 1, 2012

Detectives from the past: The Charm of Historical Mysteries

Recently, my incessant quest for historical novels has led me to a delightful discovery: the Historical Whodunit. It´s not surprising than in a decade when mysteries and thrillers pack the bestsellers lists; the past provides an apt landscape for gumshoes from yesteryear.

For the last five years, I have been doing weekly checks on the New York Times Bestseller lists, (Fiction).  Thrillers and detective stories take more than half of its content. Apparently those are the genres Americans favor. Not only Americans, as the worldwide craze for Stieg Larsson’s novels proves.  Writing about crimes, past and present, has become a lucrative business thus the historical detective story is bound to be welcomed.  Even well established masters of the craft like Baroness James (better known as P.D James) are giving it a successful try. Her latest endeavor Death Comes to Pemberley has made it to the NYTBL.

As any Jane Austen fan would guess, this novel entails mayhem in the midst of the Darcy Family of Pride and Prejudice fame. Elizabeth Darcy (nee Bennett) has her Autumn Ball shattered when her brother in-law, dastardly Wickham, is murdered.  One of the major appeals of the historical detective story lies in it having historical figures, as well as famous fictional characters, in charge of the investigation. In fact, this is the second historical mystery inspired by Pride and Prejudice. Last year, Regina Jeffrey brought out The Phantom of Pemberley.

I cannot tell the “why” behind worldwide obsession with crime fiction, but I can approximate several reasons why the historical brand is doing rather well.  For long, thrillers and mysteries were genres mostly appreciated by men. Due to the rise of woman sleuths and subgenres like cozy mysteries, ladies have become addicts as well as writers of both present and past detective fiction.

Historical mysteries also provide escape from reality. There is no need to identify with characters or their problems. Such stories are made to feel out of the ordinary and to give us a chance to flee away from everyday conflicts. So the combination of both genres creates a fascinating mixture. For historical fiction lovers, a murder thrown in the plot just makes the dish more palatable. For thriller lovers, the period atmosphere adds up to the story’s exoticism.

There are discrepancies about who started this subgenre. Many claim that it was Georgette Heyer, mother of Regency Novels, who wrote the first actual historical whodunit in 1936. Called The Talisman Ring the plot takes place in Georgian England and it involves the dispute over a valued heirloom. With the publication of this combination of mystery and historical novel, Heyer set a path for suspense writers to imitate her. In 1944, Agatha Christie placed the mystery of her Death Comes as the End in Ancient Egypt and in 1950, John Dickson Carr followed suit with The Bride of Newgate, a suspense tale set in Napoleonic England.

Common factors linked historical whodunits with Gothic Romances. Daphne Du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn (1936) set in 1820 Cornwall is a historical suspense, making it a forerunner of the subgenre. Many have seen Dame Daphne’s work as an attempt to recover the Gothic Victorian style, but few have noticed her debt to Willkie Collins, one of the fathers of the detective story. However, Du Maurier is considered a revivalist of the Gothic style. Her followers which include well known Sixties and Seventies authors such as Mary Stewart, Dorothy Eden and Victoria Holt were identified as Gothic Romance or Romantic Suspense writers.

Such labels were not applied to Robert van Gulick’s work. In the 30’s, at a Tokyo bookstore, this Dutch diplomat  came across  a Seventh Century  Chinese detective story featuring a certain  statesman and criminologist named Di Renjie. During World War II, van Gulik translated into English that novel. It appeared in 1949 under the title of The Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee. By 1959, Gulik was writing his own detective stories celebrating the deeds of the sleuthing magistrate. This was the beginning of an acclaimed series (Gulik also drafted a series of comics based on Judge Dee) that lasted until the author´s death in 1967.

The person who managed to dislodge the historical whodunit from its Gothic Romance or Period Drama labels was Edith Mary Pargeter. Under her real name she had been writing historical fiction since the Sixties, but her literary career dated back to the Thirties and crime fiction was her specialty. Following an unwritten law, Miss Pargeter penned her novels under masculine pseudonyms such as Jolyon Carr, John Redfern and Ellis Peter.

 It was under this last pen name that she would create her most famous detective: Brother Cadfael, protagonist of The Cadfael Chronicles that began in 1977 with A Morbid Taste for Bones. The novel took place in Shropshire in the Twelfth Century during a turbulent period of British history. Cadfael was a monk with a taste for sleuthing, aided by his immense knowledge of sciences and herbal lore learned from the Moslems during his crusader´s stage. These hugely popular series encompassed twenty one novels written between 1977 and the early Nineties.

Cadfael has since then inspired the creation of a flock of inquisitive medieval members of the clergy. There is Brother Athelstan, Sister Fidelma, Sister Frevesse and now we have Nancy Bylieau’s Joanna Cross, a Dominican nun living in the days of Henry VIII. But detectives of yesteryear do not necessarily have to be members of the Church.

In 1979, Juliet Humes under the pseudonym “Anne Perry” would publish her first historical mystery, The Cater Street Hangman featuring Victorian policeman Thomas Pitt.  Perry, whose own life would be the subject of Kate Winslet’s film “Heavenly Creatures,” legitimized the subgenre and inspired several other writers to deal with detectives from the past. She has continued writing into the current century, and Dorchester Terrace, her latest Thomas Pitt novel, is due to appear in 2012.

More respectability was granted to historical mysteries in 1980 with the publication of The Name of the Rose; Umberto Eco´s acclaimed novel dealing with gruesome homicides at an Italian medieval monastery. There have been other attempts to turn historical mysteries into high literature. Patrick Susskind’s The Perfume comes to mind.

In the Twenty-First Century, ancient murderers and law enforcers are alive and kicking in books from all over the world. Famed Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk has given a try to the matter with his My Name is Red (2000) a crime novel set in XVI century Istanbul, and Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s bestsellers could be considered historical mysteries.

On the other hand of the spectrum, stand Anthony Horowitz and Laurie R. King and their insistence in reinventing Sherlock Holmes’s adventures. In the market you may find Regency, Victorian and Edwardian cozies, Medieval and Elizabethan whodunits, and detectives wearing togas or kimonos. There is a wealth of female amateur private eyes of all ages from spinsterish archaeologist Amelia Peabody investigating murders in the 1920’s to 11-year-old Flavia de Luce sleuthing in the England of the Fifties.

If this winter you run out of reading material, reach out and become acquainted with the historical whodunit. But if you are already hooked in the subgenre, tell us who is your favorite author and why do you do you think historical mysteries have so many readers. Would you care to write a historical mystery? Which era would you select?


  1. After reading 'Long ago and Far Away' W.H Hudson's story of his life on the Pampas in Argentina in the mid 1800s, with tales of Dictators, uprisings, friction between the various ethnic and social groups, I thought; what a great epoch for romantic fiction. It seems that to be memorable, historical fiction has to take place in a time of turmoil and tribulation. Dickens' Tale of Two Cities is a prime example. As I am a superannuated writer, it was heartening to see the video of 90 year old P.D. James.
    A great selection of videos, Violante, Thanks Regis

  2. Glad you mentioned Wilkie Collins - often overlooked. I just finished "The Suspicions Of Mr. Whicher" by Kate Summerscale - excellent read, one of those non-fiction books that reads like a novel. I'll be having a look at some of the books you mention, thanks :-)

  3. Dear Regis,
    Happy 2012. we have to thank YouTube for all these fantastic videos. Yes, historical fiction works well in turbulent times. P.D. James is not an isolated case. Many octogenerians are penning and selling novels. Historical fiction is much better told from an actual witness' point of view

  4. Happy 2012 Li. People say that W Collins and Edgard Allan Poe are the Fathers of crime fiction, but Collins was a true maste of describing the criminal's sicology. He is forgotten, but I love The Moonstone, and The Woman in White. Let me go to Amazon to find out about the Summerscale book you just mentioned

  5. You are inspiring me, Violante! I have a half-dozen historical mysteries languishing on my to-read list. Wilkie Collins has been coming up all over the place lately -- it's like there's a mini-revival going on. The Woman in White is one of those on my to-read list: I really need to pick it up. Also on my list is The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters, published in 2009 and set in the early 20th century. It seems Turn-of-the-Screwish, only I hope with far fewer commas. A Beautiful Blue Death, by Charles Finch, was published in 2007 and set in Victorian England. It was nominated for the Agatha Award, and seems to be Sherlock Holmesian. (It's glaring at me from a dusty shelf right now.)

    Li, I recently bought The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, though I don't remember doing so! It showed up on my Kindle. I'm not sure what inspired me to get it, but it looks quite intriguing.

    I've been aiming toward historical England, but I'd like to see some historical mysteries set elsewhere. I'm interesting in the Orhan Pamuk book now: I tried to read Snow and found it painfully slow, but having a mystery as a plot device might move things along.

  6. An informative and interesting post, Sister Violante. I was not aware the genre was so popular now. I just started reading Carlos Ruiz Zafon's "The Angel's Game," which continues with the Barcelona mysteries that began with "The Shadow of the Wind." (This one has different characters, though.)

    I've been meaning to read "Moonstone" for some time now. Thanks for reminding me! Happy New Year to all!

  7. Sister Stephanie, Happy New year. It´s inspiring isn’t it? To read and to write a historical mystery. The nice part is that the HW can be set in any period or country. You like Victorian times, there´s plenty of Victorian crime fiction. I love Second World War, well; I already got hold of several books set in occupied Europe. I didn´t include them in this entry because they showed me you can write about that period and get away with it. So I may write another entry on that subject. By the way, John Dickson Car wrote a historical mystery with Willkie Collins as his protagonist, The Hungry Goblin (1972)
    Alas, I had the same difficulties with Mr. Pamuk, but I am told that he is much more accessible and agile in this historical mystery.

  8. Sister Lorena, it just shows the lack of genre- knowledge that afflicts the Spanish industry. Ruiz Zafon said nobody knew how to classify his first novel. In America, it would have gone quickly into the “historical whodunit” shelve.

  9. I love a good whodunit! I've never been able to delve into too much of the historical kind though, because I've never really known who writes it. But now I do! I've particularly enjoyed the revival of Sherlock Holmes and the latest film that's out. I would most definitely recommend it to anyone interested in mystery and intrigue set in the 1800s and a little steampunkish. I really want to read Jamaica Inn and Death Comes to Pemberley. (Who liked Wickham anyway? Ha!) Great post!

  10. I really thought that the Name of the Rose is one of the best "whodunnits" I have ever seen.

    This Christmas, I went with my brother to see "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" and I thought aside from the setting, that the story was just a remake of the story "a woman investigates and finds a serial killer." Only in this case, the serial killer was not nearly as amazing as Hannibel Lecter.

  11. Thank you Sister Mary, Mary. Sister Lorena (as thousands of Austen fans must be doing even from their graves) also liked the idea of Wickham as a murder victim. Mm that´s a thought, let´s write whodunits and kill our most hated characters in literature. I can visualize an investigation around the mysterious slaying of Daisy and Tom Buchanan. We ought to have a fanfiction section here in this blog.
    Is this Sherlock better than the previous one? I love Downey and Jude , but the first Sherlock Holmes left me a little cold

  12. Kind of you Michael, to come from The Future to visit us! The name o the Rose was so intricate that I had to see the film to catch the drift. I never guessed the mystery or the culprit. I suppose that’s what makes it so good.
    Finally, I find someone that doesn’t fall over Stieg Larsson’s trilogy. Aside from its kinky sex stuff and kitsch elements (and the Swedish landscape) those novels are not that terribly original and I can’t, for the life on me, like Lisabeth Salander. Noo, Hannibal and Clarice, that is a crime fighting team to root for.

  13. Sister Violante, If you didn't care for the first Sherlock Holmes movie, then you probably won't care for the second one. Although, the mystery alluded to in the first comes to fruition in the second and I enjoyed how they went about doing it. I enjoyed the dark, convoluted storyline and the steampunk elements of both films. I think it's all a matter of taste.

  14. Some of my favorite films (e.g. Marie Antoinette) I hated initially . Maybe I should give give Serlocj another chance.

  15. I'm not crazy about Stieg Larsson either: I gave up on book one before I even hit 100 pages. But I hear good things about the movie so I'm going to check it out. Eventually. :)

  16. I'm with you on this one, Sisters. Once all that talk about corporations started, I set the book aside. But my brother is such a big fan of the trilogy (before it ever came to the US) that I may give it another try. I thought the first scene was intriguing and I liked the mystery, but quickly lost interest as the author went in a different direction.

  17. Why are those books so popular? They were the rave in Europe, then they became the hot next thing in Latin america, and finally they hit the bestseller lists in America, but I can think of a hundred better mysteries.
    I didn´t like the movie (the Swedish version) either


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