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?