Sunday, January 29, 2012

An Invisible Alliance: Films, Books and Book Selling

For the last thirty years, I´ve been hearing that “books are dead,” “Hollywood is out,” “reading is out,” and that movie theaters should shut down since “nobody goes to movies anymore.” As of January 2012, movie theaters, Hollywood and virtual and physical bookstores are in extremely good health. Every year, new bestsellers hit the market; Hollywood buys the rights to such gems, turns them into films and convinces the public to buy the book. It’s an almost circular ritual that shows that, despite rumormonger warnings, written and audiovisual fiction have forged an invisible alliance that brings benefits to both.

Every time I glance through the New York Times Bestseller List (Hardcover Fiction) I wonder how many of those books will hit the screen in the years to come. An educated guess would be that The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet Nest, after meriting a Swedish screen adaptation, would follow her sisters in the Larsen’s trilogy and become a Hollywood smash hit. A similar fate will befall upon A Dance with Dragons, the latest entry of George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire. It would be part of the blockbusting series that HBO has dramatized under the title of Game of Thrones.

A different story comes from scanning the Bestseller List for Trade Fiction. There you find several books that triggered off movies currently in theaters or DVD format such as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Help, and Sarah’s Key. To illustrate my point, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close carries a caption following the title that says “a movie tie-in.”  Shrewd businesspeople at Amazon know that the public needs both the written and the audiovisual version.

In New York in the 80’s, my adoptive sister and I would go to the movies every Sunday, come rain or come shine.  If the film was based on a novel, we would walk to the nearest bookstore (there was always a Dalton´s around the corner) and buy the book version. It was the only way (even in those early video days) to preserve the adventure we had just witnessed and bring it home to us. As a former librarian, I remember thousands of clients hurrying towards my reference desk to pop the question: “I have just watched X. Do you have the book?” It didn’t surprise me. It’s human necessity to combine all senses in order to appreciate a good tale.

For two millenniums, everybody from kings to the hoi-polloi enjoyed the theater as much as we enjoy television today. But after the advent of the printing press, the rich began to collect those plays in their private libraries. Everybody could watch a public performance of Romeo and Juliet or Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, but only the Duke of Something or Other could own them, bound in fine Moroccan leather, to be read at leisure.

The Twentieth Century was the Era of the Novel, but it did not diminish the public’s need to see their stories reenacted. Throughout the century, many bestselling novels such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula were adapted for the stage. Even Uncle Tom´s Cabin was turned into a play, aiding to spread abolitionist ideas.

The early moving pictures industry soon found plenty of script material on bookshelves. Even before Hollywood, even before the four-reel films were invented, books found their way to screens. The first version of The Count of Montecristo was made in Italy in 1908. The first version of Far From the Madding Crowd was made in America in 1909.  And in 1910, Mary Pickford played Ramona in the first film version of the Helen Hunt Jackson’s novel.  As feature films became longer and more sophisticated, audiences flocked to theaters to watch their favorite stories come to life on the silver screen.
Mary Pickford as the first Ramona Moreno.

For the last hundred years, classics as well as current bestsellers have merited movie versions. In a way, the cinema has kept alive stories that would have faded in time.  The arrival of television created another milieu for the recreation of popular fiction. The BBC’s vigorous efforts have prevented Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century British fiction from falling into oblivion. 

Recently, I had the chance to watch Lark Rise to Candleford. Based on Flora Thompson´s trilogy, this miniseries describes the author´s experiences growing up in the English countryside in the early 1900’s. It´s a nice story, but I can understand why it would be forgotten for decades until the BBC adapted it in 2008. Now, you may find it in different guises at Amazon: hardcover, paperback, illustrated, audio cassette, DVD, and the Kindle version came out just last week. Flora Thompson´s descendants must be elated with the arrival of royalties from all those formats.

But not only has the BBC had a hand in resurrecting authors. E.M. Forster is considered to be one of the best British writers of the Twentieth Century, but by the 1980’s, he was only known in academic circles. Sir David Lean’s A Passage to India made everyone familiar with Forster's writing. Soon after, Merchant and Ivory would turn out delicate adaptations of Forster’s A Room with a View, Howard’s End, and Where Angels Fear to Tread. They became classics; they turned Helena Bonham Carter into a star, and made the public aware of the existence of books behind those breathtaking films.
                                                 A Room with a View's trailer
The next decade would also mark the birth of a new bestseller novelist, all thanks to award-winning versions of her work. Curiously, this writer, who would compete in sales with J.K. Rowling and Stephen King, had been dead for over a century and her novels were written in the days of Napoleon. Nowadays, we all know who Jane Austen is. Her books have  prompted the creation of sequel novels, tons of biographies, parodies and a whole cultural movement whose followers are known as ”Janeites,” not to mention film and TV series inspired by her fertile fiction.
                                              Pride and Prejudice's trailer (1995)

Not as thunderous as the Jane Austen Revival, but equally important, was the rebirth of Edith Wharton. Again it was linked to adaptations. Since her demise, Miss Wharton had been forgotten by Hollywood and bookstores. In 1993, the film industry remembered her in a double ration. The British adapted Ethan Frome with Liam Neeson and Patricia Arquette in the leading roles. But it was Martin Scorsese who would truly revive Wharton´s genius. That same year, he left his gangsters aside, and brought out the most beautiful rendition of The Age of Innocence.

Two years later, the BBC adapted Wharton´s unfinished roman-a-clef,  The Buccaneers with Mira Sorvino and Carla Gugino in the leading roles,  Finally, in 2000, Gillian Anderson made us forget she was Agent Scully as she went into Edwardian  costume to play Lily Bart in The House of Mirth. For a full decade, Edith Wharton became again a bestselling author.

I would have never read Edith Wharton if it hadn’t been for all those wonderful adaptations. I would have never discovered Carson McCullers’ perfect prose if I hadn’t seen The Member of the Wedding (1956.) If I ever dared to read those cumbersome Eighteen Century novels, Tom Jones and Clarissa Harlow, is because I fell in love with their heroes… And that with a little help from Albert Finney´s portrayal of Tom in the 1963 film and Sean Bean’s depiction of wicked Lovelace in the “Masterpiece Theater’s” version of Richardson´s epistolary novel. So, I am grateful for this invisible alliance between screen and novels.

What books have you read just because you adored the film? What authors do you think deserve an audiovisual resurrection? Do you experience the urgency, after reading a good book, to see it come alive on a screen?

Monday, January 23, 2012

Why Writers Should Care about SOPA

If you’re like me, then two weeks ago the words SOPA and PIPA made you think of this: 

Delicious fried pillows of happiness, served with a dallop of honey

And now, unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know better, and SOPA might make you think of this:

The January 18 blackout

But have you thought about how the SOPA legislation might affect you as a writer? Until a few days ago, I hadn't thought about it, either.

Backing up a bit: SOPA, otherwise known as the “Stop Online Piracy Act,” is an anti-piracy bill that was being hustled along quietly through Congress until Wikipedia brought it to everyone’s attention. That company, and several others, blacked out their pages on January 18 in protest of the bill. (PIPA, or the Protect Intellectual Property Act, is SOPA’s Senate twin.) I followed the story with mild interest, sharing The Oatmeal’s own hilarious protest, and assumed that everyone was united in their opposition to this piece of legislation. Then, while reading through a discussion of the subject on Facebook, I came across a published author I know who offered a different point of view. Unfortunately, I was unable to arrange for an interview with her in time for today’s post, so I’ll have to paraphrase for now.

Arrr, matey: we be stealin' yer content
Piracy isn’t just something giant corporations have to worry about. It affects individual artists, too. This author’s books have been pirated. Illegal downloads of her intellectual property have not only cost her money, but cost her a book contract, she said. She directed me to this site, in which an agent laments the theft of his client’s books. His client (not the author I chatted with) is Charlaine Harris, known for the Sookie Stackhouse mystery series. Big companies like eBay, he said, don’t care about the rights of the little artist who's actually creating the content. They care about profits. So it’s hard to sympathize with these companies when they rail against SOPA. What are they doing to protect musicians, artists, and writers?

That said, even he — and the author I spoke with — agree that SOPA and PIPA are over the top. The legislation, as written, is likely to cause more problems than it solves. This does not mean that piracy isn't a real problem, however — it is a problem, and one that could affect our livelihoods. Let us hope that with the additional attention on the issue of piracy, people won’t be satisfied simply with defeating these two bad pieces of legislation: they will work to find better ways to protect intellectual property. Let’s make the criminals work harder to steal an author’s work, without compromising intellectual freedom.

What is your opinion on SOPA/PIPA? Is there a way authors and other content creators can have their intellectual property better protected, without stifling Internet freedoms and enabling censorship?

Sunday, January 15, 2012

How It's All Changed

David Morrell and his many works.
Last weekend, I was fortunate enough to listen to David Morrell speak* about the current state of publishing. If you're not familiar with Morrell, then perhaps you're more familiar with a certain troubled and misunderstood Vietnam War veteran who was the main character of Morrell's fist novel forty years ago. First Blood, starring the titular character Rambo, spawned a successful 80s film franchise that most men still stop and watch in awe when flipping through the local cable channels.

I'm not here to talk about Rambo, but I am here to highlight some of the main points David Morrell makes concerning the past, present, and future of publishing. Morrell, himself, has seen numerous changes in the publishing industry over the last four decades, but none quite as dramatic and rapid as what he's seen in the past few years with the rise of e-books, the closing of major bookstore chains, and self-publishing.

To begin, let's take a trip into the past, way back to the 1980s. In 1986, the model for the promotional tour was invented. Before this time, authors didn't tour from major city to major city in a ten-week promotional tour that left them functioning in a haze and wondering when sleep would finally come. Most cities had their local authors and that was about it. The local bookstore (if there was one) was about the only place in town a person could find a book to purchase. The idea behind the book tours was to introduce new authors to other regions of the country. Initially, it was a grand success. But since the idea wasn't to make money off the tour, publishing houses knew they had to balance out the $15,000 price tag. This was to come through sales and recognition (i.e. an author finding his/her way to the top of The New York Times list). Eventually, the tours ground to a halt because the numbers weren't matching up. Book tours were not driving up sales, so by the late 1990s the extravagant city hopping came to an end.

The top ten publishers represent 72%
of the total market.
About this time, 'The Big 5' was born. Major corporations thought it a good idea to buy into the publishing world. (I'm not sure why they thought this to be a good investment.) Basically, 'The Big 5' gobbled up all the little guys creating the top five publishing houses (recent data shows these to be Random House, Pearson, Hachette, Harper Collins, and Simon & Schuster). This meant that most other publishers out there (i.e. Doubleday, Knopf, Little Brown, Pocket, etc.) became divisions or imprints of the large publishing houses. For the author, if a book was/is submitted to the publishing house and is turned down, then it is turned down by every imprint or division under the publishing house's umbrella. This, of course, has made it harder for the author to get his/her work noticed by one of the major publishing houses.

Along with the birth of 'The Big 5,' came chain bookstores. They started in the mall environment where numerous people shopped everyday. (Who doesn't remember going to a Waldenbooks or a B. Daltons? On a side note, check out this sad article on a closing mall bookstore.) Because the bookstores had grown in size from the little bookstore around the corner to a larger location with a larger clientele, the incentive to write grand, long-winded tomes became quite the trend (even Morrell professes to have written one of his own with The Brotherhood of the Rose). Bigger stores meant bigger-looking books, thus pushing the less than 300 page novels off the shelves to make room for the 500-600 page doorstoppers.

A Borders flagship store in Ann Arbor, Michigan
Before long, large brick and mortar stores were conceptualized and Barnes & Noble and Borders became anchor stores in strip malls. When you look back at the history of these monstrosities, it's interesting to see that Borders's (which was acquired in 1992 by Kmart) history as a major bookstore lasted less than twenty years. But why did they go out of business? Morrell says that it has much to do with an unsustainable business model. Books were just a small portion of sales for a business that also sold CDs (downloadable music is slowly killing the CD industry), movies (same goes for movies as for CDs), toys, and nicknack stuff that really doesn't need to be sold in a bookstore. In essence, Borders couldn't keep their boat afloat. And the same is happening to Barnes & Noble, who recently stated that Nook would be becoming its own company. Doesn't inspire much confidence towards investing in B & N now, does it? 

Surprisingly enough, not all is lost. If anything, bookstores are reverting to where they were way back in the 80s. The local bookstores are once more blossoming. They can become important members of their communities by offering a knowledgeable staff (when was the last time you found one of those in Borders?) and author events that highlight local and national works. 

Kindle Fire
And, of course, the industry would not be what we know it today if not for e-readers. Amazon, who tends to be hush-hush about sales, says they move at least 1 million Kindles a week. (At $79 a pop, many people found these under the Christmas tree.) In the last quarter, Apple shipped over 11 million iPads. 1.5 million Nook and Nook Colors have sold in the last quarter as well. Morrell says that he believes roughly 100 million people in the U.S. alone own e-readers. But with so many of these on the market, Morrell sees the market reaching its highest levels of saturation this year and then leveling off in the years to come. So what does that say about the future of e-readers? It's a pretty healthy forecast. E-readers and self-publishing have changed the game when it comes to getting published. But in a good way? I'll let you be the judge!

Are you one of the 100 million people who owns an e-reader or tablet? Has it changed your reading habits and do you see it co-existing with physical books? Do you believe e-readers have revolutionized the market in a good way? Do you like the idea of the massive brick and mortar stores becoming, once again, the mom and pop places around the corner?

*David Morrell spoke at the SouthWest Writers monthly meeting on Jan. 7, 2012. His speech was entitled "The Current State of Publishing."

BTW ~ If you're interested to read any tips on preparing for the LSAT, pop on over to The Random Book Review and see what I have to say about my experience.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Understanding Theme

When I took a screenwriting class in college, one of the first questions the teacher asked us was:

“What is the moral of your story?”

Somewhat baffled, we exchanged glances and smirks. He surely didn’t mean one of those corny lines they tell you at the end of a fable, did he? He must mean something else.

Faced with a silent class, the teacher blatantly expanded. “You know, like ‘there’s no place like home’ or ‘love conquers all’?”

Most of us rolled our eyes. Yeah, why don’t we talk about something interesting like how do we format our scripts and sell them to start making millions. But the teacher pressed on. “Every story has a theme. Even the most banal ones are trying to tell us something.” He continued with a painful (and nausea-provoking) exposé of the theme of several beloved films.

Appalled, I ignored the guy and drove home.

Years later, after I’d explored novel writing with four drafts of a first novel and two of a second, I came to realize my teacher was on to something. As many of you know, the resolution of both of my novels has been a struggle and I had to rewrite the endings several times. In a desperate search for answers and knowledge (after producing a questionable ending for my latest novel) I embarked on a research odyssey where I read everything and anything with the word “ending” on it. I even wrote this post (shameless advertisement alert!)

Finally, I came across this line:

"You must resolve the core conflict, otherwise your premise will remain unproved.” (Donna Levin, Get That Novel Written.)

(Core conflict being the conflict implied by the premise.)

Ms. Levin cites Cinderella as an example. “The premise for Cinderella is beauty and goodness triumph over evil and ugliness… If the story of Cinderella ended before the messenger demanded to see the third sister, we'd be left with, beauty and goodness do something with evil and ugliness, but it's your guess what.” (Levin, Pg. 83)

Eureka! I’d found the source of my problem. My novel’s final scene had NOTHING to do with the original premise. I had simply written a scene about how I envisioned my main character to resolve her (physical) problem and live happily-ever-after. But it didn’t say anything about the human condition or her inner growth or her understanding of well, anything.

I reexamined my moral premise (because I did have one—I promise!)

Selfishness leads to destruction and pain,
but generosity leads to life and happiness 

So what’s wrong with it? You ask. Well, it sounds very nice on paper, except that it’s a very abstract concept. How could I execute it in a way that was clear and touched my audience in an emotional way? Sure, I could have the protagonist engage in an ultimate, heartbreaking sacrifice in the last scene, but given that sacrifice often leads to suffering, how was my premise going to be proven? After all, my thesis stated that the protagonist had to have a happy ending as a result of her selflessness? And that was when my epiphany came: the problem wasn’t that my novel’s ending was predictable and it belonged to a different genre, the problem was that it had absolutely nothing to do with the premise because the theme was all wrong! There was no way to prove my thesis because I’m not sure that in practice ALL selfishness leads to destruction and ALL sacrifices lead to happiness.

To my surprise and delight, the theme of my novel had always been there. I just had to understand what I had been trying to say all along (I know it sounds crazy, but if you’re a writer you’ll understand what I mean.) Once I recognized the real moral premise, I knew how my novel had to end.

This experience taught me the importance of having a good theme from the beginning—as irrelevant as it may seem. It really does guide the development of your novel and eventually, its resolution.

In The Moral Premise (a book that, in my opinion, every writer should read), Stanley D. Williams states that in every film/novel there are two stories happening simultaneously. One is the physical one (plot) which consist of the actions the hero has to take in order to achieve his goal. The second story (theme) is the emotional arc the hero goes through during his journey, which is actually the “unknown goal” that changes him in an uplifting, touching, irreversible way. What I find interesting is that the emotional storyline may be in direct conflict with the hero’s physical goal—and he may not know it until the end. (In other words, what the hero wants is not always what he needs.)

The success of a work of fiction, according to Williams, is directly proportional to how much the audience agrees/identifies with the premise. If the premise is not considered valid by general consensus, a disconnect may happen between the audience and the story. This is why sometimes we leave a movie theater thoroughly disappointed and may not know the reason. The answer is simple: the message may not have been in tune with our own principles and values. Williams goes as far as assuring us that this disconnect with the audience often leads to box office failure.

I don’t know how true this last statement is, but I recently experienced a disconnect with a film that had a very interesting hook. (SPOILER ALERT!) In "Limitless", a man takes a pill that gives him 100% access to his brain. Assuming it's true that we only use 20% of this organ, the premise is absolutely gripping. Think of all the possibilities! From a starving writer with zero inspiration, he goes on to becoming a bestseller author. (Let’s set aside the fantasy that he has a publishing contract, an editor and an agent without having written a single word of his novel and let’s focus on theme.) As it turns out, literary greatness is not his objective anymore once his mental capacities are heightened. He realizes that his fantastic brain power can make him a lot more money that he ever dreamed possible, and through stock-buying and orchestrating big merges, he becomes a business success in a matter of weeks. Women fall like flies on his lap and he masters several cryptic languages at once. With this much power, you’d think he does something good for humanity, like find the cure for cancer or something worthwhile. But no, he spends his time making his personal fortune grow and escaping some dubious characters who want to steal his drug stack. As a viewer, I can tolerate most excesses in a character with the hopes that in the end, he’ll redeem himself. So I patiently waited for the moment where the self-centered hero would humble himself and change. Not the case of "Limitless." The protagonist eventually comes up with an endless supply of the coveted pill, gets his girlfriend back (plus more money that he could ever need) and crushes/betrays his former mentor. What was the moral premise here? Selfishness and greed lead to success?

"Limitless" had a riveting hook, but what did it say about humans in the end?

In contrast, let’s look at "Pride and Prejudice," a simple story about a man who's quick to judge a woman on her looks and lower social status. As the story progresses, Mr. Darcy realizes there’s more to Elizabeth Bennet than meets the eye and falls in love with her. When he reveals his feelings toward her, she’s too proud to accept his marriage proposal. (Click here to watch the scene.)

In the end, both of them realize how destructive “pride” and “prejudice” are, and “reject these vices” (to use Williams’ terminology). By apologizing and making amends, both of them “choose virtue” and have a happy ending. This premise is identifiable and true. How many of us haven’t, at some point in our lives, been guilty of excessive pride and prejudice?

The proud Mr. Darcy at the ball where he met Elizabeth.

Jane Austen sure understood the importance of a good premise. Two hundred years later, her books are still being read and translated to film, television and plays.

In conclusion:
  • Every story must have a moral premise that rings true to the majority of readers/viewers.
  • Said premise shouldn't be an abstract concept of what the world should be like, but something concrete most people can relate to.
  • The premise must be proven through consequences (good or bad) for our characters at the end of the novel.
  • A moral premise will give the writer a blueprint of where to go with the story, rather than just concentrating on the physical action and “what happens next.”

Can you think of other films/novels where you've disagreed/felt a disconnect with the theme? Can you think of the moral premise of your own novel and put it in one sentence? Do you come up with your premise first and then write your novel or do you realize what it is after you've finished writing (guilty!)?

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?