The Mystery Of History – My 900th Post

Well, it’s my 900th post so I’ll take a mini-break from reviews to wax lyrical on a favourite topic. I was going to write a response to Marina’s post on Honesty In Book Reviews – I did write it, in fact – but I think Marina says it much better than I did. So instead I thought I’d take a look at the historical mystery genre, a favourite of mine. A brief look at the history of the genre, why I’m so enamoured of it, and some other general thoughts.

Hystery

The first historical mystery novel is generally regarded as Death Comes As The End by Agatha Christie (1944) but at least two books predate it. The Julius Caesar Murder Mystery by Wallace Irwin predates it by nine years – from the single review that I’ve found, it’s clearly not an attempt to create a realistic picture of Rome. So if we’re going to talk about genuine attempts to re-create an era, we’ll turn a blind eye to that one for now. The other is by someone you might have heard of. John Dickson Carr published Devil Kinsmere in 1934, under the pseudonym Roger Fairbairn, which, while it contains anachronisms, is a clear attempt at an accurate portrayal of the time of Charles II. But as it was a flop – Carr re-wrote it as Most Secret decades later – it’s generally overlooked.

Christie’s novel, which I presume was the first successful historical mystery, was set in Ancient Egypt (a non-specific Ancient Egypt, if I recall correctly) but she never returned to the genre, and it was John Dickson Carr who took up the baton again six years later with The Bride Of Newgate, set in London in 1815. His next novel, The Devil In Velvet, also took us (and the hero) back in time to 1675 and then Captain Cut-Throat took us back to the early nineteenth century. After this point, roughly every other book Carr wrote was an historical mystery, but after Fire, Burn! and arguably The Witch Of The Low-Tide, the quality dropped off severely.

The next major proponents of the genre were Peter Lovesey, with the Victorian Sergeant Cribb mysteries and Elizabeth Peters with her tales of crime solving archaeologist Amelia Peabody – I’ve reviewed one of her books, The Curse Of The Pharaohs – but I think it’s reasonable to say that the first time that the genre really caught the reading public’s attention was with the Brother Cadfael series by Ellis Peters. It was from this point that the genre took off, with series set in Ancient Rome by Lindsay Davis and Steven Saylor being some of the first successes – at least those were the ones that I was aware of.

Nowadays, nearly every era in history – certainly British history post-1066 – is catered for. Most authors – the obvious exception being Paul Doherty – tend to stick to one era, but there are a lot of authors out there now. From Edward Marston’s Domesday series onwards, there really is something for everyone.

Or is there? Because the impression that I get sometimes is that there is a large number of mystery fans – dare I say a majority? – wouldn’t go near an historical mystery, certainly not something set before the twentieth century.

Take, for example, Michael Jecks Knights Templar series. A series of literate, well-researched, well-written novels set in Devon in the latter part of the reign of Edward II. I’ve reviewed over twenty books from this series and, judging from the comments on the reviews, not many of my readers have tried the series. That’s not a judgment on you, dear reader, just an illustration that the overlap between the readership of the traditional mystery and the historical mystery is relatively small.

Clearly I’m in that overlap, but not every historical mystery is for me. I tend to head towards the pre-twentieth century books, with a couple of notable exceptions – Frances Brody and Dolores Gordon-Hill spring to mind – because I’m fascinated with those tales set in the parts of history which are rarely illuminated.

I’ve mentioned this before, but even pre-National Curriculum, certain parts of English History were overlooked in school. I actually found a copy of my old history textbook at my school a few weeks ago – the entry on Edward II was fascinating. I know quite a bit about Edward II now, thanks to Paul Doherty and Michael Jecks – he was a terrible king, relying heavily on two favourites who may well have been his lovers. His wife fled to France with her lover, Roger Mortimer, and they returned and overthrew Edward after a civil war. They ruled behind Edward’s son, Edward III, while Edward was murdered (or was he?) by having a red hot spike shoved up his bottom. The history book – basically says that Edward II came between Edward I and Edward III. So much left untold, but without the hint that there is anything interesting omitted.

Basically my knowledge of history went Battle Of Hastings – Richard I & The Crusades – Magna Carta* – Black Death – The Wars Of The Roses* – Henry VIII – The Spanish Armada – James I* – The English Civil War – Queen Victoria. Oh, the * indicates we were told something/someone by that name happened but not a lot more. The chance to learn more about the gaps fascinates me, and the fact that many of the authors I read take advantage of the time period to put original spins on “proper” mysteries without being bogged down by modern necessities, such as forensics.

The thing is, I think there are a lot of readers out there who wouldn’t ever choose to read an historical mystery. To give an example – the Sister Fidelma mysteries by Peter Tremayne are classically constructed mysteries that just happen to be set in seventh century Ireland. Is the setting enough to switch off potential readers? My own theory is that some readers will have tried the genre during its early days – but what I’ve read of Ellis Peters, Steven Saylor and Lindsay Davis never impressed me. Might this have switched off some readers? Or is there a reason that I’m not seeing?

So over to you, dear reader. Do you read historical mysteries? If not, is there a reason you can put your finger on as to why not? Do share your thoughts on this topic, as I’m genuinely curious.

And thanks for sticking around for the past 900 posts – now I’ve got a little while to think what to do for the millenial one…

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31 comments

  1. Congratulations on hitting this milestone! I think, however, that you may underestimate the popularity of historicals – at least SOME historicals. Two of the “major” mystery conferences in the US, Malice Domestic (Agatha Awards) and Left Coast Crime (Lefty Awards) have a separate category for best historical novel. I think the US awards generally go more to US writersrather than British ones – I can’t understand why Paul Doherty, for example, doesn’t show up on these lists – but the nominees are all historicals, written by authors such as Rhys Bowen, Catriona MacPherson and Laurie R. King.

    There probably ought to be a separate category for Sherlockian pastiches, or at least books which use the Holmes canon as a jumping-off point, but there are a great many of them, some quite good.

    And may I point out one of my own favorites, Robert Van Gulik, whose books about Judge Dee, written from 1949 into the 1960s, are all set in T’ang Dynasty China some 1500 years ago.

    Here’s to more historicals. And to you, my friend – keep the reviews and posts coming!

    Best,

    Les Blatt

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    • Looking at the Agatha Awards for 2015, I’d only count the Susanna Calkins book as an historical in my eyes – maybe the Victoria Thompson one as well, although the era isn’t one that I tend towards. The rest of them are set too recently for my tastes, but that does show the direction in which the public taste may lie – most of these seem pretty cosy too.

      And I’ve got a Van Gulik on my shelf – didn’t realise the dates when he was writing. That’s an omission on my part and I’ll amend the post when I get the chance.

      Thanks for the good wishes – and there’ll be another historical along before the end of the month…

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  2. Well done on reaching 900 posts! Very impressed. I have read some historical mysteries by Edward Marston, Anne Perry, Cassandra Clarke and Robert Van Gulik. In regards to the first three authors the works I read by them were good, but didn’t knock my socks off – I tended to buy them not because they were addictive, more just what was available in charity shops. I may have been put off Victorian railway murder mysteries (of which there seem to be many) for life by Andrew Martin’s Murder at Deviation Junction which was so painful to read due to the excessive railway details. But his book probably exemplifies one of the reasons why I read much less historically based mysteries, which is that I find in such works there is much more description as the writer needs to set up the time period so much more evidently. Some writers balance this reasonably well but others like Martin include way too much detail which slows down the mystery and bores me. Boris Akunin’s work can probably be classed as historical as it is set in the second half of the 19th century Russia and I would count his work as exceptionally good.
    I may well get into reading more historically based mysteries at some point as my sister is a massive reader of this genre – reading books by writers such as Michael Jecks, Peter Ellis and Peter Tremayne.

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    • I heartily recommend Jecks and Tremayne – and, I suppose, Peter Ellis as he IS Peter Tremayne, I think. I’m not a massive fan of the Victorian era – I’ve tried one train “mystery” by Edward Marston, but got v narked off by it as it wasn’t a mystery, despite what the cover said. Search the blog and you’ll find my rant there.

      Akunin, however, does intrigue me. I’ve had one of his on my shelf for an age and I will get round to it. Historical tales set in other countries do intrigue me, especially by natives of that country, for example (also on the blog) The Hangman’s Daughter by Oliver Potsch.

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      • Both Akunin’s Sister Pelagia and Erast Fandorin series are worth a try. With the Fandorin series I think the writer planned to have each novel embodying or incorporating a different subgenre of crime fiction. Murder on the Leviathan is Akunin’s most overt take on GAD fiction and is the third book in the series I think. I would recommend reading The Winter Queen first, the first novel, as I think the events in this book set up Fandorin’s character and behaviour for the rest of the series. His Pelagia trilogy is quite different, with an amateur sleuthing nun.

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  3. I’ll ‘fess up. I don’t read historical mysteries and, despite your eloquent endorsements, I doubt I’ll start. I have read JDC’s historicals, but they’re among my least favorite from his canon. The Devil in Velvet is the only Carr I actually hated. The main reason I’m not tempted to read historicals is that I’m still reading classic writers such as Ellery Queen, who didn’t write them. When I run out of the classics, I might try something more recent. Also, I generally don’t like mysteries mixed with other genres, such as science fiction (Asimov) or fantasy (Randall Garrett), and historical seems to be a distinct genre. I started one Judge Dee but couldn’t make it through it.

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    • I agree with you here – I’m not particularly interested in historical mysteries (ie set before the twentieth century). They are among my least favourite Carrs, and while “Death Comes as the End” is fun to return to every now and again, I’ve never had any urge to seek out anything else about Ancient Egypt.

      The Puzzle Doctor mentions that he also reads them to fill in the blanks in the history lessons he received in school. Since I’m Swedish, my knowledge of British history is probably even worse – but it also means that my interest is pretty low. (That shouldn’t be taken to imply that I’d be more interested in a historical Swedish setting, though!)

      I understand that there are certain advantages to setting mysteries in these historical times – the lack of forensic science is perhaps chief of them! But if I look inside myself I think my main adverse reaction to them is the all-pervasive influence of religion. Of course that is how it was in those days and of course that should be reflected. But to a non-secular person such as myself I really get ticked off by all the superstition and silliness.

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      • There is at least one European author who writes historical fiction – Oliver Potzsch writes Prussian historical tales.
        However, I should point out that there are plenty of historicals out there that stay away from “superstition and silliness”

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  4. A very interesting and educational post, Puzzle Doctor. I do like historical mysteries. I am now trying to remember when I started reading them but not sure. I do concentrate on 1900 – WWII and a bit beyond. Even with all the encouragement your posts have given me, I haven’t read many historical mysteries that are set earlier than that.

    Amazing and wonderful that you have hit 900 posts! Congratulations, and I look forward to many more.

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  5. Congratulations on reaching such a respectable milestone – and thank you for your kind mention of my post!
    As for historical mysteries, I have to admit that, while they are not necessarily my first choice of crime novels, I do enjoy them. I have a lot of respect for the Michael Jecks series, and I did enjoy the Falco series by Lindsey Davis, have read the occasional Cadfael, but I like many more, including Boris Akunin, Elizabeth Peters, C. J. Sansom, the Frank Tallis mystery series set in Freud’s Vienna, and most recently another Vienna-set series featuring Mozat’s librettist Da Ponte (by Laura Lebow).
    http://www.crimefictionlover.com/2016/04/sent-to-the-devil/
    But then, I am slightly partial to a Viennese setting, so not entirely objective about the last two.
    The problem is that here in France, although I do have access to some English books at the library, the crime section seems to be comprised almost entirely of Scandinavian translations, or else Peter Robinson, James Patterson, Martha Grimes, Dick Francis and very little historical crime fiction. Perhaps that reflects the tastes of the reading public, as you so rightly say, or at least of the donations of the expats who have since left.

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  6. Congratulations on this milestone and another interesting and informative post.
    I do find I have to be in the right mood for mysteries in an historical setting. I think one of the problems with historical mystery fiction (indeed, with all historical fiction) is that many present day authors create modern characters, with modern attitudes, emotions and actions and then drop them into an historical setting, rather as though there had been an accident in a time machine. This leads to some very unlikely plot devices (C.J. Sansom, I’m looking at you), and it can make for an unconvincing and dissatisfying read.
    That said, a well written historical mystery is a joy. I too tend towards the earlier periods in history as good research rounds out the book and makes it more immersive in that era (not too much of it, mind – don’t want to slow down the action). One of my favourites is the Murray of Letho series by Lexie Conyngham. Set in the late eighteenth century, they are well researched and well written books containing genuine mysteries and characters who are engaging and remain true to the spirit of their time.
    I don’t read much modern fiction set in the nineteenth century as I find it’s more enjoyable to go back to the authors of the time, who after all were the pioneers of mystery fiction – Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens, Sheridan le Fanu, and the wonderful potboilers of Mrs. Henry Wood and M.E. Braddon. This segues nicely into early twentieth century writers such as William le Queux, G.K. Chesterton and of course the great Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. And then after that we’re into the Golden Age. Which I think is where I came in…

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  7. Congrats on that big round number chum – looking forward to many more! I think Carr does more or less deserve the credit for kick-starting the genre, not least for his historical radio serial SPEAK OF THE DEVIL, which also predates the Christie. And I’m not sure why you assume it was a success as she never did it again and the reviews were not that great at the time either …

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    • Good point – I suppose the assumption of success is in part due to it still being in print, but then so is everything else she wrote – even Postern Of Fate. I wonder which series/book was the first truly successful one? Maybe (sort of) The Daughter Of Time? Or were Carr’s books well received by the readership? Or was he being humoured by his publisher until he cranked out another Gideon Fell tale?

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      • Carr’s first historicals did very well (better than his regular ones) so I think he really is the author who made the genre a success with the reading public from 1950 onward.

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  8. Would you say that, like Marina in ‘Honesty in Book Reviews’, you rarely give a five-star rating? I would have thought that a ‘Highly Recommended’ rating would be the equivalent of a five-star rating – but a closer look at some of your reviews would suggest that you had four, or four-and-a-half, stars in mind.

    I’ve been contemplating trying Michael Jecks out for some time, though the gruesome nature of the crimes in most of his titles makes me feel somewhat hesitant. I’ve just purchased his short story collection (‘For the Love of Old Bones’), and I was wondering what you make of them? Would these short stories offer a good sample of what his full-length mystery writing is like?

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    • They’re a good example, although lacking in the depth of story-telling. Well worth a look.

      As for five star reviews – I don’t use a rating because I don’t understand what a five star book is. On Amazon, I use it when I think a book should be given a chance – Chef Maurice, for example, is hardly Tolstoy, but well worth a five star rating in my book.

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  9. Because I get tired of reading posts about the history of the genre where only the recognizable names are cited as the “groundbreakers” here are some writers who pre-date Christie in this subgenre:

    1. Marjorie Bowen writing as Joseph Shearing. She was doing what Carr did in the forties more than a decade before him. They aren’t all exactly detective novels, but most of them unfold like a traditional detective novel and have definite crime plots. Forget-Me-Not (1932), is a fictional treatment of a French crime case.
    2. Lillian de la Torre who used Samuel Johnson as her detective in a series of short stories started in 1943.
    3. Victor Luhrs, an American writer whose only detective novel The Longbow Murder is probably the first detective novel to feature a historical person as the sleuth. His book is set in the middle ages and Richard I is the detective.

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    • Apologies for adding to the list of disappointing posts, but thanks for the additional information, John. I wonder, following Sergio’s point above – who would you say was the first person to be successful with historical crime fiction?

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  10. I thought I had better jump in here as an advocate of all varieties of historical mystery books – from serious historical tomes with an incidental mystery to totally cosy historical types with mystery fun & games. I’ve read mysteries set in many periods of time & think of contemporary ones, time-travelling ones or those set in the future as just another part of the time-line of my ‘historical’ reading!

    My preferred historical mysteries have a ‘real’ mystery to be solved that is solvable from the clues, even if it is not the main basis of the whole book, and should contain accurate historical details even if they are well embedded within the mystery story. If real historical characters/events appear in the plot, so much the better, although I know this really irritates some people! I don’t mind that the characters speak in a modern way (I probably wouldn’t understand the authentic way anyway), as long as they behave in a roughly time appropriate way (taking into account that such characters are often meant to be a bit out of the ordinary for their time!)

    For me, a really satisfying historical mystery has just enough interesting period detail to entice the reader to seek out further details of the period/characters (easy to do on the internet these days) and I’ve learned a lot of additional History following up in this way.

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    • Any particular authors that you recommend?

      As for the real characters/events, I don’t mind if minor real characters or events turn up, but when William Shakespeare drops by to say hello, that tends not to work for me. Political figures, such as the King, are unavoidable sometimes, but the celebrity cameo generally isn’t for me.

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      • I’ve enjoyed mysteries by the following & hope they may interest other readers too:

        Fidelis Morgan (writer/actor/director & expert in Restoration Comedy)
        The Countess Ashby De La Zouche Series – excellent Restoration romps about down at heel aristocrats who solve mysteries & featuring many real characters & events (& introduced me to Colley Cibber who often comes up in TV quizzes!).

        Imogen Robertson (writer & director)
        Westerman & Crowther Series – set in 1780’s about an reclusive pioneering anatomist & a rich widow solving murders against social convention. Well written interesting historical topics such as slavery, automata & inheritance.

        Rosemary Rowe (academic)
        Libertus Mysteries – set in Roman Britain a former enslaved Brit solves murders for his Roman boss (interesting play on the ‘low’ status sleuth helping out the ruling classes).

        Kate Sedley
        Roger the Chapman Series – set in 1470’s the Chapman (a travelling salesman) solves mysteries for the King. They feature many real characters & political events all over the country from the time of Edward IV to Richard III (yes, the one in the car park!). This is a long series & best read in order.

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  11. Puzzle Doctor, congratulations on your milestone! I have to admit to being pretty selective on historical mysteries. Like a few others here, I find Carr’s historicals to be my least favorite of his work. My preferred time periods for historicals over all are 18th C through early 20th C (WWI-ish)–with a definite preference for Victorian. I do enjoy reading all of your reviews of historical novels, but delightful as your reviews are, I’m rarely tempted to pick up Doherty or Jecks, I’m afraid.

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