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.
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…