The Historical Mystery Novel

Historical mystery novels can take two forms: “The first is crime fiction that is set in some distinct historical period, but which was not written in that period. The second is crime fiction that has a detective in the present investigating a crime in the remote, rather the recent, past” (Scaggs 2005, 145-46). For a novel to qualify as a historical mystery, the historical period must be foregrounded. Spy thrillers set in Nazi Germany, for example, are not historical mysteries (Winks 1998, 1092). Although historical mysteries make extensive use of period details and customs, only some of them depict actual personages.

These mysteries are set far enough in the past so that knowledge of the period derives from texts, not personal recollection of events (Kelly 2006, 43; Winks 1998, 1092). A mystery such as The Thirty Nine Steps – which is set on the eve of World War I – is not historical because the author wrote it in 1915 (see my post on the novel). Buchan wrote in the midst of events and did not have the advantage of historical perspective.

Four eras tend to dominate the historical mystery genre: ancient Greece and Rome, the medieval period, the Elizabethan era, and the Victorian age. The most popular writers of ancient-world historical mysteries are Lindsey Davis and Steven Saylor. The medieval period is the domain Umberto Eco and Ellis Peters (see my post on Monk’s Hood). Patricia Finney writes about the Elizabethan world. Anne Perry, Elizabeth Peters, and Peter Lovesey are the most prominent names among Victorian mystery novelists (see my posts on Paragon Walk, A Christmas Secret, and Crocodile on the Sandbank).

Historical mysteries can explore specific incidents from the past. James Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia (see my post) traces the events surrounding an unsolved 1947 murder. Christopher Marlowe’s mysterious death is the subject of Martha Grimes’s The Dirty Duck, Judith Cook’s The Slicing Edge of Death, and Charles Nicholl’s The Reckoning. The fifteenth-century mystery of the princes in the Tower of London is the topic of Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time, P. C. Doherty’s The Fate of Princes, and Elizabeth Peters’s The Murders of Richard III. Other events such as the crimes of Jack the Ripper and the conspiracy theories surrounding the assassination of President John F. Kennedy have been used as the basis of mystery novels.

What attracts readers to historical mysteries? Intellectual curiosity about peoples and times that no longer exist is a strong motivation. Information about the past is often more accessible in mysteries than in historical texts. Readers also enjoy the “sense of seeing things behind the scenes” (Winks 1998, 1089). The pleasures of escaping from the present motivate many readers. As Kelly observes, readers “come to historical fiction out of a self-conscious desire to immerse themselves in another world, to travel vicariously in time, to imagine themselves in a radically different setting, or to escape present circumstances, however temporarily” (2006, 44). In troubled or unsettled times, this need is stronger. Readers also enjoy exploring their ancestral roots.

What gives historical fiction its power? These novels make the past come to life in a way that nonfictional accounts of history do not. Taylor argues:
Story gives us a kind of knowledge that abstract reasoning cannot. One of the advantages of story knowledge is its concreteness and specificity. Stories give us individualized people in specific times and places doing actual things. Rationality tends to sidestep the messy particulars to deal directly with the generalized concepts behind the particulars. (1996, 30)
The best historical mysteries reveal the inner tensions of a particular society (Winks 1998, 1099). Thomas Cook’s The Chatham School Affair (see my post) gives readers insight into the social pressures experienced during the interwar years; Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island, the shaping influence of World War II on the post-war era.

Historical mysteries remind us that past events are essentially unknowable – can never be irrefutably interpreted or fully comprehended. Since there is no such thing as an objective version of historical events, the historical novel is a powerful medium for presenting the past. As O’Gorman claims:
The most successful writers have always offered us a model of detective fiction in which the materiality of events and the material evidence which points to those events remain mediated through and therefore subject to the narratives that are told about them. (1999, 21)
The detective – like the historian – mines the past for clues, interprets evidence, and constructs a coherent narrative (Scaggs 2005, 122-23; O’Gorman 1999, 20).

Many historical mysteries give readers a new perspective on contemporary society. We see the present more clearly from the vantage point of the past. Leon Garfield reminds us:
It is very hard to represent the familiar strikingly against the familiar. It is like writing on red paper with red ink. It becomes invisible. . . . Things familiar become invisible, and it is only when we move them to another place or another time that their qualities leap out at us. A favourite picture, reframed, becomes almost a new picture, and we remember what first attracted us. (Garfield 1988, 740, 741)
The historical mystery is one of the fastest growing subtopics in the mystery genre (Winks 1998, 1095). The pleasures it affords readers are many.

Garfield, Leon. “Historical Fiction for Our Global Times.” The Horn Book 64, no. 6 (1988): 736-42.

Kelly, R. Gordon. “Historical Fiction.” In Genreflecting: A Guide to Popular Reading Interests, Diana Tixier Herald, 43-52. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited, 2006.

O’Gorman, Ellen. “Detective Fiction and Historical Narrative.” Greece & Rome, Second Series 46, no. 1 (1999): 19-26.

Scaggs, John. “Historical Crime Fiction.” In Crime Fiction. London: Routledge, 2005, 122-43.

Taylor, Daniel. The Healing Power of Stories: Creating Yourself through the Stories of Your Life. New York: Doubleday, 1996.

Winks, Robin W. “The Historical Mystery.” In Mystery and Suspense Writers: The Literature of Crime, Detection, and Espionage, edited by Robin W. Winks, vol. 2: 1089-1101. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1998.