To be considered a “historical” mystery, a story’s events don’t have to have occurred in ancient Athens or Rome, as long as they happened at least 50 years ago. Lou Berney’s award-winning November Road, involving the 1963 assassination of President Kennedy, Play the Red Queen set in the early days of the Vietnam War, and Kate Quinn’s new Bletchley Park spy novel, The Rose Code (World War II), certainly qualify.
In some ways, the difficulty of mastering the historical details—especially for near-past milieus where readers actually remember fashions, transportation, and pop culture references and may be delighted to ding an author who gets it wrong—is balanced by not having to deal with today’s instant communications and surveillance tools.
It’s hard to maintain tension when your reader is thinking, “Why didn’t he just pick up the phone?” This explains why characters are always leaving their cell phones in the truck or losing signal or battery. “Why didn’t he just Google it?” Having to devise plot workarounds for these difficulties makes a writer occasionally long for simpler times, in technology terms, at least. The stories of 12th century Brother Cadfael suddenly gain appeal.
Janet Rudolph’s current highly entertaining issue of Mystery Readers Journal (Spring 2021) takes on Historical Mysteries with author perspectives, articles, and reviews. Rhys Bowen’s essay “Why I Write Historical Mystery” made a number of thought-provoking points. She opts for glamour in her long-running Royal Spyness mysteries and the lure of romance in the popular standalone, The Tuscan Child.
About World War II as a setting, Bowen says it was “the last time when we had a clear sense of good versus evil.” (True, at least, for Eurocentric countries, less so in other parts of the world, I fear.) As Rose Code author Quinn explained in a lively interview with the Princeton Public Library, the main reason she’s not tempted to turn her mountains of research into some even-handed non-fiction account is that in fiction, “you get to pick a side.”
The MRJ essay by Renee Patrick (nom de plume of married couple Rosemarie and Vince Keenan) discusses their series of Hollywood golden age mysteries in “Crimes of Fashion.” The protagonists, New Yorker Lillian Frost and legendary costume designer Edith Head, embody “tenacity, hard work, and an uncanny ability to read people,” which also make an ideal sleuth. It wounds like the duo’s experiences prove once again that “clothes make the man.” Third in the series, Script for Scandal, came out last December.
What are your favorite historicals? Mine include the Maisie Dobbs series (WWI), the early novels of Alan Furst (WWII) and the stories of Ben Pastor from inside the Third Reich and, and, and . . .
Insights from more historical mystery writers in Part II tomorrow!
Fabulous Sue Grafton froze her Kinsey Milhone series in the 1980’s so I would say that series could qualify, even though it wasn’t at the 50 year mark. My novel, The Heist, was set in 1992 during the Great Chicago Flood and I’ve always considered that a historical as well. Having written a bunch of westerns as of late, I was struck at the difficulty of the process, especially with the use of language. Current idioms and metaphors don’t really fit if your story is set in the past, and you also have to be careful in using verbiage that is appropriate for the time period you’re writing about, but confusing to present day readers. I’d recommend anything by Louis L’Amour or the Toby Peters series by my friend and mentor, Stuart Kaminsky.