Hilary Mantel's winning the Man Booker Prize for Wolf Hall (Holt, Oct. 2009)--a novel of Tudor England focused on Thomas Cromwell, one of Henry VIII's closest adviser--makes this an appropriate time to reflect on a major mystery subgenre--the historical.
The past decade has seen an explosion in both quantity and quality. Never before have so many historical mysteries been published, by so many gifted writers, and covering such a wide range of times and places. As St. Martin's and Minotaur editor Keith Kahla puts it, “From a small group of writers with a very specialized audience, the historical mystery has become a critically acclaimed, award-winning genre with a toehold on the New York Times bestseller list.”
How did all this begin? There are widely disparate views of what should be considered the first historical mystery. Many credit Agatha Christie, whose Death Comes as the End (1944), set in Thebes, 2000 B.C.E., understandably unaware of the publication nine years earlier of Wallace Irwin's obscure and anachronistic Julius Caesar Murder Case, featuring “Publius Manlius Scribo, star reporter and sports columnist on the Evening Tiber.” More accurately perhaps, Barry Zeman, of the Mystery Writers of America, points to American author Melville Davison Post's Uncle Abner short stories, written in the early 20th century, but set in the previous one, as “the starting point for true historical mysteries.”
Ancient historicals, spanning the pre-Christian era to the late fifth-century A.D. and set principally in Egypt or Rome, continue to flourish today. About 20 years ago, three writers independently thought of setting a mystery in ancient Rome. Lindsey Davis was first with 1989's Silver Pigs, which introduced Marcus Didius Falco, who sleuths during the reign of Emperor Vespasian, followed by John Maddox Roberts's SPQR novels and Steven Saylor's Roma Sub Rosa series.
Minotaur will publish Davis's 20th Marcus Didius Falco novel, Nemesis, in September. Roberts's 13th book, SPQR XIII: The Year of Confusion (Minotaur, Feb.), brings protagonist Sen. Decius Metellus to 46 B.C.E., barely a year before the assassination of Julius Caesar. Another talented writer in this subsubgenre is Rosemary Rowe, whose Requiem for a Slave comes out this month from Severn House. Readers fascinated by ancient Egypt can indulge their appetites for crime with Nick Drake's books featuring Rahotep, Seeker of Mysteries, the latest of which is Tutankhamun (Harper, July).
Many credit Ellis Peters with creating the historical mystery label, through her beloved series featuring 12th-century crusader-turned-monk Brother Cadfael, which kicked off in 1977 with A Morbid Taste for Bones. Numerous talented writers have taken up Peters's mantle by setting their plots throughout the Middle Ages. Today's best in this period include Tony Hays, who had the intriguing idea of combining Camelot with crime. Forge published the second in the series, The Divine Sacrifice, in April.
Eric Mayer and Mary Reed explore the sixth-century Eastern Roman Empire in their John the Lord Chamberlain series, most recently with Eight for Eternity (Poisoned Pen, Apr.). A British standout is Susanna Gregory, whose latest in her 14th-century Cambridge series, The Killer of Pilgrims, is due from Little, Brown U.K. (IPG, dist.) in August. I.J. Parker makes 11th-century Japan accessible and compelling in The Masuda Affair (Severn House, Oct.) and other of his Sugawara Akitada books.
Moving into the early modern era, Cora Harrison offers an excellent series, set in 16th-century Ireland, about a female magistrate. Severn House will publish the fifth entry, Eye of the Law, in June. A Jewish sexton and a rabbi turn detective in Kenneth Wishnia's The Fifth Servant (Morrow, Jan.), set in 16th-century Prague.
The 19th century is also well represented in the ranks of contemporary historical mysteries. Michael Gregorio (the husband-wife team of Jacob and Daniela de Gregorio) enlightens readers about Napoleonic-era Prussia along with providing insights into the heart of human darkness in their novels featuring magistrate Hanno Stiffeniis. Minotaur will be publishing the fourth in the series, Unholy Awakening, in September. British author Andrew Pepper brings a noir sensibility to his series set in pre-Victorian London featuring Pyke, a former Bow Street runner, introduced in The Last Days of Newgate (Phoenix [IPG dist.], 2008). Russian author Boris Akunin stands out with two series set in his native country in the late 19th century. The most notable in his Sister Pelagia series, about a provincial nun, is Sister Pelagia and the Black Monk (Random, 2008).
Great work is also being set in the early 20th century. Charles and Caroline Todd set a new standard for psychological realism with their Inspector Ian Rutledge series (The Red Door [Morrow, 2009], etc.), which unfolds twisty murder puzzles for Rutledge to unravel and movingly depict the mental scars brought home by those English soldiers who survived the brutal trench warfare of WWI. While Anne Perry is best known for her Victorian-era Pitt and Monk series, she's also written a quintet with a WWI background, concluding with We Shall Not Sleep (Ballantine, 2007). And Jacqueline Winspear's unusual English PI, Maisie Dobbs, also deals with the aftermath of the conflict. Harper published Winspear's seventh in the series, The Mapping of Love and Death, in April.
For fans of cozier mysteries, there's MWA Grand Master Elizabeth Peters's series starring archeologist Amelia Peabody and her extended family in WWI-era Egypt and the Middle East. Morrow published the 19th in this popular series, A River in the Sky, in January.
Those interested in the WWII era have many choices as well. Stalinist Russia has been chillingly portrayed in Tom Rob Smith's Child 44 and The Secret Speech (Grand Central, 2008 and 2009). Smith's books have now been joined by another treading the same terrain—William Ryan's first in a planned series, The Holy Thief, is due out from Minotaur in August. Mark Mills's The Information Officer (Random, Feb.) mixes the search for a serial killer with the Axis bombing of Malta. Philip Kerr's Bernie Gunther novels, most recently If the Dead Rise Not, (Putnam, Mar.), explore the complexities facing an honest German police detective working under the Nazis. Alan Furst's Spies of the Balkans (Random, June) examines part of the European theater of war little known to U.S. readers. Billy Boyle, an American serving in Europe who happens to be related to Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, will solve his fifth mystery in James R. Benn's Rag and Bone (Soho, Sept.).
And that's just the tip of the iceberg. Historical mysteries nowadays cover a wide scope of human experience. Some of the very best of today's work is set on murderous roads less traveled. Eliot Pattison, best known for his Edgar-winning Inspector Shan books set in Tibet, brings pre–Revolutionary War North America vividly to life in Bone Rattler and Eye of the Raven (Counterpoint, 2007 and 2009), conveying the complex relationships between Native Americans and Europeans via gripping murder mystery plots. British author Simon Levack's phenomenal Aztec mysteries, only two of which have been published in the U.S. (The Demon of the Air and Shadow of the Lords [Minotaur, 2005 and 2006]), feature a solid and original premise matched by their execution.
The best writers ground their captivating story lines firmly in what is known about the period they write about. Many sate the reader's curiosity about where they have and have not diverted from the historical record in informative postscripts. However, as author Andrew Pepper correctly points out, “There is no such thing as a pure and untainted historical record. All history is narrative, and all histories are shaped according to contemporary issues and agendas. Verisimilitude, not accuracy, should be the benchmark for the historical writer.” Along the same lines, Priscilla Royal, who has written six medieval mysteries (Poisoned Pen will issue Valley of Dry Bones in October), notes, “Even if we rely on primary sources, we must remember that document survival is accidental, alternative points of view often did not survive, and thus we are left with a skewed view of the period.”
It's easier to get some details right than others. As Margaret Frazer, whose The Apostate's Tale (Berkley, 2008) and other Sister Frevisse books are set in 15th-century England, observes, “The hardest thing is staying ‘in period,' of having the characters behave according to their time, their beliefs, not ours.” That doesn't matter as much for everyone. By contrast, Tom Rob Smith deliberately made the female lead in both his books “very modern rather than historically accurate, because I had no desire to write a female character who wasn't integral to the plot.”
And getting the facts and psychology straight, as best one can, is only a first step. Historian turned novelist Barbara Corrado Pope struggles with conveying what she knows about late–19th-century France effectively, to avoid information dumps in dialogue and description in her books featuring French magistrate Bernard Martin (Cezanne's Quarry and The Blood of Lorraine, Pegasus, 2008 and July). Some authors, such as Rosemary Rowe, avoid that problem with a detailed foreword setting the stage for the drama to follow. Others take a different tack. For example, Eliot Pattison uses his woodland Indian characters' “actions to define them as very spiritual beings,” rather than write detailed accounts of ritual practice that read like excerpts from an anthropology treatise.
Will this period be remembered as the golden age of the historical mystery? Many writers in the field hope, no doubt in part out of enlightened self-interest, that this is merely the silver age, precursor to something even bigger and better. Anne Perry believes that while “this may be the golden age of historical mysteries, I always like to think that we get better as we go along.”
Lenny Picker is a freelance writer in New York City.