Historical Mystery (part 1)

Whether set in ancient Egypt or the 1920s, readers are sure to find a historical mystery set in a period they love. In this episode, Brook and Sarah discuss the origins of historical mysteries and share some of their favourites.

Books and authors mentioned

William Shakespeare

Leo Tolsoy

Sir Walter Scott

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Agatha Christie Death Comes as the End

Brother Cadfael series by Ellis Peters

Anne Perry The Cater Street Hangman

Umberto Echo The Name of the Rose

Andrea Penrose’s Wrexford and Sloane series

Iona Whishaw’s Lane Winslow series

C.J. Sansom’s Shardlake series

Tasha Alexander’s Lady Emily series

“The Three Apples” in One Thousand and One Nights

Deanna Raybourn Lady Julia Gray series and the Veronica Speedwell series

Crocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters

Philippa Gregory

References

“Deanna Raybourn on Mistaken Perceptions of the Victorian Age”. Writer Writer Pants on Fire, Feb. 28, 2022. Ep. 194

https://celadonbooks.com/what-is-historical-fiction/

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Music: Signs To Nowhere by Shane Ivers – www.silvermansound.com 

Transcript

Sarah Welcome to clued in mystery. I’m Sarah.

Brook And I’m Brook and we both love mystery.

Sarah Good morning, Brook. How are you today?

Brook I’m great, Sarah and I’m very excited to be talking to you about historical mystery.

Sarah Yeah, I’m really excited about this today because it’s a topic that is near and dear to me. It’s probably one of my favorite subgenres of of mystery and I almost always have a historical mystery on the go whether I’m listening to it or or reading to it. I almost always have a historical mystery on the go whether I’m listening to one or reading one. So I’ll just start with an overview um historical mystery in western writing is relatively new, really only gaining popularity from about the late 1970s but I wanted to to look a little bit more broadly at historical fiction where there are some earlier examples.

So, Shakespeare for example, wrote historical fiction plays Antony and Cleopatra, Julius Caesar. They were set well before the time period that Shakespeare was living in and that’s one of the criterium for historical fiction that it’s set at least fifty years before it’s written and that’s true for historical mystery as well.

Moving forward a little bit, Leo Tolstoy, Sir Walter Scott, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote examples of historical fiction and they set readers’ expectations with respect to keeping a focus on capturing the essence of the time through character clothing their mannerisms and the setting. So readers won’t accept an automobile if the story is set in Regency England unless it was an alternate history or historical fantasy.

Early examples of modern historical mystery novels include Agatha Christie’s Death Comes As the End, which is set in Egypt in 2000 BC and published in 1944. If we jump ahead a little bit to 1977, we see the release of the first book in the popular Brother Cadfael series by Ellis Peters and that was set in twelfth century England. A year later, Anne Perry’s first book, The Cater Street Hangman was published and it’s the first of her Thomas and Charlotte Pitt series which is set in Victorian London and she carries that series on through their son in a series that’s set in Edwardian England and then she’s got another set in early Victorian England as well. Umberto Echo’s The Name of the Rose is set in fourteenth century Italy and was published in Italian in 1980 and English in 1983.

I found several references to it as really spurring the popularity of the genre. And it it’s sold over fifty million copies in the last forty years. Several other authors have found success in historical mystery. And some that I’ve read and really enjoyed include Andrea Penrose’s Wrexford and Sloane series which is set in Regency England; Iona Whishaw’s Lane Winslow mysteries, which are set in the interior of British Columbia and take place following the second world war; C.J. Sansom’s Shardlake series is set in Tudor England. And Tasha Alexander’s Lady Emily series set in Victorian England. There’s several series as well that are set in the 1920s or during or after the First or Second World wars and of course there’s many standalone books.

So really any period of history I think a reader is sure to find a historical mystery set then. I could go on, but I’m just going to close this really brief overview by saying that there are some examples of historical mystery from outside western literature. Ah, the short story collection One Thousand and One Nights contains a story called “The 3 Apples”, which is considered a mystery and there’s something called “Gongan stories” from China and these feature Judge Dee and Judge Bao Zheng, both of whom were actually real people. I’ve only read one story featuring Judge Bao and it was presented more as a fable. I just started listening to a translation of a Judge Dee story and and I can certainly see the parallels to what we consider modern mysteries in terms of going to visit the crime scene and and looking for clues.

So, Brook, I don’t know if you feel the same way but historical mystery doesn’t seem as flashy to me as some of the other mystery categories like domestic thriller or spy fiction. You know I don’t think that the book of the summer is going to be a historical mystery but I keep returning to this genre because of the focus on solving the crime and the joy of being lost in another time. And I know you read um, historical fiction. Do you find the same thing?

Brook Yeah, definitely I hadn’t thought of that but you’re exactly right. It’s not as flashy. It maybe seems a little bit more quiet and intellectual. I find the same thrill and the other thing that I think is so. Fun about historical mystery is you are going to not have the technology because even if it’s just fifty years ago from now you know we’re not going to have computers and cell phones and that stuff that’s ready at your fingertips and so it. Harkens back to the more traditional golden age mystery I think because the sleuth and their sidekicks have to be reliant on the clues and the evidence at hand. So I think that that’s very endearing to me.

And then I just love, like you said, to be put into another time period and I love to learn the little tidbits that the author gives us and sort of educates us on that era. Even if it’s just a little bit. It doesn’t have to be a lot but I just love that.

Sarah I agree. That’s one of the things that I that I really enjoy. I’ve never formally studied history. So, you know, I didn’t take any university courses that were that were in history. But I have gone on to read nonfiction or read a little bit more about a historical period or a particular event after reading it in a historical mystery. It has encouraged me to learn more about things and so, yeah, that’s one of the things that that I like taking away from from these books.

Brook Oh I do the same thing like a lot of times I’ll be reading. I like a lot of Victorian England settings and if then I like have a little search going on for podcasts that are about the you know the true events of that era and then I’ll find a documentary that I want to watch it just sort of opens up a whole rabbit hole of of research and that’s just it’s really fun.

So that makes me wonder, Sarah, how important is it to you that everything be really historically accurate?

Sarah So it it actually isn’t that important to me. I know some people feel it’s very very critical that everything be as historically accurate as possible and so you know I write in historical mystery and I try not to incorporate things that I know didn’t exist when when the characters were were living. Like I said in the introduction, there’s no cars because in Vancouver we didn’t have them until a few years after ah after my stories are set. But it’s almost fun to figure out if something was historically accurate or not. I love reading the author’s notes at the end of historical fiction books because they’ll often talk about “Okay this is this is what actually happened. Or if you know if you want more information here’s some resources to look at and here’s where I fudged things a little bit.” So, I think as an author you you have some creative license to create a character to create an event to maybe push something up a little earlier than it originally happened because it fits the story.

Brook Yeah.

Sarah I don’t have any problem with that. But I think there’s there’s probably some people who who feel very strongly otherwise.

Brook Yeah, that’s really interesting. In preparing for our episode, I listened to a really great interview a podcast interview with Deanna Rayburn who of course writes the Lady Julia Gray mystery series and the Veronica Speedwell and she was saying that, somewhere along the line, she got the recommendation to, as she’s doing her research, to decide that 70 percent of it is just for her and 30 percent of it can make it into the book. So it just flavors the the prose. And she was saying you know if you really want to learn about an era or an event then you should probably go get a nonfiction book because you know her stories she was saying were meant for entertainment, then they’re fiction. She’s going to take some liberties and she’s going to have some creative license and so I think that that’s true. You know I was thinking about how I don’t write historical but you’re never going to read my books and get a lesson on the criminal justice system the way a crime is 100 percent investigated because it’s a cozy mystery and there’s going to be some creative licenses taken and I think we need to give that same grace to authors who write historical.

Sarah One of the things that I read to prepare for our conversation today was Agatha Christie’s historical novel Death comes As the End and there were a couple of things that I thought were really interesting. It’s the only historical fiction that she wrote and it’s also one of only four of her books that has never been adopted for screen. I don’t know why that is you know I’m sure would be you know, considerably more expensive to create a set that was Ancient Egypt. But it was definitely an Agatha Christie novel. There were murders and and I wasn’t entirely sure who the who the person behind it was. But it did feel a little bit different to her other books. And I do think it’s interesting that that was the only historical fiction that she that she wrote and I tried to find but couldn’t figure out what the reception at the time was for it. But I imagine because it’s the only one that she wrote it didn’t get it didn’t sell enough that she wanted to continue to write historical mysteries.

Brook Yeah she’s definitely someone that probably would would have continued if it had been successful. You know she she was very smart about her her career that way. One thing you noted in there is something I really wanted to bring up because I think that a lot of readers get this wrong that, and you said it at the opening, a historical mystery needs to be set in a time period historical from the author’s era or perspective, not historical from this point back. I listened to a show not too long ago and the host of it was recommending golden age mysteries as historical fiction and it’s like no, that’s not that’s not what that means it needs to have been written by the author as a piece of historical fiction.

But to get back to to Agatha, that is one that I have not read and, and it sort of sticks out as an anomaly in her canon, I think and and it almost like to me, I think that’s why it hasn’t ever popped up as something that I have really been drawn to. Because it seems different but it’s good to know that it still feels like a Christie novel when you read it.

Sarah It’s set in a family estate in in Egypt. So you know, kind of like a manor house. There’s you know lots of lots of characters and and lots of deaths. But there is something. I don’t know if I can articulate what it was that was that was different and to your earlier point, I was thinking about you know the difference between screen adaptations of of her mysteries that we see today which, you know, I can understand why the the person on the podcast that mentioned golden age mysteries as as historical mysteries because you you could almost classify the screen versions that we’re watching today as historical mysteries.

Even though when her stories were published. they weren’t historical, they would have been modern at the time. But I wonder if some of the appeal of particularly her screen adaptations, apart from the mystery, is how they’re so rooted in time. We’ve talked before about how they may be pushed ahead or or back a couple of years those adaptations but they’re never adapted in the way that Sherlock is for example, set in present day right? And so I don’t know if the way that they’re rooted in time is part of the appeal of her stories. And then I was also wondering about the continuations of her stories where I’m thinking of Sophie Hannah for example. Would that be considered historical mystery?

Brook Oh, that’s a conundrum. That’s a really good question. I’m not sure about that. I mean, I guess technically it is because she’s writing in that era from our modern day. So that’s so interesting, Sarah. And I actually also read an Egypt historical mystery to prepare for today and it was Crocodile on the Sandbank which is by Elizabeth Peters. Do you have a favorite era, Sarah, of historical mystery?

Sarah That’s a really good question, Brook. Yeah, it’s a really good question. So I I really like the Shardlake series set in Tudor England because I really like historical fiction from from that period as well. I’m thinking of Philippa Gregory and all of the books that that she wrote. I absolutely devoured those. So it was fun to read the Shardlake mysteries and maybe learn a little bit more about that that period of time and think about mysteries then. I think that’s probably my favorite era.

Every now and again I think, “Oh maybe that would be an era that I would write in.” The other era that I think I would write in, even though I know virtually nothing about it, so I’d have to do so much research, would be medieval. I also really like Victorian England. I mentioned Tasha Alexander’s Lady Emily series and Anne Perry’s Thomas and Charlotte Pitt series, which is one of my favorite series and it’s very long. I think there’s close to 30 books or maybe even more in that series. So you know you can get really immersed in that.

And what about you, Brook? Which is your favorite?

Brook I wrote down the Shardlake series because I also like devoured the Philippa Gregory series. So I think that that sounds really good. I also loved the television series The Tudors. That that era is also really fascinating to me. I was going to say I think you should jump in and do the medieval series, Sarah, because you know one thing the farther back you get the less there is. The historical record is squishy as it is so getting all the research just exactly right becomes less and less daunting than say, writing about the 1920s.

Sarah Yeah I would I would agree with that I think the further back you go the more creative license you have and it would be a really good excuse to spend some time in some European city that has a lot of history to do some research.

Brook Yeah, you need to go on a lot of castle tours I think.

Sarah Exactly. So maybe maybe I’ll work that into my plan. So, Brook I think this has been a really  interesting introduction to historical mystery and I know we’re going to dig more into it in our next episode when Sara Rosett joins us, which I’m really really looking forward to.

Brook Yes I cannot wait and I can’t believe that Sara Rosett is coming on the show to talk with us. It’s just going to be so exciting. Thanks for joining us today on Clued in Mystery.

I’m Brook.

Sarah And I’m Sarah, and we both love mystery.