History Mysteries I

Volume 23, No. 4, Winter 2007-08

History Mysteries I
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  • Why I Hate Historical Mysteries (Apart from the Following…) by Mike Ripley
  • Gentleman, Scholar, Courtier or Spy: Henry Gresham by Ayo Onatade
  • The Women Were There! Reviewing the Role of Women Sleuths in Historical Mysteries by Lyn Reese
  • Josephine Tey: The Most Unusual Writer of the Golden Age by Alzina Stone Dale
  • Cold Case Investigation: Crime Solving Through History by Reba White Williams


  • Not Yet, Mrs Robinson by Peter Lovesey
  • Living the History by Suzanne Adair
  • Death of an Archaeologist by Aileen G. Baron
  • Haunted by the Past by Cornelia Frances Biddle
  • A Step into the Past: My Experiences Writing Historical Fiction by Michael A. Black
  • Past Tense by Brett Ellen Block
  • Thoughts on Two Feisty Females by Rhys Bowen
  • Not a Heaving Bosom in Sight by Judith Cutler
  • History: From Failure to Obsession by Carola Dunn
  • Sleuthing Through the Past by Kathy Lynn Emerson
  • It Was a Dark and Stormy Night… by Ann Granger
  • Researching Through a Long-Lasting Civilization by Lauren Haney
  • The Ragtime Kid: Searching for the Fifth “W” by Larry Karp
  • Me and My New Guy by Amy Myers
  • A Passion for the Past by Charles O’Brien
  • Haunted by the Past by Rosemary Poole-Carter
  • Murder, Mischief and Mayhem, in Long-Past Tense by Penny Rudolph
  • Roman (and I Really Mean Roman) Noir by Kelli Stanley
  • Getting Medieval by Jeri Westerson


  • In Short: The Mystery of History by Marvin Lachman
  • Mystery in Retrospect: Reviews by M. Wayne Cunningham
  • MRI MAYHEM by Janet A. Rudolph
  • Letters to the Editor
  • From the Editor’s Desk by Janet A. Rudolph

Not Yet, Mrs Robinson
by Peter Lovesey (Chichester, West Sussex)

Mystery readers watch out. Your favourite bookshops are under siege by ancient Egyptians, conquering Romans, mediaeval monks, cloaked Elizabethans and crinolined Victorians. The rise and rise of the historical mystery has been the dominant trend of the last thirty years. Authors like Ellis Peters, Anne Perry and Lindsey Davis achieved bestselling status. Other high profile writers better known for their modern settings—I’m thinking of Ed McBain, Michael Crichton, John Gardner, Colin Dexter and Ken Follett—could not ignore the trend and produced their own history mysteries.

In the days when there were fewer of them I wrote eight Victorian mysteries between 1970 and 1978 and I am often asked what inspired them. The answer is simple: the lure of money. In 1969 I saw an advert for a crime novel competition with a first prize of a thousand pounds, which was about as much as I was earning as a teacher. The script had to be delivered in a little over four months. Not much time for research and plotting. I’d already published a non-fiction book on the history of athletics, so it seemed sensible to write about something I’d already mugged up, a long distance running race in 1878. Tossing in a couple of murders, some steamy sex and Scotland Yard’s finest, I concocted a whodunnit that was different, if nothing else. The title, Wobble to Death, was catchy, and it won the prize.

In the next seven years I wrote a series using Victorian enthusiasms as backgrounds: prizefighting, the music hall, the seaside, inventions, spiritualism, boating and the waxworks. They were dramatised for the TV series Cribb in 1980 and, together with my wife Jax, I wrote six additional TV scripts using the same characters, Sergeant Cribb and Constable Thackeray. I was in serious danger of being pigeon-holed as a history mystery man and nothing else. I started plotting my escape, writing books set rather later in the 20th century. I suppose they qualified as period pieces, if not what most of us think of as history. One called On the Edge was set in 1946, well within my memory. It took me twenty-one years to break out completely and write my first contemporary crime novel, The Last Detective (1991).

So what is the appeal of the historical mystery? I doubt if I’m qualified to judge. I enjoy writing them, but I don’t read many. I’ve heard it suggested that readers like to escape into the past when so much about the present is depressing. That may be so, but it isn’t obvious to me when I write them. I find I’m more intrigued by things that haven’t changed. It’s amusing to discover that human nature hasn’t altered in thousands of years. The little vanities and the bigger enmities are much the same whether the characters are living in caves or travelling through space.

Take many of today’s hot political topics and you find that people in the past were having to deal with similar problems in their own way. As I write this, the headlines are dominated by drug use in sport. In Wobble to Death, the athletes were taking drugs to improve their performance. The motives were the same, even if the chemistry was different. They pepped up their performance with strychnine; the modern athlete takes something called TGH.

The wider use of drugs in society is not a modern phenomenon. Victorians had their opium dens which were thought iniquitous by respectable people—who took chloral and laudanum as sedatives. The Queen herself was said to have been a cocaine freak, addicted to Marioli’s Cocoa Wine, in which pure coca was the main ingredient.

What else are our newspapers preoccupied with? Terrorism? The Fenian campaign of the 1880s (the basis of Invitation to a Dynamite Party) was quite as serious and scary as the IRA attacks more than a century later. The Fenians succeeded in bombing Scotland Yard, the House of Commons, the Tower of London, Westminster Hall, the Admiralty and Victoria Station.

Another hot topic of today is immigration. Accounts of Irish immigrants being dumped on the English and Welsh coasts by shipmasters after the failure of the potato crops in 1845 and 1846 have a strikingly modern ring to them. And any student of the Jack the Ripper murders of 1888 will confirm that the East End teemed with East European immigrants.

Royal scandals? I got to know Bertie, the fun-loving Prince of Wales, quite well when writing three novels based on the assumption that he would have made a not very competent, but unstoppable detective. Bertie’s situation, wanting responsibility and a hand in the affairs of state, yet compelled to wait, appealed to me. There are parallels with modern royalty that I need not labour here.

One of the delights of weaving history into the mystery is that trivia found in memoirs and biographies can be used to bring colour to the characters and their motives. I like the story of Bertie’s brother, Prince Leopold, having such a crush on Lillie Langtry—the Jerry Hall of her day—that he bought a portrait of her by Frank Miles and hung it over his bed. Queen Victoria spied the drawing and was so scandalised that she climbed on a chair and removed it. I read somewhere else that Victoria in old age achieved the perfect symmetry of fifty-eight inches both in height and waistline. Climbing that chair couldn’t have been easy.

I hope I’ve written enough modern mysteries to ensure that my publishers won’t get more enquiries like the one from a Mrs Robinson in 1981:

Dear Mr Lovesey,

I have read two or three of your Victorian detective stories about Sergeant Cribb with immense pleasure, but I have not written to thank you because I assumed that you died many years ago. My husband Frank says he thinks you may still be alive. We had quite an argument about it in bed last night. I suppose it does not really matter, but we would be very pleased to have this question cleared up.

Yours sincerely etc.

PS Just in case, I enclose a stamped addressed envelope.

Peter Lovesey’s thirtieth novel, The Perfectionist, will be published this spring by Soho and a new collection of short stories, Murder on the Short List, will be published by Crippen & Landru. Peter will be honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award at Malice Domestic.

Thoughts on Two Feisty Females
by Rhys Bowen (San Raphael, California)

I didn’t set out to write one historical series, let alone two. My driving force behind both has been the character, rather than the period.

I had written several books in the Constable Evans series and was enjoying writing them, but Evan was beginning to frustrate me in some ways. Essentially he was too polite. When his superiors were rude to him and put him down he took it on the chin and went away muttering. I wanted a character who spoke out, even when this wasn’t a wise thing to do; who had a strong sense of justice and didn’t always know when to back off. Gutsy but not always wise—more like me, in fact. I spent a good deal of my school years standing outside the door or visiting the principal because I couldn’t keep quiet in the face of injustice.

I was thinking about where to put this character when I visited Ellis Island for the first time. I had expected the visit to be interesting but I was not prepared for the overwhelming emotions I felt there. The very walls were crying out to me, telling me that this had been a place of great joy and great sorrow. Standing on the island and looking across at the Manhattan skyline I was struck by the visual metaphor. So near and yet so far. I thought of all those people who failed the medical inspection, and were going to be sent back home, for some reason or another. I just had to write about it.

Also as I stood on the island and looked across the water to the Manhattan skyline, I realized that this was a setting for the perfect locked-room mystery. Nobody could leave the island unless the government said so. And so Molly Murphy became an Irish immigrant who has fled from her native land after accidentally killing the landowner’s son when he tried to rape her. She comes to Ellis Island using an assumed name. While she is there a man is brutally murdered and the name she has assumed shows up as one of the prime suspects. She has to clear her name or be sent back to Ireland to be hanged.

This first in the series was called Murphy’s Law. It won the Agatha as well as three other awards. It was only when Molly stepped ashore in Manhattan that it hit me what I had done. What did I know about New York in 1901? I had committed myself to research on every page for the rest of my life.

That has turned out pretty much to be true. I research the big picture for each book before I start. Each book focuses on a particular aspect of life in turn of the century New York: spiritualism, anarchism and the assassination of President McKinley, the conditions in the sweat shops, Coney Island, life in the theater. But as I write I have a pile of books, maps, photos beside me and I really do have to look something up on every page. Because I truly believe that if a writer chooses to set a story in a particular historical period, every little detail has to be right. I once spent a whole morning finding out where Molly would have bought a hair ribbon. It was not particularly important to the plot. She needed to tie back her hair, that’s all. But it was important to me that she went to the right store. And if anyone read the book who knew about New York and its history, I would somehow have authenticated the entire story by that small action.

And believe me, if I get the smallest detail wrong, somebody will write to me about it. Readers love to catch out writers. So research has become a big part of my life, but mostly it’s a labor of love. I have a big map of New York in 1900 on my wall and I stick flags in with the names of restaurants, theaters etc as I learn them. It’s like piecing together a jigsaw puzzle and after seven books, that puzzle is closer to being complete.

I hadn’t realized I had become something of an expert until I was in the map room of the New York public library and was looking at a map of Manhattan, 1902.

I called over the librarian who had brought me the map. “What makes you think this is 1902?” I asked.

“It says so on the back in pencil,” she replied.

“Well, it isn’t,” I said. I saw her looking at me. This strange Englishwoman is telling me that my map is wrong. I pointed to the East River Bridge, now called the Williamsburg Bridge. “It’s shown as finished,” I said. “I have photos of 1902. There were only two towers with a cable strung between them. It wasn’t finished for over another year.”

“Oh,” she said. A minor triumph.

The Molly Murphy series has been very successful. Each book has received awards and nominations. I love spending time with the feisty Molly. So why did I feel the need to try my hand at something very different? To be perverse, actually. My publisher had been bugging me to write the big, dark stand-alone. I kept trying to come up with ideas and then I’d turn on the TV and the world was full of darkness. So I went as far in the other direction as possible. I called my agent and told her I had a very silly idea. She loved it. Publishers loved it and I love writing it.

It’s Her Royal Spyness, of course. My heroine is Lady Victoria, Georgiana, Charlotte, Eugenie. She’s 34th in line for the throne but she’s flat broke. England is in the middle of the Great Depression in 1932. Her royal kin want to marry her off to an obnoxious European prince she has dubbed “Fishface.” She flees to London. So how does a minor royal survive on her own? How does one boil water? How does the milk arrive on the doorstep? Georgie attacks life with spirit. She even starts a business cleaning other people’s houses. In fact she takes everything in her stride until a body turns up in her bathtub.

Whereas Molly strives to be an accurate representation of the struggles of immigrants at the turn of the 20th century, Georgie is pure fun. The book is lighthearted but wicked satire on the British class system, particularly the foibles of the aristocracy. And it has turned out to be the most autobiographical thing I have ever written. Not that I’m 34th in line for the throne, but many of my friends have been from the upper crust, and then I married into such a family, with royal connections going back to Edward III. My husband has cousins with silly nicknames. We have relatives who own stately homes. And so lots of little personal anecdotes have crept into my story. So far I haven’t to do much research for this one. I’m writing about people and places I know. And it’s such fun!

During the years I’ve been writing historical stories, I realize why I like setting books in the past: first there is the challenge to transport the reader to another place and time and make it come alive. But above all there are all those lovely motives for killing that no longer exist: “I love another but I am not free.” “I am the true heir to the family fortune.” “Nobody must know the secret of my illegitimate child.” “She is not from my class so we can never marry.”

How silly these things seem today and yet in the time I write about people would kill for such reasons. It is interesting to note in both my historical series how important the class structure was to society until recently. There are still plenty of great motives waiting for future murders and I still look forward to spending time with both these feisty females.

Rhys Bowen writes the Molly Murphy mysteries, set in 1902 New York City and the new Her Royal Spyness series, set in 1930s London. Her books have been nominated for every major mystery award and she has won eight of them. Rhys is a transplanted Brit who makes her home near San Francisco.

Buy this back issue! Available in hardcopy or as a downloadable PDF.