The Detective as Historian: History and Art in Historical Crime Fiction

The Detective as Historian: History and Art in Historical Crime Fiction

The Detective as Historian: History and Art in Historical Crime Fiction

The Detective as Historian: History and Art in Historical Crime Fiction


Readers of detective stories are turning more toward historical crime fiction to learn both what everyday life was like in past societies and how society coped with those who broke the laws and restrictions of the times. The crime fiction treated here ranges from ancient Egypt through classical Greece and Rome; from medieval and renaissance China and Europe through nineteenth-century England and America.
Topics include: Ellis Peter's Brother Cadfael; Umberto Eco's Name of the Rose; Susanna Gregory's Doctor Matthew Bartholomew; Peter Heck's Mark Twain as detective; Anne Perry and her Victorian-era world; Caleb Carr's works; and Elizabeth Peter's Egyptologist-adventurer tales.


Robin W. Winks

Mystery and detective novels are the bestselling form of popular fiction today, certainly in the United States and Great Britain, and the "historical mystery" is the most rapidly growing branch of the genre. Clearly many readers find pleasure in seeing a mystery set in the past and solved by methods not always available in our times. Of course, logic, the careful accumulation of evidence, and knowing how to ask good questions were as essential in the thirteenth century as they are in the twenty-first, and the historical mystery is not greatly removed from a rousing puzzle set in the year 2000, but there are great differences in technique and in the tools available to both the detective and the criminal. One need think only of DNA, computers, and modern photography to dramatize the gap between the mainstream detective story and the historical mystery.

Why do so many readers enjoy historical mysteries? Surely there are many reasons. These will include a desire for the presumably more ordered world of the nineteenth century. But then why are novels about the disorderly world of the fifteenth century so popular? Surely there are readers attracted to the historical mystery because the bloodshed is, on the whole, less and certainly less gruesomely revealed in most cases; because the casual vulgarities of turn-of-this-century demotic speech are not to be found on the lips of even the most heinous villains of ancient Rome (though equivalents may be abundantly present, undetected by some readers): perhaps because the crimes are less threatening to us than are repetitive serial killings, accounts of wildings in Central Park, and corrupt police. Still, one notes these plot devices creeping into the historical mystery today, as they were certainly present in real life. Perhaps readers who do not much care for history as written by historians, but who enjoy thinking their way back into the past, rid themselves of any residual guilt they may have felt about discussing this subject in school.

I confess that until recently I have disliked historical mysteries. Not too long ago I wrote what I now recognize as a virtual hatchet job on Josephine Tey, exasperated by the number of times her Daughter of Time was praised as a good mystery novel. I still think it is a bad novel and quite misleading as to how historians ask and answer questions, but I now realize, especially having read the many essays in this pioneering volume, that she had no intention of representing herself as a historian and that she shoulders little blame if unwary readers take her to have posed as one. Read objectively, unburdened by the professional historian's regard for methodology, objec-

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