Magazine article World Literature Today

Credibility and Popularity in the Historical Mystery

Magazine article World Literature Today

Credibility and Popularity in the Historical Mystery

Article excerpt

Recently, I noticed The Alfred Hitchcock Hour reruns on the Encore Suspense cable channel and watched a 1964 episode with Lillian Gish called "Body in the Barn." Like most of Hitchcock's episodes, it was based on a previously published story (by Margaret Manners) and cleverly misdirected the viewers' attention from the essential clue. Centering on the identity of a body, the sleight of hand wasn't realistic even in pre-DNA 1945 when the story was published in Argosy, unless the police and medical examiner were careless (which they were, and often are).

Yet the episode was one of the better ones in the series and, like many mysteries, allowed the viewer to overlook the logical flaws. Stories are made up, after all. The interesting issue for a writer is what allows someone like Margaret Manners to get away with something like this. One of the best Sherlock Holmes stories, "The Speckled Band," has hardly a detail in it that is true, and it is unusual among mystery stories only because it has such an abundance of errors. A significant element allowing the suspension of disbelief for "Body in the Barn" was the historical feel of it. Although it was set contemporary to the time period in which it was filmed, there was a rural context. It was broadcast in black and white. The very presence of Lillian Gish (whose acting career lasted from 1912 to 1987) playing Aunt Bessie, a snoop who sips apple jack contrary to doctor's orders, gives the whole episode an antique feel, never mind the big 1960s cars. A trial and an execution take place in months, instead of the years we now require. A character in the episode runs away to sea. Even in 1964, "running away to sea" sounded sepia.

Continuing this line of thought, might we not say that one of the appeals of historical mysteries is this trait of adding credibility to the incredible? Initially we might think that a historical setting for fiction creates certain limitations. Yet the fact that the reader knows she is not reading history allows the writer to grind off the rough factual edges of history. Historians develop extensive and, to be sure, deeply informed conceptions of Abraham Lincoln's motivations, Napoleon's neuroses, and the Elizabethan worldview, but these conceptions are, for all their sophistication, oversimplifications. One generation's understanding of a previous age is the next generation's canard. History is not just written by the victors, but rewritten to make victors despicable, and then again to be exemplars of another generation's values, and then again to be something unrecognizable to previous generations.

But a historical background in fiction is an escape from the quotidian drabness and moral ambiguities of our own age. Carolyn G. Hart has spoken of the difficulty of getting the cell phone out of contemporary mysteries. Why doesn't our plucky heroine dial 911 while stalked in the woods by the villain? A contemporary author must contrive a lack of service or a dead battery to compensate for the lack of isolation so available to earlier characters. Is the consumptive John Pilkington the father of young Master Pilkington? He has Lord Rumpybumpy's eyes, but the lusty gamekeeper Henry's hearty build. Hmm. In our time we simply swab the inside of the suspect's cheeks. Poor John's anxieties can be addressed with DNA's near certainty. The tension has been gutted. The entertainment is overwhelmed by what has become mundane.

But a historical background in fiction is an escape from the quotidian drabness and moral ambiguities of our own age. Carolyn G. Hart has spoken of the difficulty of getting the cell phone out of contemporary mysteries. Why doesn't our plucky heroine dial 911 while stalked in the woods by the villain? A contemporary author must contrive a lack of service or a dead battery to compensate for the lack of isolation so available to earlier characters. Is the consumptive John Pilkington the father of young Master Pilkington? He has Lord Rumpybumpy's eyes, but the lusty gamekeeper Henry's hearty build. …

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