What is it we love about murder mysteries? An old enemy of mine maintained the appeal came from order – that in murder mysteries, everything happens for a reason (even if it’s a bad reason) and that’s inherently comforting in chaotic times. An old friend of mine (reader, I loved him) used to consume an unending stream of murder mysteries to ease the burdens of his rather onerous job, and he said the appeal came from the fact that justice always triumphs (“which is not always the outcome in real life,” he used to sigh, “however much we may strive for it”).
I’ve been an avid fan of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes mysteries from the beginning, so to those two very good theories I could add a third: mysteries please us in part for the joy of watching pointed ratiocination at work. In our ordinary lives, thinking usually doesn’t happen pointedly – we come at problems sideways, we defer realizations until after our TV shows are done, we let our most promising lines of contemplation drift off into complicated fantasies involving Taylor Lautner. For most of us, the protracted aria of proud link-by-link deduction produced by somebody like Hercule Poirot is one hell of a compelling dream. This also accounts for the backlash popularity of mystery’s muddlers, the sleuths who slip and trip into the truth.
Whatever the root causes of the murder mystery’s appeal, though, the result is the same: the library shelves and used bookstore bins are filled with them, to the point where you start to wonder if more people have been murdered on paper than were ever murdered in life. And for the last fifty years or so, a booming sub-genre of that profusion has been the historical murder mystery. We’ll never know who the anonymous genius was who first had the inspired realization that people in the past must have had to solve crimes just like people in the present (technically, even Doyle was doing a bit of this), but in the 20th century, borne aloft by the boom in historical fiction just generally, the sub-genre exploded. Historical figures from Socrates and Aristotle to Ben Franklin and Abigail Adams somehow found time amidst all the rest of their activities to snoop in warehouses and question evasive priests, and even more popular were the adventures of invented characters set down in the past and interacting with the great and the infamous from their own day.
The rise of this second type of historical murder mystery is only natural – even through the mists of time, we know a little too much about the movements of somebody like the Black Prince or Joanna the Mad to make it credible that they could be dueling with tennis rackets atop the 4:15 to Paddington. But a thoroughly invented My Lord of Loverwurst can get into all kinds of scrapes (including punching the Black Prince in the nose – or punching Joanna in the nose, if he’s a blackguard) without prompting that most lethal of historical fiction questions from the reader: did that REALLY happen? If you force the reader to ask that hated question too often, you lose that reader to those boring old sods who write history, and the game’s over.
No, the key is to create a historical stand-in who’s in a believable position to encounter mysteries (we will forever adore Agatha Christie specifically because the Miss Marple stories are so infinitely unlikely) – an army officer, a government official, the king’s better-looking cousin, etc. This person must have access to famous historical figures and events, but the ‘public’ face of those figures and events must be allowed to proceed unperturbed, like some grand floating parade, while the dirt and skullduggery happens around and underneath them. King John still signs Magna Carta – little knowing that our intrepid castellan has just disarmed the would-be crossbow-cocking assassin.
A good example of this is the first of our three debuts, Murder in the Place of Anubis, Lynda Robinson’s 1994 first novel starring Lord Meren, chief investigator to the teen pharaoh Tutankhamun. In this first adventure Lord Meren must unravel the murder of Hormin, a detested scribe whose body is found in the sacred embalming-dedicated precincts of Anubis. Since the pharaoh is a living god in his society, Meren carries a good deal more authority than most historical sleuths, but his best weapon is his own reflective nature, which Robinson manages to convey just as effectively as she does her well-researched background. Meren is a man who’s smart enough to listen to his own reactions, and every time he does, he starts to learn something:
As he listened to Selket, Meren became aware of his own vague uneasiness. At first he couldn’t understand his discomfort, but then he realized that the woman talking to him shifted from fury to complacency and back again in half a heartbeat. When she spoke of Beltis, her eyes took on the look of a rabid hyena, yet moments before she’d mentioned Hormin with a sweet lilt in her voice.
At the opposite end of the social spectrum from Lord Meren and his unlimited authority is Marcus Didius Falco, the downtrodden working-stiff hero of Lindsey Davis’ 1989 debut Silver Pigs. The year is a.d. 70, and Falco is eking out his living in Rome as a poorly-paid informer and part-time snoop. His life changes forever when he encounters beautiful, high-spirited senator’s daughter Helena Justina and he suddenly finds himself embroiled in plots and counter-plots involving no less than the imperial family – genial emperor Vespasian and his two sons, creepy Domitian and suave Titus:
Domitian gave no further sign of nerves. He kissed Helena’s hand, with the half-closed gaze of a very young man who imagines he is brilliant in bed. She stared at him stonily. Titus intervened, with a smoothness I envied, kissing her cheek like a relative as we reached the door. I let him. If she wanted, she was perfectly capable of stopping him herself.
I hoped she realized these two came from an old-fashioned Sabine family. Stripped of their purple, they were provincial and ordinary: close with their money, ruled by their women, and obsessed with work. They both had paunches already, and neither of them was as tall as me.
Falco is the anti-Meren in every way: he intimidates nobody, he carries no authority (even when he’s technically working for Vespasian, it’s clear that if he screws up he’s on his own), and he’s not all that good at deductive reasoning. He has a mongrel stubborn streak that Lord Meren’s type of investigator doesn’t even think to need, so Davis’ readers get a good deal more desperate fisticuffs than Robinson’s do (and a great deal more humor – there are set pieces in the first three Falco novels that alone are worth the price of the books). One key thing they have in common: they each make their historical period come alive.
Veering almost totally in the Miss Marple direction is the first novel in Ellis Peters’ venerable Brother Cadfael series, 1977’s A Morbid Taste for Bones, which introduces Peters’ great fictional creation: the Benedictine monk Brother Cadfael, who came to his religious calling after years of wandering the world as a battle-hardened soldier and is now the chief herbalist at the Abbey of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, in 1137 Shrewsbury. Cadfael is wiser than Lord Meren and more temperate than Marcus Didius Falco – he has a personal passion for seeing justice done in all things, but there’s a distinct undercurrent of irritation in many of his adventures, as though he partially resents these intrusions by the murderous outside world into what was supposed to be his contemplative retirement. The series is some twenty books long, and all of them are fantastic (this rarely happens in murder series, or indeed series of any kind), and they’re all enlivened by Cadfael’s always perceptive, somewhat wry observations of everyone and everything around him:
They met in the orchard, the five of them, Prior Robert presiding in as solemn dignity as ever. Brother Richard read out the saints to be celebrated that day and the following day. Brother Jerome composed his wiry person into his usual shape of sycophantic reverence, and made all the appropriate responses. But it seemed to Cadfael that Brother Columbanus looked unusually withdrawn and troubled, his full blue eyes veiled. The contrast between his athletic build and fine, autocratic head, and his meek and anxious devoutness of feature and bearing, was always confusing to the observer, but that morning his extreme preoccupation with some inward crisis of real or imagined sin made it painful to look at him. Brother Cadfael sighed, expecting another falling fit like the one that had launched them all on this quest. Who knew what this badly-balanced half-saint, half-idiot would do next?
The Abbey of Saint Peter and Saint Paul is near the Welsh border and often caught in pivotal events in the epic struggle between King Stephen and the Empress Matilda – too often, as often happens in the Miss Marple formula. After a few books in this series, even the most willing reader will start to wonder if it isn’t a little odd for all these strange events to be cropping up at this one abbey. Fortunately, Peters’ steely-confident prose is on hand at every point – to be enjoyed whether it’s believable or not.
And these three are just the proverbial tip of the iceberg when it comes to historical murder mysteries, of course. Countless others await our inspection, if the Silent Majority is at all interested in pursuing the case!