What is Historical Mystery Fiction?

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Photo Credit: Old book and magnifying glass, taken 20 January 2017: Pxhere/CC0 1.0

The tagline for this blog (bet y’all didn’t know it had a tagline…) is “psychological insights on history, mystery, and the arts.” Much of this blog deals with history, and I’ve dabbled here and there in the arts (such as my revisiting of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth here and my discussion of the role art plays in one of my books here.) But so far, I haven’t dealt with the mystery part of my blog.

Why? Because I wanted to bring you into the world of my current books, the Waxwood Series, and my stand-alone post-WWII women’s historical fiction short story collection (that’s a mouthful…), Lessons From My Mother’s Life. As much as I love classic and historical mysteries, I wasn’t ready to turn to the topic of historical mystery on my blog.

But now that the Waxwood Series has come to a close, I’m super excited to bring you all into my world of historical mystery fiction. So I’m starting with the basics: Just what is historical mystery fiction anyway?

On the face of it, a historical mystery is a subgenre of mystery fiction or, more specifically, the traditional mystery (sometimes called the “whodunit”). Many might see the only difference between historical mystery fiction and mystery fiction is that the former is set in the past while the latter is set in the present (or future, but then, we get into sci-fi mystery if there even is such a thing.)

The genre has a relatively recent history. Classic mysteries like Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Anna Katharine Green’s Amelia Amelia Butterworth series have, of course, been around for quite a while. But these are books set in their own time, and so were contemporary to their original readers, even if they are historical to us. The first actual historical mystery fiction was a series of short stories set in the pre-Civil War era (if you’re curious, they were written by Melville Davisson Post and can be found here.) The first full-length historical mystery novel was written by — no surprise — the Grand Dame of mystery fiction, Agatha Christie. Murder Comes At the End is set in Ancient Egypt, so it’s a huge step away from Christie’s Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple.

The cross between mystery and history becomes interesting when we consider the main purpose of historical fiction is to submerge readers into a world of the past, and the purpose of mystery fiction is to present a human puzzle for the amateur sleuth or detective (and the reader) to solve. Writers of historical mysteries aren’t only building a story around a crime that has to be solved, but they’re also giving readers insights into another era. And not just the daily lives of people living in that era, but the crime and criminals that such an era would have produced and how those crimes were solved and the criminals caught.

The latter is especially important because we have to remember that crime detection, investigation, and conviction has changed drastically over the centuries. There was no DNA testing and no real scientific forensics to help solve crimes in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Fingerprinting, for example, didn’t begin until the late 19th century. So crime detection was relatively primitive and crude in most cases, which makes it more of a challenge for the historical sleuth or detective to solve them, but, I would argue, more fun for readers to follow. 

As a writer, I’m fascinated by how people lived and breathed their time and I love solving puzzles, which is one reason why I decided to delve into the historical mystery genre. My upcoming series, The Paper Chase Mysteries, takes place at the turn of the 20th century when America was beginning to clean up its act regarding the corruption, greed, and graft of the Gilded Age. Progressive Era reforms were starting to take shape in many American institutions, including the judicial system. 

The first book of this series will be out this summer, but you can read more about it here.  

Want to explore the nooks and crannies of history that aren’t in the history books? Like social and psychological history and not just historical events? Want in on exclusive sneak peeks, giveaways, and surveys? Then sign up for my newsletter! You’ll get a free short story when you do.

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“The Most Beautiful Train in the World”: The Coast Daylight in the Mid-20th Century

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Photo Credit: Postcard of the Noon Daylight leaving San Francisco, 1949, Jim Fraiser, Los Angeles, CA: We hope/Wikimedia Commons/PD US no notice

Today, trains seem like one of those quaint, old-fashioned things we reminisce about. But if you’re a writer or reader of historical fiction (or, for that matter, a fan of classic films), trains seem as real as the SUVs and 747s of today.

There’s a romance attached to trains, and this is something I wanted to capture in my story “Soul Destinations,” which is part of the collection in my new book, Lessons From My Mother’s Life. The story takes place in the mid-1950s, when more modern forms of transportation were starting to become popular (such as cars and planes). Joan, the protagonist of the story, is the old-fashioned kind, and her dreams of traveling begin with a train from Los Angeles to San Francisco. I was happy to find in my research that there was an actual train that traveled that route during this era, in fact, quite a famous one.

The train, run by the Southern Pacific, was called the Coast Daylight, or, simply, “the Daylight”. The Daylight’s first run was in 1937, and it soon rose in popularity in the 1940’s and 1950’s. The train was indeed advertised as “the most beautiful train in the world” because of the amazing California scenery that graces the route between Los Angeles and San Francisco (which, if you’ve been fortunate enough to travel the Pacific Coast Highway, you may have seen). The train ride in the mid-20th century was about 10 hours, so people had a lot of time to sit back and enjoy the coastal views and mountains rolling past their windows, to read or sleep or chat or do some soul searching. And they could do it in a luxurious style that I think hardly any train (and certainly no car or plane) can boast today. If you’re curious, here are some photos from the era of the inside of the Daylight passenger cars. They look pretty comfy to me!

Photo Credit: Southern Pacific steam locomotive at Jack London Square in Oakland, CA, May 1981, taken by Drew Jacksich: Flickr upload bot/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.0

The Daylight was also pulled, for a while, by one of the most famous steam engines in America, the 4449 steam engine. It has a futuristic look to it that immediately reminds one of the old 1950s sci-fi films and TV shows (The Jetsons, anyone?) The locomotive was used to pull the American Freedom train in 1976 which traveled all over the county in what made up a moving museum, with lots of American relics on it, stopping at many cities so people could admire them. The 4449 now rests in a museum in Portland. You can see it and learn a bit more about its history here.

The Daylight isn’t only a practical means of transportation for Joan, the protagonist of “Soul Destination” but it’s also symbolic of the journey she and Gary, an aging musician, take into their own pasts that end, as most trains do, at a new destination:

“Isn’t it wonderful how you only have to travel on a railroad track to reach a new place, a new world, even?”

“It’s not enough,” he said in an almost brutal voice. “I’ve been on many train tracks to many new places and new worlds. It’s like the living body and the living soul. One without the other kills them both.”

She took a breath. “You mean your body can be in a different place, but if your soul is the same, you’ll always be back where you started?”

For both of them, the Daylight, then isn’t just a physical destination, but a psychological one as well.

The Daylight, unfortunately, went the way most trains did later in the 20th century, when both car and plane travel became more popular, efficient, and time-saving. In 1971, Amtrak took over the few remaining Daylight trains and turned them into the Coast Starlight, A 35-hour train from Seattle to Los Angeles that still runs today.

To read “Soul Destinations” and the other four stories in Lessons From My Mother’s Life, plus an author’s note and a sample chapter from The Specter, the first book of my Waxwood Series, go here.   

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Art in Lessons From My Mother’s Life

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Photo Credit: Vintage art flea market, created 2 March 2014, uploaded 24 October 2016: teliatan/Pixabay/Pixabay license

If you’ve read some of my books, you’ve probably figured out by now that I love to make associations. I’m drawn to different works of art that often times relate to my characters and help bring out their psychological reality. For example, in False Fathers, the myth of Actaeon and Diana plays a heavy role symbolically in Jake’s story (something you can read more about here and here). 

I usually don’t plan these things ahead of time. During the outline or first draft phases of my writing, certain associations will come to me, and I’ll research a myth, book, artwork, musical piece, etc., and realize the symbolic and/or thematic significance of it and then weave it into the story. Sometimes it becomes something major (like the myth of Actaeon and Diana), and sometimes it gets only a mention. 

Although literature is my usual comfort zone, I also find certain works of art fascinating, and two of these found their way symbolically and thematically in two of the stories in Lessons From My Mother’s Life.

Photo Credit: The Nightmare, Henri Fuseli, 1781, oil on canvas, Detroit Institute of Arts: Hohum/Wikimedia Commons/PD Art (PD old)   

A painting I found a while back while looking for images for my old blog site that absolutely intrigued me was Henri Fuseli’s The Nightmare. I actually did use it for a time until I got my logo and put that on the site. The painting, as you can see above, has very gothic, dark undertones reminiscent of popular late 18th century gothic novels (and the painting was indeed created during that time period). As described in this article, the painting was shocking in its immoral and sexual undertones when it was displayed at the Royal Academy in 1781. The painting appears in my story “Soul Destinations” where Gary, an aging musician haunted by ghosts from his father’s past, tries to explain to Joan, the woman he meets on a train, about a hallucinatory demon named Lucas that exists in his father’s mind:

“Have you ever seen Henry Fuseli’s painting The Nightmare?” Joan nodded. “That woolly demon sitting on the sleeping woman in white,” said Gary. “That’s Lucas. Always crouched over someone with those hollow, evil eyes and that twisted mouth.”

Lucas becomes a symbol for Gary of many things: his failing musical career, his father’s unstable mental health, and the tragedy of a man he never met caught up in the horrors of the Holocaust.

Photo Credit: The Disquieting Muses, Giorgio de Chirico, 1916-1918, The Hidden Art Treasure: 150 Italian Masterpieces, Exhibition in Naples, March, 2017: Carlo Raso/Flickr/Public Domain

The other painting that makes an appearance in Lessons is Giorgio de Chirico’s The Disquieting Muses, which appears in my story “Two Sides of Life.” The painting depicts two of the nine mythical Muses of Greek mythology: Melpomene, the Muse of Tragedy (representing by the sitting muse with the red mask lying near her feet) and Thalia, the Muse of Comedy (who stands beside what looks like a straight candy cane, which represents her staff). The picture, even with its brilliant reds, oranges, yellows, and greens, is disturbing in its abstractions of the faceless, bald muses. 

However, the protagonist of the story, an empty-nester named Leanne, sees the muses differently in a sculpture inspired by de Chirico’s painting shown to her by her husband’s lab assistant, an art enthusiast:

“I’m not familiar with the Muses,” she admitted.

“I wouldn’t expect you to be.” He smiled, sitting on a box in the corner that was too low for his long legs. He looked like a grasshopper resting on a tree stump. “The one with the sword is Melpomene, the Muse of Tragedy. Her sister, Thalia, is the Muse of Comedy.”

“I see,” Leanne murmured. “The two sides of life. Sadness and joy.”

Leanne later relates this idea of two sides of life in her connection with Arlene, a woman who is a generation younger than she is and has only disdain for the women of the Occupation: Housewife era.

I first heard of de Chirico’s painting through reading Sylvia Plath’s poem “The Disquieting Muses”. The painting is striking, through not really my style (I prefer more classical paintings like The Nightmare). Plath’s poem, like my story, appropriates the painting in a different way. You can listen to Plath reading the poem herself here.

If you want to read these stories, feel free to pick up a copy of Lessons From My Mother’s Life. Buy links can be found here.       

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Lessons From My Mother’s Life Release Day Blitz!

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Lessons Front Cover Photo Credit:stokkete (Luciano de polo)/Depositphotos.com      

Title: Lessons From My Mother’s Life

Author: Tam May

Genres: Historical Fiction/Women’s Fiction/Short Fiction

Release Date: March 29, 2020

It was the 1950s. The war was over and women could go back to being happy housewives. But did they really want to?

Women in the 1950s should have been contented to live a Leave it to Beaver life. They had it all: generous husbands with great jobs, comfortable suburban homes with nice yards, two cars, and communities with like-minded families. Their days were filled with raising well-behaved children, cleaning the house, baking cookies, and attending PTA meetings and church events.

They should have been fulfilled. Women’s magazines told them so. Advertisers told them so. Doctors and psychologists told them so. Some were. But some weren’t.

In the 1950s, women were sold a bill of goods about who they were and who they should be as women. Some bought it. But some didn’t.

These stories are about the women who didn’t. They didn’t buy that there wasn’t more to life than making a happy home. Except they didn’t know they weren’t buying until something forced them see the cracks in their seemingly perfect lives.

A teenage bride sees her future mirrored in Circe’s twisted face. A woman’s tragic life serves as a warning about the dangers of too much maternal devotion. And the lives of two women intersect during two birthday parties, changing both of them. These and other moving tales of strength, discovery, and hope are about our mothers and grandmothers and the lessons their lives have to teach us.

This book is the second edition of my 2017 short story collection, Gnarled Bones and Other Stories. This edition has been extensively revised, the stories changed and expanded, and the context moved from the present day to the 1950s and 1960s. This edition also includes a Preface and a bonus chapter from The Specter, the first book of my Gilded Age family drama, the Waxwood Series.

You can pick up your copy of the book at a special promotional price at the following online retailers:

Amazon US: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B084Y7GDV9

Amazon UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B084Y7GDV9

B&N: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/lessons-from-my-mothers-life-tam-may/1136487332

Apple iBooks (iTunes): https://books.apple.com/us/book/lessons-from-my-mothers-life/id1499562199

Kobo: https://www.kobo.com/us/en/ebook/lessons-from-my-mother-s-life

Excerpt

She rose, slipping her hands from his and placing them in the pockets of her dress so he wouldn’t see them shaking. She looked out the window where the sea had disappeared for curvy mountains. “Isn’t it wonderful how you only have to travel on a railroad track to reach a new place, a new world, even?”

“It’s not enough,” he said in an almost brutal voice. “I’ve been on many train tracks to many new places and new worlds. It’s like the living body and the living soul. One without the other kills them both.”

She took a breath. “You mean your body can be in a different place, but if your soul is the same, you’ll always be back where you started?”

“Something like that.”

Her legs felt as fragile as matches as she left the drawing room and made her way down the aisle and into the observation car. She saw that Bea and Carla were both dozing in chairs near the center of the car. She crept past the resting heads and soft snoring people to where the observation section gathered like a cup at the edge of the car. There was one oblong little window that stared right ahead into the vast space of mountainous ranges and gray-blue skies. She watched as the train moved forward, leaving behind her dead soul.

About the Author

Tam May grew up in the United States and earned her B.A. and M.A in English. She worked as an English college instructor and EFL (English as a Foreign Language) teacher before she became a full-time writer. She started writing when she was 14, and writing became her voice. She writes fiction characters who examine their past in order to move into their future and are influenced by the time in which they live.

Her first book, a collection of contemporary short stories, was nominated for a 2017 Summer Indie Book Award. A revised and expanded second edition of this book is now published under a new title: Lessons From My Mother’s Life. She is currently working on a Gilded Age family saga. The first book, The Specter, came out in June of 2019, and the second book, False Fathers, is also now available. Book 3 (The Claustrophobic Heart) and Book 4 (Dandelion Children) will be out in 2020. She is also working on a historical mystery series featuring a turn-of-the-century New Woman sleuth. Both series take place in Northern California. 

She lives in Texas but calls San Francisco and the Bay Area “home”. When she’s not writing, she’s reading classic literature and historical fiction, watching classic films, or cooking up awesome vegetarian dishes.

Social Media Links

Website: http://tammayauthor.com/ 

Blog: https://tammayauthor.com/category/thedreambookblog

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/tammayauthor/

Facebook Readers Group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/tamsdreamersRG/ 

Facebook Blog Page: https://www.facebook.com/thedreambookblog/ 

Twitter: https://twitter.com/tammayauthor

Pinterest: https://www.pinterest.com/tammayauthor/

Instragram: https://www.instagram.com/tammayauthor/

Goodreads Author Page: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/16111197.Tam_May

Amazon Author Page: https://www.amazon.com/Tam-May/e/B01N7BQZ9Y/ 

BookBub Author Page: https://www.bookbub.com/authors/tam-may

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The Feminine Mystique

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Photo Credit: Betty Friedan as photographed in her home, 1978, photo taken  by Lynn Gilbert and uploaded 6 August 2009: LynnGilbert5/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0

Last year, most of my work focused on the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era. I’ve made no secret about the fact that the late 19th/early 20th centuries have always fascinated me.

But last year, I decided I wanted a redo of the first book I ever published and the book evolved into a historical short story collection that takes place during the post-WWII era. The stories and their resilient protagonists were inspired by the social and psychological history of women in the 1950s. The one that made me aware of the paradox of the “happy housewife” which is so prevalent a theme in the stories of Lessons From My Mother’s Life was Betty Friedan.

Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique introduced this paradox to the American public. The book explores Friedan’s experiences talking with women in the 1950s, especially housewives just like herself. She takes a very comprehensive look at the feminine mystique and the institutions that allowed this image to emerge.     

The idea of the feminine mystique has been defined in many ways, but, for me, it’s the idea that a woman’s biological, psychological, social, and spiritual destiny boils down to two things: getting married and having children. There is little else outside these social constructs that a woman can, and should, want. In Friedan’s own words:

“[For] the feminine mystique, there is no other way for a woman to dream of creation or of the future. There is no way she can even dream about herself, except as her children’s mother, her husband’s wife.” (p. 59)

I think this is really the crux of the mystique: a woman’s identity, her fulfillment in life, her capabilities, and her intelligence are all tied to who she is in relation to the other people in her life. Her role in life is defined, then, as wife, mother, daughter, granddaughter, caretaker, lover, etc.

You’ve probably heard The Feminine Mystique led to the second-wave feminist movement in the late 1960s. But, as Gail Collins, in her preface to the 50th edition of the book points out, that’s not, strictly speaking, true:

The Feminine Mystique did not create the women’s rights movement. Those commissions on the status of women were started by the Kennedy administration before it [the book] was published, and the Civil Rights Act was being debated in Congress while American housewives were still just starting to pass Friedan’s book around. (Friedan, location 128-132)

From a political perspective, this may very well be true. But I think from a psychological perspective, Friedan’s book did much to bring many “a-ha!” moments into the lives of the women (and men) who read it when it first came out in 1963.

Friedan’s book has been heavily criticized, just like any other seminal work on gender politics. For a start, her book is looking at a very narrow population of women: American, white, upper-middle class, and suburban. This was also an issue with the second-wave feminist movement which often addressed the needs of white middle-class women first. The issues relating to women of color, working-class or poor women, older women, lesbians, etc., were either put on the back burner or left out entirely (until women of color and lesbians spoke out and began to form their own groups). The third-wave feminist movement which began around the late 1980s and early 1990s (and still going on today), rectified this situation, as it strives to include all women’s issues and has earned the name “global feminism.” 

The book was also criticized for offering one single solution: that women defy the feminine mystique by getting out of the house and having careers. The implication that being a housewife and mother was not enough for any woman rubbed a lot of housewives (and rightly so) the wrong way. There were also personal attacks made against Friedan, more of which you can read about here.

Lessons From My Mother’s Life contains fictional representations of the feminine mystique. The stories are set in the 1950s and early 1960s, before the second-wave feminist movement. In each story, the main character is fighting against the feminine mystique in one way or another. For example, in my story “Fumbling Toward Freedom,” Susan is a nineteen-year-old college student in love and about to marry an upright young man still in medical school. When she attends an exhibition of Circe sculptures by a local San Francisco artist, she finds in them a message about the consequences of letting love define who you are. The message both entices and frightens her.

To learn more about this book, which reached #1 on the Amazon charts, please visit this page.    

Want to explore the nooks and crannies of history that aren’t in the history books? Like social and psychological history and not just historical events? Want in on exclusive sneak peeks, giveaways, and surveys? Then sign up for my newsletter! You’ll get a free short story when you do. Here’s the link! 

Works Cited

Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique (50th Anniversary Edition). W. W. Norton & Company, 2013 (original publication date: 196). Kindle digital file.

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