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 Story of Actaeon

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Photo Credit: Diana and Actaeon, Francesco Albani, 1617, oil on copper, Louvre Museum, Paris, France: JarektUploadBot/Wikimedia Commons/PD Art (PD Old 100 1923)

For Book 2 of the Waxwood Series, False Fathers, the mythical hunter Actaeon and the story of Diana and Actaeon become metaphors in the book. At one time in the writing process, they were so important I gave the book the title Tales of Actaeon. I talk about that a bit in this blog post. In order to understand how the metaphor is important in the novel, it’s necessary to know a little about Actaeon and the myth.

In the book, the male secret society that plays a role in Jake’s coming-of-age is named The Order of Actaeon. When I was looking to name the fraternity, I had the idea of using a mythical character that represented some of the fraternity’s values and also lent itself to the theme of masculine identity, which is so prevalent in Jake’s story. I came upon the story of Actaeon, the grandson of Thebes’ founder and first king. I was intrigued by Actaeon for several reasons. Unlike many mythical characters, he is rather a mystery. Little is known about him except that he was a hunter and well trained by the centaur Chiron. He’s identified as a Theban hero, but there is no record of a specific deed or act of heroism on his part (at least, none that I could find). All accounts of him focus on the same thing — his encounter with Diana (Artemis) and his fate in her hands.

Diana was known as the virgin goddess of the hunt. She abhored the idea of marriage, and she and her maidens were none too kind to any man who dared try and court them. Her life was about freedom and independence, as this suited her wild nature. Any man who tried to mess with her or one of her maidens did so at his peril. 

The story goes that, one day, Actaeon was wandering in the woods with his dogs and came upon Diana and her maidens bathing naked in a stream. As noted above, Diana and her nymphs were modest ladies, and the idea of a man invading their private sanctuary did not please them. Diana, in her rage, splashed water into Actaeon’s face and cursed him. Almost immediately he began to sprout horns and, within moments, he had turned into a stag. Stumbling back into the woods, he came upon his hunting dogs (which, according to some accounts, number in the 20’s). They did not recognize their master and took him as game, jumping on him and devouring him. Thus, the dogs the hunter had trained to kill had now turned him into the hunted.

The story is generally considered to be a metaphor for human sacrifice to the mythical gods and goddesses. But to me, this is too simplistic a reading. Diana didn’t sacrifice Actaeon — she punished him for daring to impose upon her and her maidens in their moment of nakedness. He compromised their chastity, and this was severe enough to warrant his fate in Diana’s eyes. So there is quite a feminist side to this story when we look at it in modern terms.

How much Actaeon was responsible for his own end has been highly debated. Many versions of the myth show Actaeon as an innocent victim of Diana’s wrath, a hunter who was just wandering around the forest and happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. However, others point out that Actaeon was known for his arrogance and predatory skills (both with game and women), and he may had had a rivalry going on with Diana, since they were both skilled hunters. It would stand to reason that, as hunting is generally considered a “manly” sport, Actaeon would deem himself as the superior hunter to Diana.

In False Fathers, the idea of the hunter plays a role in the theme of masculine identity in the Gilded Age, which is Jake’s is struggle. The fraternity he is invited to join capitalizes on the character of the hunter as part of their masculine identity — cunning, wily, skilled, but also ethical in terms of how and why they hunt. Hunting was more accepted as a necessity for many living in rural 19th century America than it is today, so it would have been more about utilitarianism than sportsmanship. The Order of Actaeon believes in all this, so much so that hunting is one of their main fraternal activities.

There are also some references to the myth of Diana and Actaeon in the characters of Vivian and Stevens, the older man who becomes Jake’s father figure in the book. Stevens sees Vivian, with her rebellious nature, as a modern-day Diana. In fact, he refers to her often as “Diana with her crown of thorns.” Vivian, in turn, reminds him that the wrath of Diana is nothing to be toyed with, referring to the story of Actaeon’s fate:

[Stevens] then turned to Larissa and Marvina and explained, “I told Jake his painting of his sister matched my impression of Diana, the Grecian wood nymph. I don’t think she cared for the idea.”

“You seem to have forgotten,” Vivian said. “That wood nymph turned a man into a stag and let his own hunting dogs eat him alive.”

Stevens looked at her with amusement and fascination, the turbulence gone. “She had good reason. Actaeon came upon her in the woods, and she was compelled to punish him for violating her chastity. If one has committed a crime or a sin, one must pay for it.”

These metaphors of Diana and Actaeon will come back in Book 4 of the series, Dandelion Children.

To read more about False Fathers, which will be out on December 29, 2019 and is now available for preorder, you can go to this link. I also have an excerpt from the book that involves Jake with The Order of Actaeon in my readers group here. And to read more about the characters in this upcoming book, you can check out the series page here.

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The Gilded Age Masculine Identity Crisis

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Photo Credit: Men of Progress, Christian Schussele, 1862, oil on canvas, National Portrait Gallery, Washington D. C: ~riley/Wikimedia Commons/PD old 100 expired

The second book of the Waxwood series, False Fathers, is a coming-of-age story about the male protagonist, Jake Alderdice, transitioning from boyhood into manhood in the late 19th century. In doing my research on masculine ideals of the era, I came across an article that takes an interesting view at the subject. You can find the article here.

According to the author, John Robert Van Slyke, the Gilded Age brought about a crisis in the definition of masculinity for men. I have mentioned in my blog post about the Gilded Age how the chaos and the excesses of the era changed the way in which Americans saw themselves, socially and psychologically. We know how this was true for women, as the Victorian idea of the “angel in the house” was breaking down in the face of suffragism and the new American ideal of womanhood represented by the New Woman.

But many changes were going on for men as well. For Van Slyke, this was represented by “a shift from the term ‘manliness’ to ‘masculinity’” (pg. 2). These may seem like the same or similar, in terms of meaning,and perhaps in our modern way of thinking about gender, they are. But for the 19th century, they were very different. Manliness was a Victorian ideal rooted in abstract realities, a “‘honorable, high-minded’” idea that required “sexual restraint, a powerful will, and a strong character” (Van Slyke, pg. 3). Masculinity, however, was a concept emerging into the new century that implied “‘aggressiveness, physical force, and male sexuality” (pg. 3). So while the qualities of what made a man in the Victorian era (looking back from the Gilded Age) were intangible, those qualities of the 20th century (looking ahead) would be required to be more tangible and measurable.

One reason for this was that America was moving into a more “doer” century, where one’s deeds rather than one’s values would be the measure of one’s character. For men, success in the public sphere was imperative in the Gilded Age, and their worth was judged by their achievements. America was becoming bigger, richer, and more powerful on the world stage. Competition was becoming fiercer. Therefore, a more forceful, physical presence was necessary to succeed.

Van Slyke brings in a nice example of this from the business world. Many men in the 19th century began their business success by getting loans and gaining credit from the bank with which to build their companies (much as entrepreneurs do today). In the mid-19th century, a man could get a loan or credit based on his character. If he proved himself to be a reliable, upstanding, dependable citizen, a hard worker and moral man, those were enough. However, by the Gilded Age, this was no longer possible. It was a man’s prospects and his assets that determined whether he would be given a loan or credit.

This crisis of looking back to manly virtue and looking forward to masculine physicality presented problems for young men in the Gilded Age. Success in the public sphere was still the name of the game, but the means with which they achieved it were no longer based on their fathers’ and grandfathers’ manly virtues. They were based more on how aggressive they could be in business, how wily and cunning they were, and how much interest they had in commercial success.

This crisis is one Jake faces in the book. His artistic nature makes him more contemplative and dreamy, the opposite type needed to become a business titan like his grandfather, and this is contrasted by other male characters his age in the novel. One reason why he accepts Harland Stevens, a middle-aged man who befriends him during his summer in Waxwood, as a surrogate father is because Stevens seems to present the balance between Victorian manliness and Gilded Age masculinity. 

To read more about the book, coming out in December, go here. To read more about Jake and Stevens, take a look here. And if you’d like to read an excerpt from False Fathers, you can do so by joining my readers group here.      

Works Cited

Van Slyke, John Robert. “Changing ideal of manhood in late-nineteenth century America” (2001). Graduate Student Thesis, Dissertation, & Professional Papers. Maureen and Mike Mansfield Library, The University of Montana. 

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