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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What I Read: A Confessional Post

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Photo Credit: The Librarian, Guiseppe Arcimboldo, 1570, oil on canvas, Skokloster Castle, Lake Malaren, Sweden: Armbrust/Wikimedia Commons/PD US

August 9 is Book Lover’s Day. As an avid reader and writer, books are as essential to me as breathing. Books were my dreamworld, my refuge from an emotionally difficult childhood.

This Book Lover’s Day, I decided to make a confession to my readers here. I am not like many authors who read voraciously in their genre. I hardly ever read books written by contemporary authors. I don’t mean contemporary literature, which you might expect of a historical fiction author. I mean books written by contemporary authors, even historical fiction. Most of my reading is classic literature, books written fifty or one hundred years ago or more.

Part of my upbringing involved people who lived in their own fantasy worlds. That, combined with my highly sensitive nature made me developed my own dreams and fantasies. My psychological reality growing up was an isolated childhood couched in strangeness and trauma, and my way of dealing with it was to live outside of reality as much as I could with daydreams, journaling, and writing. I was never out of touch with reality (neither were my parents). I just preferred this fantasy world I had built for myself, which was my safe, happy world. A large part of that world came in books I read. Books gave me an escape into a world far more controllable than mine was.

While I was always a dreamer in love with the fantasy world of books, it wasn’t always true that I was in love with classic literature. As a teenager, I read the classics only when they were assigned at school. My leisure reading was contemporary to my time. But when I entered college, I discovered an entirely new world. As an English major, I was exposed to what is known as the “literary canon” from the birth of English literature to modern times. I read the likes of Dante, Dickens, Bronte (all three of them), and Fitzgerald, among many others, for the first time in my life, and I learned about all the important literary movements, like Romanticism and Modernism. I lived in these books, in the world of the characters, far removed from what I had ever experienced as “real life”. They took me into another time as well as another place, where I could rest my imagination. Most English students hate literary analysis and a colleague of mine once complained that learning how to analyze a literary text made her stop enjoying the books she read. But for me, literary analysis taught me to pick apart language, characters, and themes, so that I saw how relevant the passions and pains of, say, an Anna Karenina or a Daisy Miller were to me, even though my life was so different from theirs.

After college and after grad school (again, in English, so I got to read even more classic texts), I continued to read these books. My Kindle app is probably about 90% classic fiction. Some of the authors are well-known but others are more obscure, such as Gertrude Atherton, Anais Nin, and Jane Bowles. 

Last year, when I started to work on my Waxwood Series, I made an attempt to read historical fiction written by contemporary authors. I did this mainly because I wanted to see what other authors were doing and the old adage given to authors of “read in your genre” was making me feel guilty for not having sought more of these authors before. The majority of books that I started to read I would put down at some point. It had absolutely nothing to do with the authors or the quality of the books. It had to do with my personal comfort zone. Reading is so necessary to my psyche that trying to read these books, which made me feel like a fish out of water, I felt as if I were slogging through a field thick with tall wheat without a sickle. There were a few I enjoyed with, such as Anna Hope’s The Ballroom and Gregory Harris’ The Endicott Evil but the majority of these books just didn’t speak to me. I wish I could tell you why.

So after a long, hard struggle with myself after a year, I realized I am just not going to enjoy reading if it feels like a chore. So I’m now back to my beloved classics.

I’ve discovered beyond enjoyment there are also practical benefits to reading the classics. These books prepare me better for writing historical fiction because they put me inside the language and everyday life of the past as well as give me windows into the attitudes, morals, and mentality of the people living at that time. There is no denying that the rhythms of the past are very different from the present (as they should be) and it’s very difficult for historical authors writing today (myself at the top of the list) to capture those nuances. Reading classic fiction puts me in this mindset. 

These books are also a surprising source of information for me, sometimes better than all the research books I can find. For example, it’s been very difficult to find a lot of information on the aristocracy of San Francisco in the Gilded Age, a major component of the Alderdice family in my Waxwood Series. While there is a lot out there about this distinct class during this period of American history, most books and articles focus on those who lived on the East Coast, like New York City and Boston. But much of the research I’ve found seems to neglect the West Coast aristocracy in this time. However, I discovered a wonderful writer who wrote many of her books about this class in San Francisco and the Bay Area in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries —Gertrude Atherton. Her detailed discussions of the rise of the aristocracy in San Francisco in the mid-19th century in one of her more well-known books, The Californians, gave me a lot of information I couldn’t find anywhere else that helped shape the Alderdice family past and present. A few of her other books that tackle this society in the Gilded Age and at the turn of the century have also been very helpful to me. 

To find out more about the Waxwood Series, you can go to this page. Book 1 of the series, The Specter, is out and you can find out about that here. Book 2 is now in the works and set to be released in December of this year, so here’s the information about that.  

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