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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Immigration, Riots, and Murder: A Look at America in 1892

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This is the original immigration station on Ellis Island that was built in 1892. It was destroyed by fire in 1897 so a new one was built in its place.

Photo Credit: First Ellis Island immigration station, 1896, personal image of old stereo photograph, author unknown: Charvex/Wikimedia Commons/PD Mark 1.0

The Specter, the first book of my Waxwood Series, takes place in the year of 1892. I’ve already discussed my fascination for the last quarter of the 19th century in two blog posts about the Gilded Age, which you can read here and here. But I thought it would be fun to look at some of what was going on in the year 1892 from a social, political, and psychological standpoint. In The Specter, much of this is not touched upon because I chose to focus on a more generalized sense of what it was like to live in 1892 in relation to how it affected the Alderdice family. But there was also a lot going on externally in the United States at this time.

America went through some milestones in 1892 as a nation. For example, the now infamous immigration station, Ellis Island, first opened its doors in January of that year. While there were other immigration stations in the United States (not the least of which was Angel Island in San Francisco), Ellis Island was the first and largest and the most significant. Many of us will probably remember the scene in The Godfather II that recreates the Ellis Island experience, showing us the crowds and the mustiness of the building in which immigrants were received right off the boat, the indifference of the officials receiving them, and the fear, apprehension, humiliation, and anger it invoked for those arriving in the United States during this time. You can read more about Ellis Island and its history here.

But just as American was welcoming some immigrants in 1892, it was also taking pains to shut out others. In this year, the Geary Act was proposed and passed as legislation, preventing new Chinese immigrants from entering the country and requiring those already in the country to carry identification papers to be produced at any time upon request. The act was an extension of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and did not go without protest from the Chinese communities in the United States (and rightly so) for causing strife and humiliation to Chinese citizens of the United States. You can read a little about that and see images of these certificates of residency here.

I talk in my blog post on the Progressive Era about reforms that were to fall into place in the first few decades of the 20th century. But much of the groundwork was already laid out in the last few decades of the 19th century, at least as far as labor relations were concerned. Nothing epitomizes this more than The Homestead Massacre in 1892. A bloody battle broke out between skilled labor union workers and security guards in the Homestead Steel Works. When the union could not reach an agreement with management regarding contract terms, management locked these workers out of the mill and a strike ensued that was followed by a violent outbreak between the workers and the Pinkerton Detective agents who had been sent to protect non-union workers who were coming in to replace them. Although the strikers lost in the end and the union disbanded, the mill management (especially financial giant Andrew Carnegie) were not shown in a very good light, and this kind of criticism of business management would have effects in the turn of the century with more awareness of worker’s rights and the easing of some of the rigid rules of big business, such as long work hours and inhuman conditions. If you’d like to find out more about the Homestead Strike, you can do so here.   

Photo Credit: Portrait of Lizzie Borden, 1892 author unknown: Wikilug/Wikimedia Commons/PD US

One of my future projects is a historical mystery series called The Paper Chase Mysteries. I love classic mystery stories and I also love classic true crimes, especially those involving women. Probably one of the most famous happened in 1892 with the discovery of the dead bodies of Lizzie Borden’s parents in their home in Massachusetts and their daughter, Lizzie becoming the prime (and only) suspect. I deal a lot with family dynamics and dysfunction in my fiction, so a murder case from the past that involves family always catches my attention. Lots of information on the Borden case focuses on the trial and the fact that Borden was acquitted, but I’m more interested in the “why” of the murders and the family dynamics that might have driven Borden to commit this heinous crime. Money has been suggested as the motivator (Borden’s father was well off but a cheapskate) and also the fact that Borden was controlled by him and wanted autonomy. You can read about that here.

And speaking of crime, here’s an interesting tidbit. Also in 1892, one of the most infamous world’s fairs was supposed to take place, the Columbian Exposition (also known as the Chicago World’s Fair). I say infamous because America’s first serial killer, H. H. Holmes, emerged as the first serial killer in the American during the fair. But the exhibition date got delayed because of a battle between Thomas Edison and Nicholas Tesla over electricity (which was to be one of the main displays of innovation and technology at the fair). Thus, the exhibition was moved to 1893.

To find out more about how the Alderdice family lived and their world in 1892, you can go here. To find out about the series itself, I have a page for that here

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