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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Classic Corner: Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth (1905)

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Photo Credit: Book cover for the Dover Thrift Edition of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, 2002, uploaded 6 July 2008 by Wolf Gang: Wolf Gang/Flickr/CC BY SA 2.0

~~~Classic Corner is a new blog post series where I talk about classic literature that I’ve read.~~~

I’m happy to announce I have a new blog series. Every now and then, I’ll be posting about a classic book I’ve read. I read a lot of classic fiction and, unlike contemporary fiction, it takes a different mindset to enjoy classic books (which will be the subject of a future blog post). I try to bring out a little of why I enjoy classic literature so much in these blog posts, and I hope readers who might be a little wary of those “old books” will see we can enjoy these books as much as readers did at the time they were published.

When I thought about how I wanted to start this series, there was no question in my mind — I had to begin with Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. Wharton is one of my favorite authors, both because I love Gilded Age and Progressive Era literature, and because she is one of the godmothers of psychological fiction. Not only that, Wharton had a reputation for having been sympathetic to women’s plight and the limitations women endured in these eras, making her an early feminist writer.

The first time I read the book, I adored it. I loved the protagonist Lily Bart and saw her as a feminist character in the way she wouldn’t settle for any man, defying the Victorian ideal of the separate spheres. I also loved the descriptions of the elegant world Wharton knew, the New York elite at the turn of the century. Wharton’s novel was one of the first classic stories I read after I rejected potboiler romances in my teen years. I credit the book for beginning my love affair with classic literature.

The second time I read this book was years later while in graduate school. While my passion for the book hadn’t cooled (I still find it a page-turner), my affection for Lily Bart was a different story. By that time, I had studied quite a lot of women’s fiction and women’s history. I recognized Lily Bart as not the feminist heroine I had envisioned her the first time. I saw her as rather vain and selfish, the Victorian version of the entitlement generation. I had little patience for the ease with which she criticizes others and the snobbish airs she takes of the well-to-do New York society in which she circulates but, in terms of money and position, doesn’t really belong (the old saying, “beggars can’t be choosers” comes to mind). I was especially affected by the way she constantly puts down the one real friend she has, a working class reformer named Gerty Farish. In Lily’s eyes, Gerty is shabby, poor, and sanctimonious because she doesn’t live on Fifth Avenue, doesn’t attend afternoon teas, and works hard to help young women worse off than herself.

Photo Credit: Illustration from The House of Mirth, 1905 by A. B. Wenzell. From a scene where Lily Bart is leaving Lawrence Selden’s apartment house and passes by a woman cleaning the stairs. Note Bart’s haughty pose, as if to say “How dare this lowlife get in my way of passing on the stairs?”: Sherurcij/Wikimedia Commons/PD 1923 

My third reading of the book happened a few years ago. By then, I was a published author and working on my own Gilded Age novels depicting the upper class (though mine takes place in the West Coast rather than the East Coast). I can’t say I’ve changed my views much about what kind of character Lily Bart is. I still see her, for the most part, as self-centered and shallow, though not without other redeeming qualities (like her feminine charm and self-awareness). However, since experiencing my own characters caught up in the power of wealth and social status that identified the Gilded Age in America, I realized I had been making what is probably the biggest mistake readers make when approaching classic literature: I was reading the book from the point of view of my own time and not from the perspective of the time in which it was written. Armed with some background on the era, I now understand why she behaves the way she does, what motivates her socially and psychologically. 

Wharton was anxious to show the waste “old moneyed” New York put upon young women like Bart in order to be accepted into that society. Bart is a product not just of her time but of her social and psychological circumstances. She does what young women who wanted to belong to the exclusive circle of New York high society had to do. Beautiful, young women in Gilded Age New York were taught that their only asset was their looks and their willingness to comply and they had better make the most of these qualities while they could by snagging a rich husband. So Bart’s obsession with finding a rich husband may seem artificial by contemporary standards, but she was taught nothing else by her mother and the society in which she aspired to belong.

My interest in The House of Mirth isn’t just as a reader but also as a writer. In my upcoming book, Pathfinding Women, which is Book 3 of my Waxwood Series, the subject of marriage is very much on the minds of both Vivian Alderdice, the unofficial protagonist of the series, and her mother, Larissa. Vivian doesn’t have the problem that Lily Bart has (no money). Her problem is more one of age. In this book, Vivian is twenty-six, and in Gilded Age high society, any young woman who wasn’t married by the age of twenty had a problem. There are also other, more personal reasons why both Vivian and Larissa are anxious to see her married.

Want to know more about this upcoming book? You can read about Pathfinding Women, which will be out in August 2020, here. If you’d like more information about the series, take a look at this page.

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