Mystery stories set in past historical periods enjoyed a great surge in popularity toward the end of the twentieth century. Many of these books are carefully researched, and some of their authors hold graduate degrees in archaeology, history, and related fields. Despite the often impressive historical credentials behind many of the historical mysteries that are being published, the books themselves frequently reveal traces of their authors’ own modern time periods. Sharan Newman, the author of several series of historical mysteries, admitted as much in her afterword to Heresy (2002). She explains that her novel’s depiction of the panic that occurred at the time of the 1148 Council of Rheims actually portrays millennial fears near the end of the twentieth century. She implied that the world was no more likely to end in the twentieth than in the twelfth century. By describing a fictional medieval detective dealing successfully with millennial paranoia, Newman offers a kind of therapy by suggesting, in effect, that her readers should be at least equally successful in resisting their modern fears.
Such an inherently psychological use of historical mystery goes back at least as far as Sophocles’ drama Oedipus Tyrannos (428 b.c.e.). Although the basic Oedipus story had existed for hundreds of years before Sophocles’ time, its chief relevance to Athens during the midst of the Peloponnesian War was that King...
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