Historical Mysteries Themes


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 532 words.)

Retreat Themes in Sherlock Holmes Mysteries

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Ellis Peters quietly injects modern psychology into her Cadfael stories to help delineate the monks’ semiretirement from the world. Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell series (1994- ) has a protagonist who is well read in works of the pioneering psychologists Sigmund Freud and C. G. Jung. The Beekeeper’s Apprentice: Or, On the Segregation of the Queen (1994), the first volume in the series, is set during World War I, when the fifteen-year-old Russell is plagued by nightmares about having caused the deaths of her father, mother, and brother and decides to live in a secluded British farmstead. Her neighbor is Sherlock Holmes. Apparently in his fifties, Holmes has taken an early retirement so he can study bees, whose company he prefers over that of most human beings. In this, he resembles his brother Mycroft, the founder of the Diogenes club, an organization for asocial Londoners who want to have as little to do with other human beings as possible. To these notable images of defensiveness and seclusion, King has added the metaphor of bees, creatures ready to sting all who intrude on their space—a trait that Mycroft, Sherlock, and Mary Russell share.

Beekeepers segregate young queen bees to protect them from the older queens until they are large enough to reign over their hives. This image applies to Mary Russell’s retreat, but her retreat has other associations, including chess queens and villains, introverted regal figures. With Holmes’s protection and guidance, Russell’s initial rustication allows her to grow into a brilliant sleuth. After she leaves the countryside, her progress becomes a zigzag of adventures and retreats, including small withdrawals to her Oxford studies and a larger retreat to the historic sites of Palestine, in strategic flight from a villain’s attack.

Russell’s goal is clearly to emulate her...

(The entire section is 760 words.)