Historical Mysteries Analysis

The Retreat (Introverted Feeling)

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

If a readers’ initial mood is turned in and focused on disturbing emotions, a congenial opening might be an image of retreat from the world, such as a fictional protagonist who has retired from worldly concerns to a place such as a monastery or convent in an medieval mystery. Typically, however, the character’s urge to withdraw is in dynamic tension with the same character’s need to solve a mystery. Historical fictions are not the only literary works that may begin with the theme of retreat, but the use of a historical setting helps to distance action in a way that can make a novel itself an escape for present-day readers.

Agatha Christie’s historical mystery Death Comes as the End (1944) is a good example of this pattern of the initial retreat, probably because of Christie’s own personal predilection to retreat from crises, both fictional and real. She is best known for her nonhistorical mysteries featuring Miss Jane Marple and Hercule Poirot, both of whom are often in states of semiretirement. When Christie’s first husband asked her for a divorce in 1928, she disappeared from public view for ten days. It was an emotional withdrawal so extreme that she later said it induced amnesia. Although she managed to pull herself together enough to return temporarily, she eventually left for the Middle East—an area very remote from Europe in those days. She later married an archaeologist and devoted much of her new married life to digs into the Middle Eastern past.

Christie’s Death Comes as the End juxtaposes nostalgia for its ancient Egyptian setting with distaste for the character Nofret, a family-disrupting concubine. Within the narrow confines of the novel’s plantation, the detective figure, Renisenb, uses her investigatory reasoning to recover from the disturbing loss of her husband. She zigzags between moments of panicky withdrawal and courageous return to detection, as if the narrative were teaching integration of feeling and thinking, as well as of introversion and extroversion. Like most historical mysteries, this book’s emphasis on the distinctiveness of its historical setting may invite readers to associate it with their own pasts, yet find it safer, making it an excellent space for rumination through Renisenb, who finds a handsome new partner. In writing this book, Christie may have been dealing with memories of divorce and remarriage.

Cadfael’s Retreat

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Thanks largely to a popular Public Broadcasting System miniseries, the best-known historical mysteries of the initial retreat are Ellis Peters’s Brother Cadfael books (1977-1994). In reaction to the traumas of the years he spent soldiering and the horrors of a British civil war, Cadfael has withdrawn to a monastery. There, one part of him is content with a relatively isolated life of healing and of raising medicinal herbs, which Peters describes in loving detail. Indeed, this setting is so beautiful that it inspired Rob Talbot and Robin Whiteman to publish Cadfael Country: Shropshire and the Welsh Borders (1990) and Brother Cadfael’s Herb Garden: An Illustrated Companion to Medieval Plants and Their Uses (1996).

Cadfael is actually Cadfael ap Meilyr ap Dafydd, a Welshman living among anti-Welsh Englishmen near the Welsh border, in the part of Shropshire where Peters spent most of her life. In some of Peters’s books, Welsh-English political strife and, more often, murder draw Cadfael from his retreat into the frontier activity of the border, as he helps the local sheriff. Although he encounters a grown son whom he begot in the Middle East, his primary devotion is to the long-dead St. Winifred, whose bones Cadfael escorts to England in the first book in the series. Cadfael calls the saint his “girl” and speaks affectionately to her remains in Welsh. Despite occasionally helping young lovers to unite, he himself has retired from secular romance and turned toward more saintly pursuits.

Classical Retreats

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

An important attraction of reading literature from earlier periods of history is being able to enter distant mirrors that reflect one’s current worries, while simultaneously distancing one from those same worries, thereby soothing one’s emotions. Consequently, modern pastiches of classical literature often feature the theme of the retreat. Stephanie Barron has written a long series in which the early nineteenth century English writer Jane Austen writes autobiographical thrillers. Barron’s titles range from Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor (1996) to Jane and His Lordship’s Legacy (2005). Although Barron’s Austen meets men with whom she works closely in the solving of crimes and sometimes tastes scandal thereby, she is guaranteed to remain single and above the social hubbub, usually in some relatively rustic retreat.

Michael Crichton retells the early Middle Ages English epic Beowulf in his novel Eaters of the Dead (1976). Crichton’s novel is, in a sense, a historical mystery that contains an initial retreat—Ibn Fadlan’s recoil from the barbarities of the Vikings. Historian Paul Doherty has written a series based on Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (1387-1400). His own titles include An Ancient Evil (1994), Ghostly Murders (1997), and The Hangman’s Hymn (2001). His starting point is Chaucer’s pilgrims, who spend time diverting themselves by telling tales. According to Doherty, the pilgrims tell stories about mysteries in the evening. In An Ancient Evil, for example, the Knight tells about a cult of Satanists who were supposedly destroyed long ago but who the abbess of the Convent of St. Anne’s believes are guilty of renewed horrors. Indeed, retreat is probably the most common premise of historical mysteries; however, the labyrinth is almost as prevalent.

The Labyrinth (Introverted Thinking)

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

While all mysteries immerse readers in puzzles, labyrinthine historical mysteries begin as puzzles within puzzles. Both characters and readers sense that they are constantly at the point of becoming lost, and mazes of historical details heighten their confusion. Retreat, frontier, or ideal themes may also occur in labyrinthine narratives, but it is the nature of this theme to reduce other such motifs to mere twists within it. Jorge Luis Borges’s 1941 short story “El Jardín de senderos que se bifurcan,” which was translated into English as “The Garden of Forking Paths” is one of the most influential of such works.

In Borges’s story, the highly introverted and scholarly Dr. Yu Tsu is, for his own complex reasons, spying for the Germans during World War I. He needs to inform them about a secret British artillery installation. By an intricate series of chances, he encounters a scholar of Chinese culture, Dr. Stephen Albert, who knows a secret from a previous century about the spy’s ancestor, Governor Ts’ui Pen. Albert has discovered that the governor retired from office to write a novel filled with anomalies. For example, the protagonist perishes in the third chapter, yet is alive in the fourth, because the book is a maze of temporal possibilities. Despite being grateful to learn of his ancestor’s literary achievement, Yu Tsun shoots Albert, so that newspapers recording the incident would connect his name with Albert’s, thereby signaling...

(The entire section is 533 words.)

Roman and Byzantine Labyrinths

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Indeterminacy dominates several major mystery series set in ancient Rome. One example is the Marcus Didius Falco series, which Lindsey Davis launched in 1989 with The Silver Pigs. Like Jorge Luis Borges himself, the fictional Falco was once promoted to chicken inspector—an ambiguous honor. In his predilection for tangled stories, Borges often chose traitors as heroes, and Davis’s Falco is a professional traitor—a delator or informer, who wanders through the maze of noir Rome in the pay of the emperor. Since Robert Graves published his novel I, Claudius in 1934 and especially since the airing of the 1976 miniseries based on that book, ancient Rome has been popularly regarded as exemplar of high intrigue and corruption. It has become the setting for numerous historical mysteries, including John Maddox Roberts’s SPQR books (1990-    ) and Steven Saylor’s Roma Sub Rosa series (1991-    ). Roberts’s Roman detective is often unable to charge the real criminals whom he identifies because they are too powerful be called to account in a corrupt era. Saylor’s detective is also at odds with the city’s almost ubiquitous conspiracies and cruelty.

Despite the historical evidence of widespread intrigues and corruption in ancient Rome, it was not that city but the ancient Greek city of Byzantium (now Istanbul) that became synonymous with conspiracies and corruption and gave the English language the word “byzantine,” a synonym for devious and labyrinthine. Mary Reed and Eric Mayer have made that ancient Middle Eastern metropolis their setting for their John the Eunuch series (1999-    ). John is a Mithra-worshipping eunuch living with an officially Christian society in which he is as much at risk from his treacherous employers, the emperor and empress, as he is from the criminals whom he pursues.

Other Asian Labyrinths

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Not only Byzantium but all of Asia long ago acquired a reputation among Westerners for incomprehensible complexity. According to Anabasis Alexandri, by the second century c.e. Greek historian Arrian, an ancient Phrygian oracle proclaimed that whoever untied the intricately entangled Gordian knot could also conquer Asia, which was equally complex. Metaphoric of Western force, Alexander the Great simply cut the knot. However, modern Western authors writing mysteries set in Asia tend to be attracted to Asia’s very complexity—even when they have to invent it themselves. One such writer was Robert H. van Gulik.

After publishing a translation of the eighteenth century Chinese mystery tales of the Dee Goong An as Three Murder Cases Solved by Judge Dee in 1949, van Gulik began writing his own mystery stories about the famous seventh century Chinese judge, starting with The Chinese Maze Murders (1956). Since van Gulik hoped to inspire a renaissance of the mystery genre in Asia, he actually released a Japanese version of the book in 1951 and a Chinese one in 1953. However, regardless of the book’s language, its contents are tinged with Orientalism—projections of Western authors’ own desires on the East. The stories in The Chinese Maze Murders are all about a garden labyrinth similar to Borges’s “Garden of Forking Paths.” They also include a tale on that Occidental cliché “The Murder in the Sealed Room” (the title...

(The entire section is 617 words.)

The Open Frontier (Extroverted Feling)

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Most detective fiction conforms to one or both of the first two introspective themes, the retreat or the labyrinth. In both forms, armchair detectives often fight against armchair villains, such as Sherlock Holmes’s nemesis, Professor Moriarty, who manages his criminal empire from the confines of his own study. In stories of the retreat, introversion is usually deliberate on the characters’ part. With the labyrinth, it is often a result of disconnecting conditions under which the characters function. For example, Rowland’s Sano would prefer to do his own legwork, but after he becomes chamberlain, he must depend on the assistance of either his handicapped subordinate or his wife—despite conventions against a woman detective.

The retreat involves the emotion to retire, while the labyrinth involves the intellectual decision to act indirectly. In either situation, protagonists mirror the inherently introspective situations of readers puzzling over the mysteries. These are very effective, and thus common, manners of eliciting reader empathy. Readers who prefer vicarious adventures over introspection may turn to the smaller number of extroverted historical mysteries. These works seek out periods in the past mostly for their potential excitement. In contrast to the claustrophobic retreat and labyrinth themes, the open frontier theme is agoraphobic, offering panoramas so vast as to be profoundly challenging. Its best-known genre, the Western mystery, connects the indistinctness of physical and political boundaries with lack of moral boundaries for outlaws pursued by detectivelike heroes.

The Western as a Paradigmatic Open Frontier

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

In Zane Grey’s Lone Star Ranger (1915), Buck Duane finds that the temporary absence of a sheriff in town tempts him into violence. This in turn leads him into a career as an outlaw, but he is plagued by nightmares. After he receives a pardon for his crimes, he becomes a Texas Ranger, investigating crimes—emotionally rather than intellectually. In a similar vein, Louis L’Amour’s Borden Chantry (1977) has as its murder investigator a marshal who can only detect with the skills he learned herding cattle, and like Duane, he relies heavily on his guns rather than his mind.

To be more intriguing than Lone Star Ranger or Borden Chantry, Western mysteries must reinvent both genres. An...

(The entire section is 479 words.)

Other Frontiers

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Although the American West may be the most prominent frontier, it is not the only frontier in historical mysteries. Lauren Haney has set her Lieutenant Bak series (1997- ) in the Egyptian desert when Hatshepsut was pharaoh during the early fifteenth century b.c.e. In A Path of Shadows (2003), Bak tracks prospectors through a desert, where nomads serve functions comparable to American Indians in Westerns. Spear fights substitute for shootouts, and Bak simply has to stay alive until the mystery unwinds.

P. F. Chisholm’s Sir Robert Cary series (1996-2000) has a sixteenth century Warden on the border between England and Scotland. Acting as both judge and sheriff, Cary patrols a...

(The entire section is 162 words.)

The Threatened Ideal (Extroverted Thinking)

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Perhaps the clearest example of the threatened ideal theme can be seen in Elliott Roosevelt’s twenty-volume series featuring his own mother, Eleanor Roosevelt, as a detective. The series’ idealization comes both from Roosevelt’s filial admiration for his mother and from his mother’s reputation as a powerful feminist hero. Threats to that idealization include reactionary Americans and Nazis. America stands therein as a place where anyone with sufficient extroversion and intellect can achieve greatness. Similar uses have been made of American, or partly American, women detectives in numerous historical mysteries, including Robin Paige’s ten-volume Kate Ardleigh series and Rhys Bowen’s three-volume Molly Murphy series....

(The entire section is 277 words.)

Medieval Ireland as Threatened Ideal

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

America is far from being the only part of the world idealized in historical mysteries. For example, Peter Tremayne presents medieval Ireland as an egalitarian utopia. Its virtues have coalesced into the sleuth Sister Fidelma, whom Tremayne introduced in 1994 in Absolution by Murder, the first of more than sixteen novels he published about Sister Fidelma through 2007. Fidelma entered a religious order to gain an education, not to escape. Without violating seventh century Irish custom, she marries a monk and acts at various times as defense lawyer, prosecuting attorney, and judge. Ellis contrasts this culture with Saxon barbarism and the period’s allegedly misogynistic Roman Catholicism, which Ellis presents as...

(The entire section is 222 words.)

Other Approaches to Historical Mysteries

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

The structures described above account for the majority of historical mystery novels: volumes that begin with one attitude and then usually alternate with a complementary one, as if to take readers into a special version of the past where balance is being achieved. This pattern, however, does not always account for theory-driven books, such as Robert Graysmith’s The Bell Tower: The Case of Jack the Ripper Finally Solved . . . in San Francisco (1999). Presented through partly fictionalized details, Graysmith’s book contends that the Baptist minister John George Gibson committed both the London ripper murders and two murders in San Francisco. Although Graysmith himself is involved in introspective thinking, the book is...

(The entire section is 337 words.)


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Adamson, Lynda. World Historical Fiction: An Annotated Guide to Novels for Adults and Young Adults. East Lansing, Michigan: Oryx, 1998. Relatively comprehensive bibliography with excellent indexes, including special author and genre indexes.

Browne, Ray B., and Lawrence A. Kreiser, Jr., eds. The Detective as Historian: History and Art in Historical Crime Fiction. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 2000. Assessing the historical accuracy of mysteries, the essays in this collection are very useful for those considering historical mysteries as history lessons, but not for those interested primarily in their...

(The entire section is 240 words.)