With a resurgence of interest in historical settings for novels, romances, and mysteries, it’s interesting to look back at some of the titles and authors popular in the past. Surprisingly, many of them have stood the test of time. And among these are well-known mysteries that were actually contemporary when they were being written in the “Golden Age,” the 1920’s, but today, fall into the historical genre. Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, and Dorothy Sayers are good examples, and because they were skilled storytellers, their work has lasted. Even in his own day, Robert L. Stevenson’s Kidnapped (1886) and Treasure Island (1883) were set in the past, as was Edgar Allan Poe’s marvelous The Gold Bug, 1843, showing just how popular this genre has been for a very long time.
It’s also worth noting that the work of some authors from the past have spawned new books revisiting the same settings or periods, while others have depended on films and TV to carry their titles to fresh audiences.
Georgette Heyer, who published her first novel in 1921 and her last in 1975, wrote what were called Regency Romances, although (unlike some of their literary descendants) their historical context was beautifully researched. The carriages, the conversation, the styles of bonnets and the world of the Prince Regent ring true and popularized the period. Because of the dry humor or threads of romance in some of her books, they have quite often been overlooked. Today’s Anne Cleeland has taken this concept a step further in her historical mysteries—a tongue-in-cheek approach that aims to entertain. The Bengal Bride Gift, for instance, is completely improbable, but lots of fun as a mysterious man tells a convent-raised girl that he has come to marry her. She on the other hand, has an entirely different view of the matter. Barbara Cartland—The Wicked Marquis—made a fortune with make-believe historical romances that—so the story goes—she dictated. She remains the third best-selling author of all time.
For those who found romance too tame, there were the Lust in the Dust historicals, so-called because they went beyond sweet romance into explicit sex as hero and heroine worked things out in exotic locales. Rosemary Rogers (Sweet Savage Love) and Kathleen Woodiwiss (The Flame and the Flower) spawned an entire genre. In their day—the 1970’s—these books were often read behind a plain brown cover because they were considered risqué in some quarters.
Gothics, following in the tradition of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, were extremely popular long before women broke into the mystery field itself. These were not strictly in the historical genre, but were often set in the past where women were dependent in a male-dominated world, and so they shouldn’t be overlooked. Mary Stewart whose career spanned several decades, from 1955 to the late 1980s, wrote a series on Merlin the man and the “historical” person, and another series of women-in-jeopardy mysteries. Nine Coaches Waiting was one of her most popular. Victoria Holt, with an even longer creative span—the 1940s to the 1990s—was also a master at these books under that name and also as Jean Plaidy and Philippa Carr. Mistress of Mellyn and Bride of Pendoric come to mind, but she also wrote Victorian, Norman, Stuart, Plantagenet series, to name a few—even a novel on Victoria and Lord M. The wide appeal of these books opened the door to other writers, some of whom, like Mary Higgins Clark, created modern day heroines who solve their own problems without a strong male character to rescue them.
Inspired by gothic fiction and the birth of the traditional mystery, Anne Perry and others broke into the mystery field with detective stories set in the Victorian period, and Perry moved on the Great War in a separate series. Charlotte and Thomas Pitt, (The Cater Street Hangman) followed by William Monk of the Thames River Police and his wife Hester, a nurse, (The Face of a Stranger) remain very popular because they were well researched and historically interesting. While romance sometimes figured in the books, they were mainly mysteries. Laurie King with her Mary Russell mysteries, (The Beekeeper’s Apprentice) used Sherlock Holmes as the bedrock of her heroine’s story and carried her into the Great War. Elizabeth Peters (aka Barbara Michaels/Barbara Mertz) brought us the mysteries of Amelia and Emerson Peabody, set in Egypt and following their family through the great days of tomb exploration. (The Crocodile on the Sandbank). Barbara had a PhD in Egyptology and knew what she was talking about.Even in his own day, Robert L. Stevenson’s Kidnapped (1886) and Treasure Island (1883) were set in the past, as was Edgar Allan Poe’s marvelous The Gold Bug, 1843, showing just how popular this genre has been for a very long time.
But what about historical novels that have either some mystery or a lot of mystery, but wherein the period itself is the star? These are generally very well researched, and bring alive a period or an event (as we have done with The Great War in England) but give it a human face.
An early example would be Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, where the fate of an imprisoned Richard the Lionheart is hanging in the balance. Ivanhoe also discusses anti-Semitism by presenting the Jewish community in England in a favorable light, unusual in 1820. Edith Pargeter’s The Heaven Tree trilogy, from the early ‘Sixties, fits this category, where the building of a cathedral is the main theme, and the masons who worked on it are the main characters. As Ellis Peters, she also wrote the Cadfael Mysteries, set in Shrewsbury Abbey. Cadfael had fought in the Crusades and become a monk who cultivated herbs and served as the abbey’s medical man, while solving crimes through his knowledge of people and of medicine. And there is Norah Lofts, another prolific writer from the mid-thirties well into the 1980s, whose novels are set in various periods, many of them about houses and the people who inhabited them, using architecture to define an era. Another fine author of historicals was Elizabeth Goudge, whose The White Witch, 1958, set in the English Civil War, is one of her best. Anya Seton, an American author very popular in England, wrote Devil Water about the Stuart rebellion, although it is her novel Katherine, 1954, that is best remembered. Katherine was first the mistress and then the wife of John of Gaunt, a man little known to most people but who played a role in the story of the War of The Roses. Care has to be taken to stay true to the character of real people, although Rosemary Jarmon’s book about Richard III, We Speak No Treason, 1971, offered a very different perspective on his story, while never stepping outside the bounds of possibility.
The medieval setting has continued to fascinate readers through the history of fiction Dorothy Dunnett’s two series, the Lymond Chronicles and The House of Niccolo, written in the 1960s and 70’s respectively, take the reader all over the Medieval world, from Scotland to Istanbul, from Italy to Timbuctoo, and keep the reader on the edge of his or her seat while presenting a view of life in a time few of us are familiar with. The level of historical detail is amazing. Her King Hereafter explores her view of the real MacBeth in the life of Thorfinn, Earl of Orkney, and introduces the reader to a period new and extraordinarily fascinating.
Inglis Fletcher wrote the almost-forgotten Carolina Series, an early history of the coast of North Carolina, carrying it from its development through the Revolutionary War, with such a vividly realized mixture of real people and well-drawn characters, that the reader feels he/she knows them intimately. Published between 1942 and 1957, the story begins with Roanoke Hundred, continuing through Men of Albemarle and Raleigh’s Eden, on to the The Scotswoman, which tells the story of Flora MacDonald’s years in the state, after the Stuart Rebellion of 1745.
There are others. Steven Saylor’s Gordianus the Finder, (Roman Blood) set in Republican Rome and Lindsey Davis’ Falco Series (The Silver Pigs) set during the Roman Empire, are both historical mysteries that bring their periods to vivid life. But before them there was Robert Graves’ 1934 story of a Roman emperor, I, Claudius, brought back to the reading public through the PBS series. If your taste runs to ancient Greece instead, there’s always Mary Renault, (writing between 1956-1981) and The Bull from the Sea or The King Must Die.
Daphne du Maurier’s The King’s General (1946) is truly historical, and covers the English Civil War, especially in Cornwall, and is associated with the house made memorable in Rebecca (1938) She also wrote other very interesting period books like Jamaica Inn, (1936), about smuggling, and probably one of the best mysteries, historical or otherwise, out there: My Cousin Rachel, set in Italy and England. Frenchman’s Creek, set in Cornwall in the days of Charles II, is basically a love story, but not in the usual sense. A pirate tale, an account of a woman looking for adventure, and a murder make it interesting.
There’s plenty of historical fiction for non-mystery readers too! If the Napoleonic Wars and sea adventures are your thing, Horatio Hornblower’s career in the Royal Navy, (1937-37) as documented by C. S. Forester, are just as exciting today as they were when written. Hornblower’s rise through the ranks is as fascinating as the real life stories of Admiral Nelson. Best read in order, as the reader follows Hornblower’s career, the first is Mr. Midshipman Hornblower. Herman Melville’s Moby Dick casts a white whale as the villain but is truly a psychological thriller written in 1851.The historical genre has survived and continues to thrive because so many writers had a talent for bringing the past out of the “dull” pages of non-fiction into vivid, fascinating life…
The historical Western is closely aligned with crime writing, and Zane Grey is one of the best at making the old west exciting. Riders of the Purple Sage (1912) is probably the most famous, but there are others just as good. As are other western writers. Look them up!
George Shipway (The Paladin, The Knight, 1972 and 1969 respectively) wrote historical novels set in various wars, and has probably the best battle scenes going. He himself had been a cavalry officer, and he understood the times and the people who lived through them. A bit bloody for some, but true to life
Rafael Sabatini wrote adventures like Captain Blood (1921) and Scaramouche (1921). A little more dated than some, but a great storyteller all the same. Susan Howatch created a trilogy about an Irish family—and based it on the three Plantangenet Edwards. It’s an intriguing use of history to create another historical period. Cashelmara is the first (1974). Delderfield’s Horseman Riding By (1996) is a look at the Great War and how fortunes could be made.
We could go on for pages, but this is like a Whitman’s Sampler, enough of a taste to get you started, if you’re intrigued by history in fiction—yesterday’s or today’s. But why does an author turn to the past?
The answer to that is surely as unique as the periods they were drawn to and inspired by. But we suspect that it begins with a love of the past and the inspiration it offers for telling “a damned good story,” as a character puts it in a Lord Peter Wimsey tale. In our case, we were history buffs looking for a place to set a mystery, and the historical significance of the Great War appealed to us as a backdrop. It was also a period when the policemen of the day had so few forensic tools to help them solve a crime, forcing them to rely on their wits.
Holmes, Poirot, and Cadfael fell back on real detection: insight, experience, and psychology. This offered us an avenue to use our wits to set up and then solve each book’s murder, just as Conan Doyle and Christie and Pargeter had found before us. The first two had the extra gift of living in the time of their writing. Like Pargeter, we had to time-travel to the past, researching every detail. But that has paid other dividends. So many of our own mysteries have hinged on a real historical footnote that we came across, like the Black Ascot races of 1910. And these in turn have given a reality to the stories. Which brings us full circle: the historical genre has survived and continues to thrive because so many writers had a talent for bringing the past out of the “dull” pages of non-fiction into vivid, fascinating life, making it accessible to readers discovering that history can be as enthralling as any thriller.