Summer reading, mystery and history
by Jamie Lutton
The summer is more than half over, and I have not done a 'summer reading' column. Murder mysteries are often the book of choice for vacation reading, so here is a few of my favorite mysteries set in the past, with the history books that relate to them.
" Murder mysteries" were invented as a genre over a hundred and fifty years ago, when Edgar Allen Poe, with his short story The Purloined Letter This story does not even have a murder in it, but a stolen letter hid in plain sight, that only Poe's detective can find. The pattern is set though; the police are frustrated and at a loss, and the outside expert, the detective is called in.
The Murder in the Rue Morgue is another story of Poe's that defined this new genre, adding murder of the crime of choice for solving. Poe's mysteries are now so old that they can be read as 'antiques', with part of their charm their age and their setting, the 1850's when they were written. His writing is still vital and direct; he was hugely influential in the development of the mystery, the horror story, and popular poetry.
I enjoy reading mysteries set in the medieval world (or earlier) - when the author does her homework, and the book reads true. Books that have characters who speak in a modern slang, or have behaviors that does not fit the period, are too annoying for me to finish. There is a lot of junk and careless writing out there. A lot of popular titles by well known authors seem to not have been researched at all. .
For example, I opened up a copy of Clive Cussler's Treasure, and after spotting an obvious error in the first few pages of his his "Ancient Rome" prologue, I could not read any further. (if you can spot the error I found there, come by my shop and tell me what it is. Or, I will show it to you).
As a bookseller, I tend to steer people to mystery titles that have been around for a long time, as best sellers take a while to show up on my shelves anyway. I also reasoned that if an author is still being read 10, 20 or 70 years after it was written, her books has stood the test of time.
So, here is a short list of a few historical mystery authors and series worth trying, that I have read myself.
C. J. Samson: The Dissolution. 2004 This is my second favorite in this list.. This is the first book in a series of mysteries set in England in the 1530's, when Henry Vlll had just dissolved the English Catholic Church, and seized and emptied the monasteries: It follows the adventures of Matthew Shardlake, an agent of the feared Thomas Cromwell as he investigates murder, embezzlement, and treason in rural England. I liked the grim realism of this series, the author has gotten a lot of small details about the time down very well, and the plot is very good.
I recommend these books to fans of The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, and Bringing Up The Bodies and Wolf Hall by Hilliary Mantel. I have not read the last two yet, they are not 'mysteries' per se, but they have both won the Man Booker Award.
For a reader who wants to know more about the 1530's, I recommend the history book A World Lit Only By Fire by William Manchester. He is not an expert on the history of this period, and this book has some jarring errors in it; the main one is condensing and abbreviating some of the philosophy and struggles of the time. But I have not read a better short biography of Martin Luther than the one in this book, which turns on the many triumphs - and ironies - of his life and works. Manchester knows how to tell a story, and make his characters come to life.
Another mystery about the English past is the once well known The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey. This is my favorite of all of them. This book, written over 70 years ago, may even be a distant ancestor of Dan Brown's Di Vinci Code, as it also involves a modern detective solving an ancient mystery. No shadowy agents of the Vatican in this one, only real historical documents, from the real world, examined in turn to try to prove - disprove the who really murdered two young medieval princes this book is tightly and elegantly written, and is often sited as the 'mystery to give someone who does not like mysteries' In 1965, a decade after it was written years after it was written, this book was voted by the New York Times one of the three best mysteries ever written The popularity of this mystery spawned the Richard the Third Society. which still exists and is active today. Just recently, King Richard lll body was found underneath a parking lot in England; his skeleton bore marks that showed he was a hunchback in real life - a point that Daughter of Time's author Josephine Tey thought was 'made up'.
Other medieval mystery writers are the prolific Ellis Peters, whose mysteries are set in the 12th century England, whose hero Brother Cadfael has over a dozen titles. A good history of this time is Amy Kelly's Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Four Kings. The better written - but not as well known mysteries of Candice Robb have a one-eyed Welsh archer as a hero; these take place in the 1360's. To read a good history book of the 1360's A Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuchman, a well regarded history of this time of Black Death, two Popes, and endless wars.
Other good novels set in the medieval world are the Sharon Kay Penman novels,set in and around the court of Eleanor of Aquitaine, The prolific Dorthoy Dunnett, who has a new book out on the best seller list, but has been writing medieval novels for over 30 years. Phillippa Gregory's books are wildly popular; such as her breakout book, the Tudor novel The Other Boleyn Girl. she sets her books from he 1530's to the 1600's. Her heroes - mostly women - tend to act like modern people, and the books are not challenging - but as a bookseller I am just glad to see people reading historical fiction (and I try not to be a snob). I dimly hope that someday they will want to read the real history of the Tudor period. Henry Vlll court was more violent and bizarre than any fiction.
There are dozens of other authors writing novels set from the 11th century to the 17th; with varying levels of research done.It is a popular genre right now.
If you pick up a book set in the past; read it with a critical eye; and see if you can spot the mistakes the author makes - or what she gets right. This might be a goal of reading groups; take the book read that week apart for plausibility and historical accuracy, if they are set in the past.
Go ahead and make notes in the margins when you see mistakes....if it is your copy, and not the libraries.
I got interested in medieval history because of an excellent and renowned military history book called The Face of Battle by John Keegan, It compares three famous battles, Waterloo at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the Somme in World War l, and Agincourt, the medieval battle made famous by Shakespeare's play Henry V.
This play, which with a little effort (or by watching a film adaption) can be easily read and understood, and has beautiful writing, with amazing, beautiful prologues and speeches by the king Henry.. It does, however, have an important mystery attached to it; why is a major scene in the play always cut, when it is performed on stage, or filmed? In the last 400 years, audiences have changed; moderns can't stand seeing a English hero like Henry V. ordering what was seen even then a war crime, the killing of French prisoners. The original version is discussed in The Face of Battle, with the background of the real Agincourt by John Keegan. In these days of endless wars in the Middle East, the full version should be better known. When I read this this book back to back with Henry V I was 21, and they got me started on my medieval history - and medieval mystery - reading habit.