Historical mystery  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

The historical whodunit is a sub-genre of historical fiction which bears elements of the classical mystery novel, in which the central plot involves a crime (almost always a murder) and the setting has some historical significance. One of the big areas of debate within the community of fans is what makes a given setting historical. Most (but not all) agree that it should involve a time before the book was published. But how much before? 25 years? 50 years? 100 years? All have their proponents. Others think the setting should be X number of years before the author's lifetime, or before the readers' lifetime. There's also a lot of debate over how much historical accuracy is required to make a given setting historical rather than fantasy or alternate history or really just a modern story in fancy dress. While there has to be some elements of real life history to the setting under most definitions, the "detective" may be a real-life historical figure, eg. Socrates, Jane Austen, Mozart, or a wholly imaginary character.

Near contemporaries Melville Davisson Post and Anna Katherine Green wrote the earliest known stories that might be described as historical whodunnits, although both also wrote mysteries with contemporary settings as well. Post is best known for his historical detective "Uncle Abner", who appeared in stories that were serialized in American newspapers from 1911 onwards. It was not until 1943 that Lillian de la Torre, an American mystery writer, did something similar with Dr Johnson and Boswell, casting the two famous literary figures into roles similar to Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson. In 1944 Agatha Christie published Death Comes as the End, a mystery set in ancient Egypt, possibly the first full-length historical whodunnit. In 1950, John Dickson Carr produced a novel called The Bride of Newgate, set at the close of the Napoleonic Wars, possibly the second full-length historical whodunnit. Josephine Tey brought out The Daughter of Time, in which a police detective alleviates a stay in hospital by investigating the case of Richard III of England and the Princes in the Tower, a year later. While it is not strictly speaking an historical whodunnit according to most definitions, a large number of fans of the genre cite it as the book that got them interested in the concept. Georgette Heyer is generally thought of as the author of regency romance novels, but a number of her books, such as The Talisman Ring (1936), can be considered historical mysteries with a romance subplot.

Such stories subsequently remained an oddity, with the current trend for historical whodunnits only really beginning in the late 1970s with the success of Ellis Peters and her Brother Cadfael novels, set in medieval Shrewsbury. Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose (1980) was a one-off that helped popularise the concept. Although authors such as Anne Perry wrote in the genre during the next decade, it wasn't until about 1990 that the genre's popularity saw a fairly quick ascent with works such as Lindsey Davis's Falco novels, set in the Roman Empire of Vespasian; Elizabeth Peters's Amelia Peabody novels, in which the main character is not only a Victorian lady but an early feminist and an archaeologist working in early 20th century Egypt; Steven Saylor's "Roma Sub Rosa" novels, set in the Roman Republic at the time of Julius Caesar; John Maddox Roberts's SPQR series set during the Roman Republic; and P. C. Doherty's various series, including The Sorrowful Mysteries of Brother Athelstan, the Hugh Corbett medieval mysteries, partly indebted to the hardboiled tradition, and the Canterbury Tales of Mystery and Murder.

Two of the newer trends in the genre are books with a split setting, i.e. a modern story framing action that occurs in one or more past settings, and books where all of the action occurs in the present but the puzzle to be solved is all about elements from the past. Much of the popularity of these sorts of stories, which are not considered historical whodunnits by everyone in the genre, is driven by the runaway success of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, its prequel, Angels and Demons, and various copycat titles.





Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Historical mystery" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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