The Background to Historical Crime Fiction
and its possible roots in the Golden Age
by Carol Westron
De la Torre’s short stories are innovative not only in being early historical detective fiction but also in using two real people to investigate her fictional crimes.
Agatha Christie published Death Comes as the End, her only historical mystery and the first full-length historical whodunnit. This innovative novel was set in Ancient Egypt and the central protagonist is Renisenb, a young widow who has just returned to her family following the death of her husband. The initial idea to set the story in ancient Egypt came from a family friend, Stephen Glanville, at that time Professor of Egyptian Archaeology and Philology at University College London. Glanville also helped Christie with her research into everyday life at the time and made strong suggestions regarding the end of the book; she complied with his ideas about this but is reported to have later regretted it.
Death Comes as the End is a remarkably brave experiment for a writer who was at the top of her game as a bestselling author of contemporary mysteries. Many critics acknowledged both the courage and the uniqueness of Christie’s experiment, but not all felt that she had been totally successful. Maurice Richardson, a great admirer of Christie, claims that, ‘Mrs Christie makes you feel just as much at home on the Nile in 1945 B.C. as if she were bombarding you with false clues in a chintz-covered drawing room in Leamington Spa.’ (The Observer, 8th April 1945). The Times literary critic, Maurice Willson Disher, as acknowledges Christie’s innovative spirit: ‘When a specialist acquires unerring skill there is a temptation to find tasks that are exceptionally difficult’; he also pays tribute to her expertise but adds, ‘while the author’s skill can cause a stir over the death of an old woman some thousands of years ago, that length of time lessens curiosity concerning why or how she (and others) died.’ (The Times Literary Supplement, 28th April 1945.) Forty-five years later, Robert Barnard wrote that Death Comes as the End was ‘Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, transported to Egypt, ca 2000 B.C. Done with tact, yet the result is somehow skeletal - one realises how much the average Christie depends on trappings: clothes, furniture, the paraphernalia of bourgeois living. The culprit in this one is revealed less by detection than by a process of elimination.’ (A Talent to Deceive – an appreciation of Agatha Christie, 1990.)
Death Comes as the End was the only historical mystery that Christie ever published and the historical mystery subgenre only officially reappeared, in 1950, when John Dickson Carr published The Bride of Newgate, a historical whodunnit set in the Napoleonic Wars.
It was twenty years later, in 1970, when Peter Lovesey entered and won a competition to discover a new crime fiction writer. Lovesey’s first novel was based on his knowledge of the history of sport and was centred around the Victorian long-distance races that lasted six days. These races were called wobbles and the novel was called Wobble to Death (1970.) Lovesey chose police detectives Sergeant Cribb and his assistant, Constable Thackeray, as his protagonists. Lovesey’s second book was also set in the world of Victorian sport, this time the world of clandestine fist fights, The Detective Wore Silk Drawers (1971). In total, Lovesey wrote eight novels with a Victorian setting, featuring Cribb and Thackeray, which led to a successful television series, Sergeant Cribb.
By the time Lovesey’s Victorian detectives had been brought to the television screen in 1979-81, history mystery books were becoming more popular. Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody series followed the exploits of a lady archaeologist in the early 20th century as she excavated Ancient Egyptian sites and encountered many murders and mysteries as she did so. However the next great breakthrough for the historical mystery genre was an immense one.
Ellis Peters’ Chronicles of Brother Cadfael, which started in 1977 with A Morbid Taste for Bones. The concept of a 12th century Benedictine monk venturing out from his monastery in Shrewsbury to investigate crimes was unique at the time but soon became immensely popular. The strength of these novels is undoubtedly increased by Peters’ knowledge of the 12th century and her decision to set the stories during a time of civil war, which makes a dramatic background and is at the root of many of the murders Cadfael investigates. It is interesting to note that Peters already had a rich writing career, in both fiction and non-fiction, and already had a series of contemporary detective stories featuring George Felse and his son Dominic.
Neither Peter Lovesey nor Ellis Peters had foreseen that their first historical crime fiction novels would lead to series, much less that they would lead to the development of a new crime fiction subgenre. In Peters’ case, Cadfael came to dominate the rest of her writing life, concluding with BrotherCadfael’s Penance in 1994. As Peters later wrote: ‘Brother Cadfael sprang to life suddenly and unexpectedly when he was already approaching sixty, mature, experienced, fully armed and seventeen years tonsured. He emerged as the necessary protagonist when I had the idea of deriving a plot for a murder mystery from the true history of Shrewsbury Abbey in the twelfth century, and needed the high mediaeval equivalent of a detective, an observer and agent of justice in the centre of the action. I had no idea then what I was launching on the world, nor to how demanding a mentor I was subjecting myself. Nor did I intend a series of books about him, indeed I went on immediately to write a modern detective novel and returned to the twelfth century only when I could no longer resist the temptation to shape another book around the massacre of the garrison by King Stephen... From then on Brother Cadfael was well into his stride and there was no turning back.’ (Foreword to A Rare Benedictine, 1988.)
In 1979 Anne Perry started her series of Victorian mysteries, featuring police detective Thomas Pitt; and in 1989, Lindsey Davis expanded the historical detective story even further when she introduced her Falco series of detective novels set in the Roman Empire.
For the last fifty years, the historical detective story has been an accepted and increasingly popular subgenre of detective fiction, but I wish to explore the possibility that there was an earlier writer of historical detective fiction, who was writing throughout the Golden Age and after, but whose work has never been thought of as historical detective fiction because her work has always been branded as historical romance. I refer to Georgette Heyer.
Although a handful of Heyer’s novels may fulfil the criteria for historical crime fiction, the majority of Heyer’s historical novels are, as they have always been described, romances, set in the Georgian and Regency periods. These novels fall into the comedy of manners category, with occasional forays into adventure; sometimes crime is in the mix but this is a side issue, not an essential part of the plot. A good example of this is when one of Heyer’s intrepid heroines confronts an unscrupulous moneylender:
‘Sophy laughed... “I will give you five hundred pounds for the bond and the ring and nothing more.”“But perhaps you have loving parents who would give me much, much more to have you restored to them, alive, my lady, and unhurt?”
He rose from his chair as he spoke, but his objectionable guest, instead of displaying decent alarm, merely
withdrew her right hand from her muff. In it she held a small but eminently serviceable pistol. “Pray sit down again, Mr Goldhanger!” she said.’ (The Grand Sophy, 1950.)
Heyer was a prolific author, who explored a range of different historical backgrounds: [Simon the Coldheart (1921) is set in the early 15th century; Beauvallet (1929) in Elizabethan England; The Conqueror (1931), at the time of the Norman Conquest; My Lord John (published posthumously 1975) is set in 15th century.] Between 1932 to 1953, Heyer was also writing contemporary detective fiction novels, featuring her Scotland Yard detectives, Hannasyde and Hemingway. It seems that she was aware that an interesting story is livened up by a good mystery, and often. However, she was also aware that her Regency Romances sold in far greater numbers than her detective stories, and it is unlikely that she would wish to upset the status quo by any change in promotion.
The crime plots in her Regency novels are more subtle and engaging than many of her contemporary detective stories. However, she was also aware that her Regency Romances sold in far greater numbers than her detective
stories, and it is unlikely that she would wish to upset the status quo by any change in promotion.
The Black Moth (1921) was published when Heyer was nineteen. It had been written when she was seventeen, to amuse her brother who was ill in bed. It is the story of a wrongly disgraced nobleman who has turned highwayman and his determination to save the woman he loves from a licentious villain. In my opinion, as a story, it shows all the faults of a young and inexperienced writer: it is highly melodramatic and has too many coincidences and too little subtlety and depth of characterisation or plot. The most interesting thing about it is that, four years later, Heyer abandoned the very dull hero and heroine and renamed and re-characterised the villain as the protagonist in These Old Shades (1925). The new hero has much in common with the villain of The Black Moth: he too is an English Duke, and he has a spoilt, beautiful sister, a wild but good-hearted younger brother, and a solid, decent friend. The Duke also has a similar back-history to the earlier villain, having attempted, but failed, to abduct a beautiful, well-born young woman. However, from the start of These Old Shades, it is made clear that the Duke is redeemable. The story is still melodramatic but this is leavened by humour and three-dimensional, engaging characters. The plot is not a mystery but it is a crime story, about a young girl, disguised as a boy and living in squalor, until the Duke rescues her and discovers that she is the legitimate daughter of one of his greatest enemies, swapped at birth for the son of a peasant, because the villain required a male heir. These Old Shades has its fair share of romance and a great deal of social background, both told with a deft and humorous touch, but, as well as the basic story of cruel deception, it also has kidnapping and attempted murder. It seems that, in her third book, Heyer is already on track to write historical detective stories.
(1935) bears all the trademarks of Heyer’s Regency Romances: Judith Taverner and her nineteen-year-old brother, Peregrine, travel to London to establish themselves in Society, even though their guardian advised them against it. There seems to be little to prevent Judith and Peregrine from being a social success, she is beautiful, he is good-looking, they are well-born and both will inherit large fortunes when they come of age. Their guardian, the Earl of Worth, is a much younger man than they had expected and soon Judith is torn between flouting Worth’s commands and depending on him for advice, and their stormy relationship dominates the book. All this is very standard romance, but there is another essential story thread in which Peregrine’s life is threatened in a series of apparently unconnected events: by highwaymen, a duel that is forced upon him, then by poison.
‘“Peregrine Taverner,” said Worth , with a certain deliberation, “is an extremely wealthy young man, and if anything were to happen to him his sister would inherit the greater part of his fortune.”
“Very well, let us by all means drown him in the lake,” said the Captain gaily. “Plainly he must be disposed of.”
“He is being disposed of,” said the Earl, without the least trace of emotion in his level voice. “For the past five days he has been inhaling poisoned snuff.”’
Although much of the book is a description of Judith’s introduction to London society and her tempestuous relationship with the Earl of Worth, the basic plot of the novel revolves around the question of who is attempting to murder Peregrine.
Jane Aiken Hodge described Heyer’s The Talisman Ring (1936) as ‘very nearly a detective story in period costume’ (The Private World of Georgette Heyer, 1984.) However, the information on the back of the 1960 edition of The Talisman Ring describes it as: ‘A full-blooded romance of the eighteenth century, this exciting adventure story of the tracking-down of a master criminal is told with all the verve and suspense of a modern detective story,’ which seems to place it in the genre of crime fiction as well as romance. The Talisman Ring is the story of a young man accused of murder, who has gone into hiding and taken up crime (smuggling) while ‘on the run’. Now he is back and those who believe in his innocence are determined to prove this and reinstate him in his home. The story has much of the detective story about it, including a cunning killer and some ludicrously bumbling officers of the law (Bow Street Runners.) It is not really a whodunnit, as the identity of the villain is established quite early on, but it is a plot centred around the crime of murder, as the hero and his allies struggle to prove the villain’s guilt and discover where he has hidden a vital piece of evidence (the talisman ring) before the villain succeeds in murdering the hero or having him arrested, tried and executed.
The Reluctant Widow (1946) begins improbably with a respectable young governess being persuaded to marry a wounded ne’er do well, who is on his death bed, however, after that the plot moves into detective fiction territory. The novel is set at the time of the Napoleonic Wars and when Elinor moves into her late husband’s decrepit country house, she finds herself embroiled in a situation that grows increasingly more menacing. It becomes evident that her late husband was implicated in the theft of a vital memorandum, which outlines Wellington’s plans for his campaign against Napoleon. He was a go-between who received the document from the thief and his role was to pass it to a French agent, but, because of his sudden death, it seems probable the memorandum is still concealed in the house. Understandably, this is a situation that Elinor finds undesirable: ‘“mice run across my bedchamber floor, and French agents walk in and out at will, shooting at anyone who dares to say them nay.”’ Of course, as with all of Heyer’s novels, there is a strong element of romance, and Elinor is not alone in her quest, but is supported by her late husband’s cousin, a very masterful gentleman. Nevertheless, the main focus of the plot is the need to discover where the document is concealed and the identity of the traitor who stole it.
Several of Heyer’s novels have some mention of crime in the back cover information, which is designed to tempt readers to buy the book. In the case of The Foundling (1948) this ‘back blurb’ dwells on danger, crime and
adventure far more than romance, at least when the reader discovers that the beautiful foundling is at no point the Duke’s love interest: ‘The young Duke of Sale breaks loose from his mollycoddling guardian and servants... and plunges into a new and dangerous world when he meets the beautiful foundling, Belinda – decoy for a ruthless blackmailer.’
Other back covers may not mention crime but have a short quote that indicates what is to come, and this is the case in one of Heyer’s darkest novels, Cousin Kate (1968):
‘Shall I make you afraid?
No, I don’t think I will. And yet!-’
This is Heyer’s nearest approach to a Gothic novel. When Kate Malvern loses her position as a governess and is invited by her rich aunt to live with her and her family, Kate is delighted and grateful, but she does not realise that her greatest value to her aunt is that she is penniless and apparently friendless. Soon it becomes obvious that her aunt intends Kate to marry her son, Torquil, a young, handsome but moody gentleman. Kate has no desire to marry Torquil but she increasingly feels herself trapped by her aunt’s machinations and realises there are things going on that she does not understand. Her unease turns to fear when she is searching for Torquil in the wood: ‘from somewhere in the wood beyond the lake, she heard a scream of intolerable anguish. It sounded human, and for a moment she was paralysed.’ Soon after she makes an unpleasant discovery when ‘she almost stumbled over the mangled corpse of a rabbit. She started back, with an involuntary cry of revulsion, and stood staring down in
horror. It was quite dead, but blood was still oozing from it, and she saw that it had been snared, for someone had wrenched the snare out of the ground, and cast it aside.’ As more unpleasant events occur and tension in the house rises, Kate realises that Torquil’s behaviour stems from a far darker and more dangerous source than the temper tantrums of a spoiled young man.
(1954) is a fast-paced adventure story which contains murder and attempted murder and is set against a background of murder and violent highway robbery. Captain John Staple is bored since leaving the army after Waterloo and is eager to find adventure. When he reaches a toll-gate that is manned only by a young and frightened boy he wants to discover why the keeper of the toll went off in the dark some time before and did not return, leaving only his young son, Ben, in charge. John decides to stay at the toll-house overnight and soon becomes aware that Ben is terrified of a mysterious man who visits his father after dark.
‘The wicket-gate for the use of travellers on foot creaked and banged gently once or twice, and when this happened Ben’s face seemed to sharpen, and he broke off what he was saying to listen intently. John noticed that his eyes wandered continually towards the back-door, and that the noises from the rear of the house seemed to worry him more than the creak of the gate. A gust of wind blew something over with a clatter. It sounded to John as though a broom, or a rake, had fallen, but it brought Ben to his feet in a flash, and drove him instinctively to John’s side.
“What is it?” John said quietly.
“Him!” breathed Ben, his gaze riveted to the door.’
John’s curiosity is roused and he stays at the toll-gate in order to investigate. He acquires some unlikely allies, including highwayman, Jeremy Chirk, and Bow Street Runner, Gabriel Stogumber, as well as Nell Stornaway, the courageous granddaughter of the local squire, and soon he unearths evidence of a murderous crime.
‘John set his lantern down, and, his face very grim, began to remove the stones and the boulders from the pile. Chirk came to join him, and in silence followed his example. A choking sound broke from him suddenly, and he sprang back shuddering. A hand was protruding from amongst the fragments of rock, piled up in a rough cairn.’
The Quiet Gentleman (1951) which is introduced on the back cover as ‘‘Accidents’ that look like attempted murder.’ When the Earl of St. Erth returns home, somewhat belatedly, after the Battle of Waterloo he discovers that his stepmother and younger half-brother, Martin, resent the fact that he survived the Napoleonic Wars and has come back to his ancestral home, Stanyon Castle, to claim his inheritance. Soon a succession of incidents occur, which escalate in danger. These start on a stormy night not long after his arrival, when St. Erth wakes up and suspects there is an intruder in his bedchamber. ‘The room was in dense darkness, the fire in the hearth having died away; and he could hear nothing but the rain beating against the windows and the howl of the wind, more subdued now, round the corner of the building. Yet even as he wondered whether perhaps he had been awaked by the fall of a tile from the roof, or the slamming of a door left carelessly open, he received so decided an impression that he was not alone in the room, that he raised himself quickly on one elbow, straining his eyes to see through the smothering darkness, He could hear nothing but the wind and the rain, but the impression that someone was in the room rather grew on him than abated, and he said sharply, “Who is there?”’
The attacks escalate, until a shooting by an unseen assailant almost costs St. Erth his life. Martin has disappeared and it appears obvious that he is the culprit. With his half-brother at large, the Earl’s life is still in danger, fortunately he has the aid of Miss Drusilla Morville, one of Heyer’s more delightfully matter-of-fact heroines, who helps to nurse St. Erth when he is wounded.
‘The wall was panelled, like the rest of the room, the sections masked by carved pilasters, and the dado and skirting mitred round in an unbroken line. The light of the flames, which were beginning to lick round the logs she had laid on the fire, flickered over the interlaced arches, and the elaborately carved capitals. The brushing sound was heard again, like someone groping in darkness. Then there came the unmistakable click of a lifting latch. Miss Morville stood rigidly still. Suddenly she knew that the Earl was awake; she heard him move, and before she could turn to look at him felt his hand grasp her wrist warningly. She looked quickly down, and saw that he too had his eyes fixed on the panelling. He said, so softly that she scarcely heard him: “Quiet!”
Her heart was beating uncomfortably fast, but she knew her presence to be safeguard enough, and she had not meant to raise the alarm.
The woodwork creaked; one of the sections of the wainscot was sliding behind another, and the lamplight showed a hand grasping the edge of it.’
The Quiet Gentleman has many of the attributes of a cosy crime novel: a country house setting; a family who are plagued by dissension and resentments; and a pair of likeable protagonists whose relationship is so deftly painted that it only becomes evident that it is a romance late into the book. Above all, the whole plot is centred around the attempts to murder the Earl and the question of whether the obvious suspect is guilty or whether something far more subtle and devious is going on?
It is unlikely that Heyer's publishers would have wished to promote a few of her historical romances as historical mysteries, thus splitting a very successful brand. However, the information on a few of the back covers seems to indicate that her publishers were aware of the crime and detection elements in some of her books. Heyer is unlikely to have supported any such change. Her Georgian and Regency romances continued to sell extremely well and Heyer made it clear that she despised them and the only reason she kept writing them was for the money. ‘I think myself I ought to be shot for writing such nonsense.... But it's unquestionably good escapist literature and I think I should rather like it if I were sitting in an air-raid shelter or recovering from flu.’ However, it must be remembered that authors are not always reliable judges of their best work. Heyer had planned a trilogy of novels set in the Middle Ages, which she regarded as her 'masterpiece'. She never completed the trilogy but when the first of these books, My Lord John, was published posthumously, in 1975, critics were far from complimentary: '... as a novel, it doesn't have enough dramatic or narrative flow to keep it from being often boring'. (Eleanore Singer in Library Journal, 1975). This viewpoint was maintained by more recent critics, such as Mari Ness, who commented that My Lord John 'serves mainly as an illustration that authors are often terrible at determining which of their works is actually a masterpiece. My Lord John, absolutely not.' (Tor.com, 2012).
With one or two notable exceptions, Heyer’s contemporary crime fiction is less engaging than the majority of her Georgian and Regency novels, which, in my opinion, are usually lively and funny, and always immaculately
researched. Heyer displayed great skill in switching from witty badinage to tense descriptions and sometimes had crime and mystery as the backbone of the plot. Georgette Heyer may not have been one of the earliest historical mystery writers, but books such as The Talisman Ring, The Toll-Gate and The Quiet Gentleman have many of the hallmarks of that subgenre.
is a successful short story writer and a Creative Writing teacher. She is the moderator for the cosy/historical crime panel, The Deadly Dames. Her crime novels are set both in contemporary and Victorian times. The Terminal Velocity of Cats the first in her Scene of Crimes novels, was published July 2013. Carol recently gave an interview to Mystery People. To read the interview click on the link below.
To read a review of Carol latest book This Game of Ghosts click on the title.