Historical whodunnit

Historical whodunnit

The historical whodunnit 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. The "detective" may be a real-life historical figure, eg. Socrates, Jane Austen, Mozart, or an imaginary character.

The first known author to have written anything that might be described as a historical whodunnit is Melville Davisson Post, whose "Uncle Abner" stories were serialised 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. In 1950, John Dickson Carr produced a novel called "The Bride of Newgate", set during the Napoleonic Wars, and this may be called the first full-length historical whodunnit. While Georgette Heyer is generally thought of as the author of regency romance novels, a number of her books, such as "The Talisman Ring" (1936), are actually historical mysteries with a romance subplot.

Such stories remained an oddity, and the current trend for historical whodunnits only really began 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; and P. C. Doherty 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".

External links

* [http://uts.cc.utexas.edu/~soon/histfiction/mysteries.html Historical Mystery Bibliography]
* [http://www.crimethrutime.com/timelines/series.htm Timeline for all historical whodunnits]
* [http://histmyst.org/ The Detective and the Toga]

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