Literature's Happiest Sub-Genre - Historical Detection

Few phenomena have been more surprising to observers of the United States' and Western Europe's beleaguered literary fields than have been the rise of the "historical detective" novel and series.

It might have been predictable because it can be argued that philosophically backward postmodernist editors would increasingly refuse to publish books about authentic selves rather than about central characters suffering from categorical character flaws - in this case, failed Medieval types.

Such central characters, denied the 'modern' era, would be exiled to other times, places and milieus, one of which was historical eras. At the same time historical novels and historical-setting "costume" films were being phased out, this appeared inevitable and has all but come to pass.

But the parallel developments of blockbuster-sized opus such as "Name of the Rose", and "The Da Vinci Code" relating to investigation of ancient mysteries, done now or then, along with the works of dozens of authors writing about detectives who lived in ancient periods or series centering about such investigators of crimes has been more robust than anyone could have imagined in detail.

The historical mystery / detective opus represents a 'deflection' of the principled hero, falsely viewed as "larger than life" in modern years, into past ages. Moral yet secular, normative human beings became ever rarer in the media of post-World War Two "modern" America. Because of their unwillingness (except in the case of Universal's Edward Muhl) to make films about mostly-normative heroes, actors of classically trained capability, directors who eschewed garish tricks and writers of solid narrative were reduced to bit players and supporting roles in a Hollywood whose filmmakers increasingly relied upon special effects, exploitation stories and cheap mean-streets "naturalism" for shock effect.

The exiled creators enriched the public monopoly also known as television during the 1947--1973 period, creating the phenomenon of the "guest star" and finding work in the series' mills of the 'Big Three' networks' made-for-tv movies; such hirings augmented their limited earning potential in theater, commercials, radio, live tv, etc. The creation of western, spy, detective and adventure series during this period was the parallel to the creation of the history detective as well as detection into history works of the latter "modern" period, after the early 1970's.

No single person actually began the historical detective sub-genre. Several mystery writers created characters who investigated the Victorian era, first popularized by Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories and novels and those of his imitators, August Derleth and others; a few others essayed an historical adventurer, mystery solver or modern investigator working to solve older period crimes now and again, but with no consistency that was both determined and successful than is apparent.

The richness of the field available to the novelist creating an historical-era detective or some modern-era investigator of ancient mysteries needs to be underscored. Almost without exception, the fictional mind who undertakes such missions is expected to be moral-ethical, a normative with an unexceptionable specific value motive(s) for undertaking a risky or difficult investigative task.

Moreover, such historical detectives/detectives working on historical cases are by definition destined by their contexted purpose to meet unusual sorts of persons, have physical encounters and difficulties and in other words to display engaging [psychological and behavioral traits and to meet interesting characters in pursuit of their ends.

The sub-genre breaks neatly into two major divisions:

1. Those who are detectives by trade; and
2. Those who are doing a work of detection for other reasons.

In addition, the sub-genre has two major sorts of investigation:

1. Investigation of a crime and
2. Investigation of an historical mystery.

The power of the sub-genre cannot be underestimated, therefore. Clearly, its scope in both space and time must be understood to be much wider than that afforded a modern seeker into contemporary mysteries. And too the sub-genre can be understood to have much in common with the political and scientific "thriller", since a case in the less-populous ancient world can frequently take on state and imperial implications rivaling those of a Tom Clancy or Ken Follett work.

In common with the earlier period's westerns, the novels of the present historical detective and detector working in history novelists are far too numerous to mention. The first entries in the genre in the US were western characters, such as "The Cisco Kid", created by O.Henry, and "The Lone Ranger", "Hopalong Cassidy", and others. Literary precursors had been fictionalized versions of real characters written to titillate those interested in the lawless doing of the US West later in the 19th Century.

After these came "Captain From Connecticut" by C.S. Forrester, "The Broken Gun" by Louis L'Amour, "The Daughter of Time" by Josephine Tey, Dorothy Dunnett's 'Crawford of Lymond' series, Elizabeth Peters' 'Brother Cadfael', novels (also Medieval in their setting). But the wider development of the sub-genre had to await those who transported the reader to the ancient world, most notably authors Lindsey Davis and Stephen Saylor. After them, as the saying goes, came a deluge of others, literally and actually.

Mention also needs to be made of a similar development in science fiction, insofar as "fantasy realms, substituting for historical milieus" are concerned. There had always been time-travel stories, sometimes involving the need to solve a mystery or to stop a crime, which had seen central characters propelled into the human past to achieve precisely that purpose.

The achievements of Saylor and Davis, however, as well as those of Dunnett and Leonard Tourneur before them, differ widely. The "masculine" development, in Saylor's case, involved a lone cynical detective with a live-in slave girl-friend-helper while the Davis novels have developed a surprisingly numerous and unusually useful series of family members, friends, officials and acquaintances interwoven with the hero and with one another's lives. This "feminine" line of development, as is true of its main counterpart, has both its strengths and its drawbacks.

Some of these difficulties and strengths are of course endemic to the work of any detective or investigator, per se. The lone sleuth needs to guard his own back, or work with an official of some sort, or develop contacts and partnerships with those whom he requires as aides, informants, confidants, helpers or enforced helpers - much as a spy must develop such relationships; the 'connected' sleuth gains helpers, informants, commentators, aides or peers, but also loses some liberty of action, of unfettered reaction and of secrecy because of the network of persons he must satisfy.

As the best of the sub-genre thus far, I list some half-dozen works of which I have personal knowledge. But the proliferation of such works invites the reader to choose a favored era, within whose temporal confines he/she may find a congenial investigator whose exploits it will be a pleasure to follow, accept as believable, and vicariously share.

The future of the sub-genre, which I predict may soon become less-popular than it has been for several reasons, is nevertheless destined to be a long and rich one, with unforeseen developments, an increasing range of eras and countries as basis, and even more exotic investigators to intrigue the future's jaded readers anew.

Recommended Reading:

Dunnett, Dorothy The Disorderly Knights
Davis, Lindsey A Dying Light in Corduba, Last Act in Palmyra
Saylor, Stephen The Venus Throw
Peters, Elizabeth The Summer of the Danes
Hambly, Barbara Those Who Hunt the Night
Tey, Josephine The Daughter of Time

by Robert David Michael (Cerello)