Friday, December 4, 2015
Writing Historical Mysteries
by Carola Dunn
I have been writing historical novels for over thirty years. If you count the 1960s as historical--opinions differ!--I have had more than 50 published. Of these, 32 are Regencies. The other eighteen are mysteries, the 17 titles of my Daisy Dalrymple series, set in the 1920s, and Manna from Hades, the first of a new series of Cornish mysteries set in the 1960s.
There are both advantages and disadvantages to setting a mystery in the past. On the one hand, you don't have to worry about the latest advances in forensic science and technology overtaking the publication of your book. However, obviously, it takes more effort to find out the methods used to solve crimes in the past.
Where the 1920s are concerned, it's easy to find countless mysteries written at that time which have more or less accurate information about detective techniques. For information about English police techniques, straight from the horses' mouths, the memoirs of Scotland Yard detectives are available, e.g. G.W. Cornish of Scotland Yard, as well as Mostly Murder by the great forensic pathologist Sir Sidney Smith.
The more distant from the present the time period you choose to write about, the less accurate information is available. Of course, you don't have to go far back to find that the science of forensics didn't exist. Those responsible for detecting criminals were not expected to provide anything we would call real proof. A book well worth hunting out is Clues! (UK: Written in Blood) A History of Forensic Detection by Colin Watson.
In twenty-first century America, guilty verdicts are quite often proved incorrect when genetic evidence is considered. You can imagine how frequent miscarriages of justice were in the past.
Luckily, the less information is available, the more leeway for the fiction writer. Creating an impression of the spirit of the times is, in my opinion, the most important job for any historical fiction writer, mystery or other. If you're writing about Ancient Rome, your characters have to take slavery for granted; in mid-nineteenth century America, they should not. Religion reigned supreme in medieval Europe, even kings seeking the blessing of the papacy. To the upper classes of 18th century England and France, manners and etiquette were of enormous importance, even in dire circumstances. The class system was an unavoidable aspect of 19th century England that can't be ignored however little you like it. America in the 19th century boasted a feeling of boundless opportunity--unless you were a slave. The Depression era depressed not only economic life but people's spirits and expectations. Wherever and whenever until quite recently, and still now in many parts of the globe, women were subservient.
All these aspects of society influenced the way people thought and behaved and have to be a major part of your setting. They will change the motives for and kinds of crimes that are committed. Just consider one example: blackmail. These days, you couldn't blackmail someone for living "in sin." Too many people do it openly!