Monday, August 24, 2009

All this week: I am mystified by historical mysteries

What I Read on My Summer Vacation. Mysteries, all mysteries, all new authors to me. Maybe you'll see a pattern.

In order of declining preference:

Owen Parry, Faded Coat of Blue (1999), 337 pp. A Civil War mystery by columnist and all-around military expert Ralph Peters. Series: #1 of 6, I think. Narrator: 1st person, with an original voice. Cameos: Abraham Lincoln, General George McClellan, Allan Pinkerton.

Carlo Lucarelli, Carte Blanche (1990), 94 pp. A murder investigation set in 1943 Bologna. The Gestapo lurks everywhere; the Americans are coming. My understanding is that this author is hugely popular in Italy now. Series: #1 of 3. Narrator: 3rd person, plain, all business.

Steve Hockensmith, On the Wrong Track (2007), 290 pp. A comic mystery, with two cowboys on a train between Utah and San Francisco in 1893. One of them wants to be Sherlock Holmes. The series is called Holmes on the Range! Har har. Series: #2 of 4. Narrator: 1st person - Watson narrates, of course, not Holmes. R. T. reviews the first novel in the series over here.

Michael Pearce, A Dead Man in Trieste (2004), 188 pp. A British policeman in 1906 Trieste. Series: #1 of 6, maybe. Narrator: 3rd person, understated, repetitive. Cameos: Franz Lehar, Marinetti - the climax of the novel occurs during the first Futurist Evening. James Joyce! Italo Svevo!

Victoria Thompson, Murder on St. Mark's Place (2000), 277 pp. A midwife solves murders in 1896 New York City. The second-worst novel I've read, for quite a long time.* Series: #2 of 11. Narrator: Third person, sometimes quite clumsy, although fortunately not always. Cameo: New York Police Commissioner Teddy Roosevelt, offstage.

Most of these were recommended by the friendly owner of a mystery book store. I wanted historical mysteries, he delivered. Here's one more book that does not fit the pattern:

John Banville, The Lemur (2008), 134 pp. A typical Banville narrator becomes tangled in, and then somehow solves, a murder. This one is the worst book I've read in a long time. Series: Stand-alone, thankfully. Narrator: It's Banville, and not about the history of science, so it must be first person. Cameo: John Huston.

I included page lengths because every one of them is too long, except possibly the tiny Lucarelli novel.

This is my raw material for the week, as I try to figure out how these books function, what worked well and what didn't, and why anyone bothers writing or reading them.

I don't read too many mysteries, so I'm likely to showcase some first-rate ignorance as the week progresses. My thoughtful readers can help me out.

* Sounds sorta harsh. I'm going to say some nicer things about the book later. And, to the author (, if you stop by, please look around the site. You will see that I am comparing you to Flaubert and Chekhov and the like.


  1. I haven't read any of the historical mysteries you listed. These are some of my favorite authors who write historical mysteries:

    Stephen Saylor--Rome, his series begins around 80 or 90 BC and his most recent one took place around 40 BC. a series with Gordianus the Finder, a PI mystery. His cases are always intertwined with the historical events and people of that time.

    Bernard Knight-- 13th century England, King Richard I on the throne (probably better known as Richard the Lion-Hearted) series featuring the first appearance of the coroner in England

    Ellis Peters--12 century England, around time King Stephen and Empress Maud were fighting for the throne. a series featuring an ex-Crusader now turned Benedictine monk.

    Uumberto Eco--The Name of the Rose--Italy, 14th century, a Benedictine monk, who was William of Baskerville before becoming a monk, solves an intricate series of crimes at a monastery, using logic and scientific knowledge.

    C. J. Sansom--England during the reign of Henry VIII. series features a lawyer who is a hunchback.

  2. Oh thanks, you read my mind somehow. I meant to ask for recommendations but forgot.

    I have not read any of the authors you listed. Interesting that they're all much earlier - classical, medieval, and early modern. Ma femme has read a couple of Saylor novels.

    Maybe as the week goes by, and I air my complaints, grievances, and petulant whines, you, and others, can address how the recommended books solve the various problems I identify.

  3. I'm looking forward to this week's posts. Mysteries are my main junk food, but I don't read any historical ones. Though I have had the first Stephen Saylor one on my shelf for a while.

  4. I got a good chuckle from the footnote, AR!

    If you're looking to get back into some Russian reading, Boris Akunin's Erast Fandorin detective novels are a lot of fun, and they draw heavily on Russian literature.

  5. Looking forward to reading about your "complaints, grievances, and petulant whines."

    One author I forgot to mention was Anne Perry, who has several historical series out now. One, the one I prefer, features William Monk, a London police officer, then a PI, then an officer with the River Police. The time frame is mid 19th century. He and his wife visited the US and got caught in the middle of a Civil War battle.

    Another author, and the last I will mention, is Charles Todd. His series concerns a Scotland Yard inspector and is set just after WWI. He was injured, physically and psychically (PTSD we would call it today) and is haunted by the voice of his sgt whom he had to execute for refusing to obey an order. Gives a new twist to the saying that he was of two minds about the right course to follow.

  6. BTW, each of the highly entertaining Hockensmith books featuring Big Red and Old Red are worth reading.

  7. Fred, Lizok, thanks for the recs. Keep 'em coming.

    R.T., I think I'm going to write about this later in the week - I think the "worth reading" question is a little complicated. Of the six mysteries in my pool, the Hockensmith was the closest to pure fun.

    By the way, have you read any of the "Owen Parry" Civil War mysteries? Right up your alley, I'd think.

  8. Definitely not my forte, but one that sticks out which I really enjoyed was The Truth About the Savolta Case by Eduardo Mendoza. I don't believe an English translation has recently been published, but used copies should be easy to find.

    Not so much a historical mystery as a story set in Barcelona toward the end of World War I. Definitely gives a flavor for the turbulence then.

  9. Yes, I would agree that my use of the phrase "worth reading" suggests problems worth discussing. I defer to you since you suggested the discussion, and I'll jump in later after you've set things in motion.