Wednesday, November 03, 2021

What Qualifies as a Historical Mystery?


I’ve been working on a historical mystery lately, one set in the 1850s. So far I’ve just been doing some outlining and research. Haven’t written a word yet. But it did start me thinking about what qualifies as a historical mystery. Mysteries that were contemporary when written, such as ones by Agatha Christie, even though they’re set in, say, the 1920s are not considered historical. That makes sense to me.

I’ve heard a number of different definitions of a historical mystery.

1. A mystery is considered historical if the author was not alive when the story takes place. So, if a mystery is set in the 1960s, say, it would be considered historical if the author was born in the 1970s or later, but not if they were born in the 1950s.

I rather like this definition, but I can see where it would be confusing when it comes to awards and deciding if a book fits into the historical category. You’d have to know how old the author is.

2. A mystery is considered historical if it’s set X years in the past. I’ve heard 50 years, but I’m sure there are other numbers that people have put in here.

3. A mystery is considered historical if it’s set before World War II.

4. A mystery is historical if it takes place in a time clearly distinct from our own. 

5. A mystery is historical if it takes place in any era other than the one it is written in.

I could probably make a case for any of these. Some mysteries are clearly historical to me. Others, such as ones set in the 1970s, are, for me, not historical since I was alive then. But, I can see why they could be considered historical for those born in the current century. 

What do you think is the best definition of a historical mystery? Does anyone know what the Agatha Awards uses for its definition? I couldn’t find it on the Malice Domestic website.


Anna said...

By the time we get to be high-mileage, anything we remember from our youth will be ancient history for most of our readers and a pleasant nostalgia trip for the rest. Win-win.

Susan D said...

An interest question to ponder, Sybil. Here's a 2018 article from Historia Magazine which explores various ideas and opinions.

Although I can't agree with the writer who contends "...the [historical] novel traditionally deals with significant historical events, like the French Revolution or the Jacobite Rebellion." Another (who should know better) says it must "... include only events and names that can be historically verified." Really? So no common folk or fictional characters coping with day-to-day life in war and peace?

Sybil Johnson said...

Thanks, Susan. I'll check out that article. I don't agree with the bit about having to contain significant historical events or that it must include events that are historically verified. This is fiction, after all.

True, Anna, very true.

Susan D said...

Indeed, Anna. Nicely put.

I kept thinking about this yesterday, so I'll ramble on a bit here....

I can think of two reasons for using historical settings.

One is that the author loves the period, knows it well, and wants to engage in it through their characters .

The other is more linked to L P Hartley's often quoted observation, "The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there." And we find that the story we want to write simply CAN'T take place in the Now. The constantly changing, top speed, frightening Now. We need to find a home period for our stories. The right period.

I'll stop now.

Anna said...

Susan, well said. I am brewing a story that must be set in ~1990 because (1) a bit of information germane to the story was much in the news then and (2) my characters are going to be isolated in the wilderness for a few days, cut off from communicating with anyone, least of all the low-life guy who sent them there. Even though 1990 is well within memory, by the definition you quoted it is indeed a foreign country. Scary!