Sunday, September 30, 2012

What We're Reading: Historical Mystery

My colleague, RTKO, and I were discussing the merits of reading fiction vs. nonfiction the other day, and he commented that one of the reasons he didn't like reading genre fiction was because it was formulaic. That set me to thinking about the mysteries that I have liked best, and with a few exceptions I find that the combination of history with mystery is a decided preference, because it introduces other aspects around the formula that keep it fresh for me.

I blogged briefly back in the spring about the Sebastian St. Cyr mysteries by C. S. Harris, which are set in Regency England; another favorite of mine is Barbara Hambly's Benjamin January novels starring A Free Man of Color, in pre-emancipation New Orleans. I read the first eight of these and then got distracted, and see from the catalog that I have two more to look forward to!

Now I have discovered Rennie Airth (suggested by circ staffer Morgan), who has located his three mysteries about Scotland Yard's John Madden in post-World War I, pre-World War II, and during the course of the second war. This itself is unusual in a mystery writer, to set his books so far apart in time--10 years elapse between the first book (River of Darkness) and the second; and the third novel is similarly separated by a long gap. Also unusual is that while his protagonist is an Inspector at Scotland Yard in the first book, by the second and third books he has radically changed his life in a number of ways and is now almost peripheral to the action, though still vital to its solution.

Setting books in history allows writers to explore times when conventions and methods that are a given in today's mystery were new, untried, and perhaps even suspicious. In the Sebastian St. Cyr mysteries, the autopsy was the coming thing, as yet practiced only by doctors who did so surreptitiously, usually by employing a grave robber. In Alex Grecian's excellent debut novel, The Yard, which I read on Aunt Agatha's recommendation, it is the new science of forensics that saves the day. In Airth's books we get to experience the infancy of psychological profiling, utilized to figure out those murderers whose methods and personalities do not yield to the common wisdom.

Airth, who worked for a number of years as a correspondent for Reuters, gives a particularly atmospheric setting for his last novel, The Dead of Winter, a fog-shrouded and bomb-pummeled London during the Blitz. He is likewise superb at characterization, and has provided the reader with many quirky, interesting characters to surround John Madden, another thing I like in a good story. There's nothing worse, in my mind, than the mystery writer who makes all his or her characters so subordinate or incidental compared to the hero that you really don't care if they live or die or (more prosaically) move away, never to be heard from again. Airth has created a solid cast, which could work to his advantage in the future: Although Airth may not take my advice, I'm hoping that if he decides that Madden has done his job and really does retire him after these three books, he will come up with some later works starring the Madden-mentored Billy Styles, or the doughty Lily Poole, just embarking on her career at the Yard.

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