When a historical mystery is truly bad

Posted by Tory Historian Monday, December 07, 2009 ,

Tory Historian is, understandably, fond of historical mysteries, which term does not refer to the perennial question of who, if anyone, killed the Countess of Leicester, but detective stories written in modern times about older times. One of the curious developments in the detective story genre has been the ever growing number of mysteries that feature real or imagined figures from the past who solve various crimes. We can only assume that detective story writers, as opposed to crime story or thriller writers, have found it difficult to keep up with modern police technology or, maybe, decided that much of that is rather dull. On the other hand, it is hard to imagine too many brilliant amateurs on the job these days.

There are advantages to placing one’s detective story in the past – the need to keep up with the latest police methods, political developments, institutional changes and suchlike boring nonsense disappears. There are also disadvantages – the story and the characters do have to be credible and a good understanding of the period is required.

Critics of detective stories these days are rarely knowledgeable bods as the genre is considered to be too lowly to be given to anyone but some junior literary aspirant. Therefore, the most ridiculously impossible historical mysteries are applauded because they have a few seemingly knowledgeable references to olden days.

David Dickinson, for instance, seems to be highly regarded by the fraternity and sorority of critics. Yet the one novel in the series about Lord Francis Powerscourt Tory Historian managed to struggle through, Death of an Old Master, was full of the most appalling errors, both factual and thematic.

Lord Francis goes to his club to read newspapers and journals that were not published till years later, for instance; there is a constant muddle with titles, something that a novelist whose hero is a rich aristocrat should get right; in one scene Lord Francis comes home to his house in St James’s Square and is described as taking off his coat while his wife comes running out to tell him some important news. Does this rich aristocratic family not have footmen? Apparently not. Neither do they seem to have a nanny for their children or a green baize door between the family and the servants. In fact, they lead the life of a suburban family from the 1950s. The book went straight back to a charity shop.

However, Tory Historian was pleased to find another historical mystery series about the Georgian apothecary, John Rawlings and the great jurist and investigator Sir John Fielding.

There is another series in existence about Fielding by Alexander Bruce (real name Bruce Alexander Cook) and it might be a good idea to try one of those. In the meantime, there is Deryn Lake’s series and, in particular, Death at St James’s Palace, in which John Fielding is knighted. In other words, it takes place in 1761.

In parenthesis, one should note that though British detective story writers love historic themes, it is Americans who often make famous English people into detectives. Both the above writers are American, as was Lillian de la Torre who made Dr Johnson into a detective. Then there is Stephanie Barron, who has written a whole series about Jane Austen detecting, presumably as a sort of Regency Miss Marple.

Death at St James’s Palace comes reasonably highly recommended. Lindsey Davis praises the series in words that make one doubt she has read any of the books; the Yorkshire Post informs us that “Lake brings eighteenth century England to life in a colourful style …. Georgette Heyer …. but with the knickers off”. As usual, one wonders what is missing from that quotation. But knickers off? Ahem, they did not wear knickers in the eighteenth century. Presumably, this means that there is more sex in Deryn Lake’s series. Tory Historian suspects that the author of those words had not read Ms Heyer’s books.

Nevertheless, Ms Lake is described as the Queen of Georgian Mysteries and Maxim Jakubowski, himself a writer, editor, critic and quondam owner of the sadly missed Murder One bookshop, writes that this series is “meticulously researched”.

Well, Tory Historian has to disagree with the great Mr Jakubowski. Death at St James’s Palace is “meticulously researched” in the sense that Ms Lake does seem to have read detailed descriptions of what parts of London looked like at the time or what sort of underwear ladies wore. We know she has done this research because she reproduces acres of it in her own book.

When it comes to understanding how people thought or spoke, Ms Lake is sadly at a loss, preferring a twentieth century speech pattern with the odd eighteenth century word thrown in. Not only gentlemen swear in front of ladies, something that the most cursory reading of contemporary literature (or of Ms Heyer’s truly meticulous novels) would have shown to be erroneous, they all use words and expressions that are simply not possible for the period.

Tory Historian very nearly consigned the book to the charity shop bag when a character in it referred to badly behaved boys as a “bunch of hooligans”, hooligan being a word that came into the English language some time in the mid-1890s, 130 years after the events described in Death at St James’s Palace.

For the moment, however, the decision is to persevere, in the hopes that the plot will develop reasonably soon.


  1. sjm Says:
  2. Why inflict this kind of garbage on yourself when you could be reading the divine Ms Mantell or Dorothy Dunnett?

    Virtually all other 'historical' fiction (other than the said Georgette Heyer) utterly falls by the wayside.

  3. What do you think of C.J. Sansom?
    I know he's a Leftie but in his Shardlake detective series, he does at least acknowledge his historical sources (something Philippa Gregory doesn't seem to bother with)and at the end of the novels he does outline what is historical fact and what is purely imaginative.

    I enjoy his books.

  4. Sadly, anyone described as "divine" is taken off my reading list immediately. Not that I am irrational but no author is "divine". Tried Dorothy Dunnett once. Didn't get on with her but shall try again.

    I feel guilty about Sansom as there are two volumes in my "to read" pile, which is threatening to topple over, but I have not yet done so. I shall, however, do so very soon, particularly as I am giving up on Ms Lake.

  5. Unknown Says:
  6. I am struggling a little with Susannah Gregory (17th century series, not mediaeval Cambridge) and rather like Lake, one has to put up with some anachronism. Frankly I cannot take Stephanie Barron but have a soft spot for Mrs Darcy sleuthing in the Berberis novels (despite the presence of black magic). But none of these are up with the best. I agree agree with SJM about Hilary Mantel (compare Ford Madox Ford's Fifth Queen.) Sansom is to be recommended, except on 1930s Spain, and Dorothy Dunnett is worth a bit of effort. But Heyer at her peak is as good as any. Did not Infamous Army figure at Sandhurst?

  7. Just reading Sansom's Dissolution, the first of that series. Not going to touch the 1930s Spain novel, more or less, as a matter of principle.

    Some anachronisms one accepts, if they are not important. A book that is nothing but one long anachronism is beyond the pale. Shall have to try Dorothy Dunnett. So far Georgette Heyer rules.

  8. Rohaise Says:
  9. Hooray. I thought it was just me. I started reading "Goodnight Sweet Prince" and began to get so enraged by the inaccuracies of language, dress, behaviour, social etiquette, and much, much more that I had to abandon the book (something that I seldom do). Funnily enough, another recently started book, which I'm having trouble with, is "Winter in Madrid" by CJ Samson - big errors in speech (something I verified with my parents who were both born before the war). Perhaps I need to try his other books.

  10. Haven't tried Carole Berry. I take it that is the author you are referring to, Rohaise. Sansom is hard going on the Tudor stuff but quite good. Shall not be touching the Spanish novel because of the usual errors produced in anything about the Spanish Civil War. Life is too short.

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