Sunday, November 18, 2007

Mystery, History, and the Joy of Fiction

by Julia Buckley
I've been having a little reading fest lately. First I started on Roberta Isleib's Preaching to the Corpse; readers of this blog may remember that Roberta guest blogged for us not long ago, and I interviewed her today at Mysterious Musings. Roberta should be congratulated on her election as the brand new president of Sisters in Crime.

Next to Roberta's book on my TBR pile are Tim Maleeny's Beating the Babushka and John Dandola's Dead By All Appearances. Tim's book is a sequel to his popular Stealing the Dragon, and John's is also a continuation of a series with 1940s detective Tony Del Plato and M.G.M. publicity girl Edie Koslow. Dandola has also woven in some real people, like Jack Benny and the lovely Marjorie Reynolds, who starred with Bing Crosby in Holiday Inn. Remember her? She's in the photo above. (Photo link here).

In the foreword of his mystery, Dandola explains his interest in Reynolds, whose career never took off the way that it should have, given her talent and beauty. But, as Dandola points out, in fiction we can do anything we wish, and he wishes to give Marjorie Reynolds more time on stage: "On this, the sixty-fifth anniversary of Holiday Inn, I present Marjorie Reynolds as a character in a mystery novel. Perhaps, it will bring about some rekindled awareness of her career."

I love the notion that an author can go back, pick out an interesting part of history, and explore it fictionally. The popularity of historical mysteries tells me that I'm not alone in liking that idea.

One of the people I'd observe, if I were able to fly back in time, is Abraham Lincoln; coincidentally today, November 19th, is the day, in 1863, that he delivered the Gettysburg Address. I would like to stand there for the two minutes or so that it took Lincoln to say those words that would be remembered forever--two minutes of greatness that overshadowed the speech of the "great orator" who came before him, Edward Everett, who spoke for two hours. How wonderful it would be to see Lincoln as a solver of mysteries. Or has someone already written him into their book?

My question today is: Who is your favorite character in a historical mystery, whether they are based on real people or whether they are entirely fictional creations? OR To whom would you give new life, if you could put a historical character into a mystery?

(Lincoln photo courtesy of constitutional.net)

8 comments:

Peter said...

How about Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar, from Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin? Franklin combines sensibilties that will appeal to present-day readers while at the same time cooking up a plot exquisitely suited to its time and place: 1170-71 in Cambridge, England.

As far as historical figures as solvers of mysteries, Franklin's novel gives a patron's role to England's King Henry II. It is he who calls in Adelia to solve the killings for interesting and historically plausible reasons.
===================
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
http://detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Two of my favorite fictional characters in historical novels are Dorothy Dunnett's Francis Crawford of Lymond and Diana Gabaldon's Jamie Fraser. Obviously, I go for the charismatic and sexy, but these guys are also terrifically well-drawn characters. If I wrote a historical, though, I'd have a woman protagonist. Madame de Stael would be a good one--though anyone's welcome to the idea, because I'd never do the research. She's remembered as a saloniste, and historians always add, "She wasn't pretty"--as if that made it remarkable that everybody fell in love with her. She was brilliant and a prolific writer, so effective politically she had Napoleon gnashing his teeth, and I'd probably make her a prefeminism feminist (that would be the fictionalizing).

Julia Buckley said...

Huh! That sounds like a luscious read, Peter. And it sort of reminds me of the Josephine Tey novel, DAUGHTER OF TIME, in which a modern day detective busies himself with the solving of a historical crime. But that's a different notion.

Julia Buckley said...

Wow--I love your choice, too, Liz! These are such interesting and noble ideas. Perhaps you should both pursue them fictionally. :)

And isn't it interesting, in support of your statement, Liz, that in the first line of Gone With the Wind it is stated that Scarlett O'Hara is NOT beautiful, but then they went and cast Vivien Leigh.

Sandra Parshall said...

It's interesting that the fictional character Sherlock Holmes is being used in several historical mystery series as if he were a real person whose life could be imagined beyond what is already known.

As far as *really* real people go, I like the way Caleb Carr portrayed Theodore Roosevelt in THE ALIENIST. I've seen several radically different fictional versions of Sigmund Freud and don't like any of them. I suspect I wouldn't like the real man either.

Peter said...

Julia, you posted your comment right at a time when I'd been thinking about historical mysteries, a sub-genre about which I've been rethinking my doubts. Mistress of the Art of Death has been the catalyst, and you can find two comments that I posted about the book here.
==============
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
http://www.detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

Julia Buckley said...

Thanks, Peter! As ever, very interesting!

Julia

Peter said...

I've had the idea that Voltaire and Montaigne, for different reasons, would make good detectives, Voltaire because he was scornful of received wisdom, and Montaigne because of his penchant to examine a proposition from every possible angle.
==============
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
http://www.detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/