An interesting comment exchange with Prashant at Chess, Comics, Crosswords, Books, Music, Cinema has got me thinking about historians. When you consider it, understanding our history is absolutely essential to understanding who we are now, and why we are the way we are. So the work historians do is important, even if we aren’t always conscious of it.
Historians, both professional and amateur, play roles in crime fiction, too. Well, academics in general figure into the genre quite a lot, but there’s only so much room in one post. Still, even if we only focus on one discipline – history – we see a lot of examples.
Lilian Jackson Braun’s James ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran is a newspaper columnist who lives and works in Pickax, Moose County, ‘400 miles north of nowhere.’ The area has a long and rich history that includes mining, railroads and more. And that history is often related to the present-day crimes that Qwill investigates. He himself may not be thoroughly informed on the area’s history, but he has a rich resource in Homer Tibbitt. Tibbitt is a nonagenarian expert on local history, and spends a great deal of time at the public library reading up on his topic. His expertise is very helpful too. For instance, in The Cat Who Blew the Whistle, Tibbitt is writing a paper on Moose County mining. It turns out that he’s very familiar with one of the original mining families in the area, the Trevelyans. And that history is of particular interest to Qwill, who’s investigating the disappearance of a modern-day member of the family – along with a million dollars – and that case’s connection to a murder. Tibbitt’s background knowledge proves to be extremely useful in solving the puzzle.
In Deborah Crombie’s A Finer End, Met Superintendent Duncan Kincaid gets a strange request from his cousin Jack Montfort, who lives in Glastonbury. Montfort’s aware of the legends about Glastonbury, its Druid past and the myth that King Arthur and Queen Guinevere are buried there. But he’s never really taken a serious interest in those matters. Still, he does find history fascinating. That’s how he comes across a thousand-year-old chronicle that tells of an ancient terrible crime. He’s troubled enough on several levels to ask his cousin’s help, and Kincaid agrees. After all, a nice, peaceful getaway from London is a welcome change. But for Kincaid and his partner Gemma James, it turns out to be anything but peaceful. When a local tiler Garnet Todd is murdered, the solution seems somehow to be connected to her interest in the pagan history of the area and to Goddess worship. So James turns for guidance to historian Erika Rosenthal, who’s made a career of studying that aspect of Glastonbury’s past. Rosenthal’s insights don’t solve the murder, but they do provide very helpful information.
There are, of course, plenty of fictional sleuths who are historians. For example, one of the protagonists in Martin Edwards’ Lake District series is Oxford historian Daniel Kind. His work earned him celebrity status, but he got burned out, as the saying goes, on TV and personal appearances. So he’s taken a home in the Lake District, where he’s trying to focus on his work. That’s how he meets up again with DCI Hannah Scarlett, who heads the Cumbria Constabulary’s Cold Case Review Team, and who was also his father Ben’s police protégée. Scarlett and her team investigate cases that have their roots in the past – sometimes in the distant past. So she finds Kind’s expertise and historical perspective very useful.
One of Fred Vargas’ series features three historians: Marc Vandoosier, Lucien Devernois and Matthias Delamarre. They live together with Vandoosier’s uncle, a disgraced former police officer. They first get drawn into crime in The Three Evangelists when Sophia Siméonidis, the opera singer who lives next door, notices the sudden appearance of a beech tree in her yard. She asks the Vandoosiers, Devernois and Delamarre to help her make sense of why a tree would suddenly appear. Then, she disappears and is later found dead, and the Three Evangelists set out to find out the truth about her murder.
There’s also Sarah R. Shaber’s Professor Simon Shaw. He is a Pulitzer Prize winning historian whose specialty is the history of the American South. Although he could have his pick of academic positions, Shaw has chosen North Carolina’s small, but competitive and reputable, Kenan College. As the series begins (with Simon Said), he’s recovering from a divorce, and hoping to pick up a quiet, academic life again. Instead, he gets drawn into the 1926 murder of Anne Bloodworth. Throughout the series, he uses his knowledge of history and his research-oriented approach to investigation to help solve mysteries. And it sometimes gets him into danger.
Of course, that’s nothing compared to what awaits historian Augustin Renaud in Louise Penny’s Bury Your Dead. In one plot thread of that novel, Renaud has been researching the history of Samuel de Champlain. When he is murdered at Québec City’s Literary and Historical Society, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache (who’s there for a respite and to enjoy the Winter Carnival) gets involved in the investigation. It turns out that Renaud’s murder is directly related to his determined search for Champlain’s remains.
You’ll notice that I’ve not mentioned the many fictional sleuths whose professions are history-related (e.g. anthropology and archaeology) – too easy. And that’s to say nothing of the many crime writers who are historians. They’re all examples of the way history finds its way into crime fiction. I know I’ve only mentioned a sampling here. Over to you.
Thanks, Prashant, for the inspiration. Folks, you won’t want to miss Prashant’s excellent blog. Fine reviews of film, books, and much more await you.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bob Marley’s Buffalo Soldier.