If You Know Your History*

HistoriansAn 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.


Filed under Deborah Crombie, Fred Vargas, Lilian Jackson Braun, Louise Penny, Martin Edwards, Sarah R. Shaber

18 responses to “If You Know Your History*

  1. Mark Mills’ The Savage Garden is based in Italy, and is rich with history. Finally, I remembered a title that’s pertinent.

    • Oh, thanks, Sue 🙂 – That’s one I admit I’ve not (yet) read, ‘though I’ve heard it’s good. I always like learning about new books (now, if I only had time to read ’em all…. *sigh*)

  2. Col

    Margot, I’m not familiar with any of your examples, I’m afraid. I do enjoy reading Prashant’s blog though.

  3. Margot: Gamache is also spending time at the library researching a point of history with regard to the Battle of the Plains of Abraham which was the decisive battle in the British defeating the French in 1763.

  4. I know you steered clear of history related professionals but I can’t think of a real one so would like to add the fictional amateur historian Jefferson Tate who is a genealogist in Steve Robinson’s mystery stories. I know it’s cheating!

    • You know, Cleo, I’m glad you mentioned Steve Robinson’s series Tayte’s background is genealogy rather than, strictly speaking, history. But he certainly has plenty of historical knowledge, and that comes through in those novels.

  5. I couldn’t agree more about the critical importance of history. Knowing about the past is so central to making the most of our present and our future. And thanks for mentioning Daniel – I’m currently working on a new storyline for him, and Hannah.

    • Oh, so glad to hear you’re working on a new Lake District mystery, Martin! I’ll be very keen to read it. And you’re right, too. If we don’t understand the past, we can’t make sense of what’s happening now; nor can we plan for a better future.

  6. Margot, thank you very much for honouring my blog. I love history and I always have, since school. Although I read books with history as a backdrop or setting, nowhere do I find them more educating and entertaining than in frontier fiction and war genres. From the former I learnt much about the American wild west and the Civil War, mainly the new settlements, the railroads, the mining towns, the ranches and the plains, and life in and around the Mississippi river. On the other hand, the Great War and World War II has given me a broad understanding of Europe in all its vicissitudes, conflicting or otherwise. While history is real, sometimes it feels like fiction.

    • It does indeed, Prashant. When we read history, we learn so much about ourselves, I think. And we learn that throughout history, people have faced many of the same stresses and challenges we do today. Finding out how others have managed those stresses, and how much alike we all are in some ways, helps us understand ourselves better. Oh, and trust me, it’s my pleasure to mention your excellent blog.

  7. I love historical fiction/mysteries and wonder how many of those authors began as history lovers or became hooked on history while doing research. I have one manuscript, as yet unsold, that had me reading book after book on Illinois in the 1830s. It can turn into an addiction.

    • Oh, that sounds really interesting, Pat! I hope your manuscript will be picked up, because I’d love to read the story. I suspect you’re probably right, too, that a lot of people who write historical fiction probably are history buffs themselves.

  8. In Dorothy L Sayers’ Gaudy Night, there is a question of academic integrity, and it revolves round a historian and the sources used… suppose you worked hard at your thesis, and then something happened to make you doubt everything you’d done?… Someone caught in a bad situation…

    • Oh, yes, Moira! That is a pitch-perfect example of the importance of historians. And it does indeed trigger all sorts of things. I’m glad you filled in that gap I left.

  9. If I was a writer, I think writing about history would be really interesting, because of all the research you could do. But it would be hard to get it right also. I know that isn’t really the topic here, but it made me think about that.

    • And it’s an important point, Tracy. If one’s going to write about history, one really does need to get the facts. I think I’d probably enjoy the research aspect of it too, if I wrote historical novels.

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