And It’s Fiction Like All History*

Historical Figures as SleuthsThere’s sometimes a fine line between history and fiction. And in crime fiction, that line can become even more blurred when we look at crime fiction that features historical figures as sleuths. In some ways, it’s easy to see the appeal of such a novel or series. Readers who enjoy history, and like to read about historical figures, can see those people in new roles and new stories. On the other hand, it’s fiction. People who prefer their history to be accurate and factual aren’t necessarily best pleased to have historical figures presented as sleuths; it’s far too speculative and stretches credibility too far.

There’ve actually been several crime fiction series based on the lives of real people. It’s interesting to see how the different authors balance authenticity with the goal of telling a well-plotted murder story. It’s not an easy balance, and not everyone is a fan of such crime fiction. But when it works well, having a sleuth who actually existed can add an interesting dimension to a series. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.

Among other novels and series, Karen Harper has written a mystery series featuring Queen Elizabeth I as the sleuth. The series begins with The Poysen Garden, in which twenty-five-year-old Princess Elizabeth is faced with the fact that several members of the Boleyn family are being poisoned. It’s soon clear that someone is targeting her, too, and she’s going to have to find out who it is if she’s to stay alive. Many of the other novels in the series deal with court intrigue and political machinations; and they follow Elizabeth as she takes the throne and works to protect her rule.

In Daniel Friedman’s Riot Most Uncouth, nineteen-year-old Lord Byron is a student at Trinity College, Cambridge. He’s not much of a scholar, though, preferring to spend his time drinking, romancing and playing cards. Then, his butler tells him that Felicity Whippleby has been brutally murdered in her university rooms. Deciding that he’d much rather find out who killed the victim than actually attend lectures, Byron decides to search for the killer. Byron’s not treated particularly kindly in this novel, and Friedman has taken liberties with the facts about Bryon’s life. But it is interesting to speculate on what a poet like Byron might have been like as a sleuth.

Under the name Stephanie Barron, Francine Matthews has written a series featuring Jane Austen as the protagonist and sleuth. In Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor, the first of the series, Jane is visiting her friend Isobel, Countess of Scargrave. Isobel has recently married Frederick, Lord Scargrave, a man several years older than herself, and everyone thinks the match is a very good one. But soon after Jane’s arrival, Lord Scargrave becomes gravely ill and dies of what turns out to be poison. With her friend now drawn into a scandalous murder investigation, Jane decides to stay and try to find out what really happened to the victim. These novels (there are currently thirteen in the series) are written mostly as journal entries, with the stories being told in the first person. Matthews/Barron uses the sort of language and syntax that Austen used to add authenticity to the series.

There’s an interesting series featuring Eleanor Roosevelt as the protagonist and sleuth. The novels list her son, Elliott Roosevelt, as the author, and many people argue that he did, indeed, write the books. There’s other evidence that suggests the novels might have been ghost-written. Whichever is the case, the novels give readers an ‘inside look’ at the world of Washington politics during the Roosevelt years. There’s also a look at the international landscape of the times. In Murder in the Lincoln Bedroom, for instance, a secret meeting is held that includes Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and US General Dwight D.  Eisenhower. During the visit, Special Counsel to the President Paul Weyrich is murdered and his body discovered in the famous Lincoln Bedroom. Since the conference is top-secret, the murder has to be kept secret as well, so Mrs. Roosevelt has to find out who the killer is before the press and public hear about it.

There’s also Nicola Upson’s series, which ‘stars’ Josephine Tey as the protagonist. In the first novel, An Expert in Murder, set in 1934, Tey travels from Scotland to London for the final week of her play, Richard of Bordeaux. On the train, she meets a fan named Elspeth Simmons. The two get along, so it’s a serious shock when Elspeth is found dead in her compartment. It’s clear from the murder, too, that her death has something to do with Tey’s play. Then, the next day, there’s another murder. Tey has to work to find out who and what link the deaths, and why someone seems to be fixated on her play.

There’s also an interesting YA series featuring historical figures. Fireside Books has put together the Leaders and Legacies series, which feature Canada’s prime ministers as young sleuths, and tell the stories of their lives. They’re written by different authors, and take place at different times in history. One, Showdown at Bordertown, was even written by an author who was herself a teen at the time she wrote the novel. It ‘stars’ Paul Martin, who served as Prime Minister from 2003-2006, as the 12-year-old protagonist.  Thus far, to my knowledge, there are five books in this series (if someone knows better, please put me right on that!).

Books that feature real historical figures can be interesting to those who find those figures interesting. And there are lots of possibilities for plots. But there are also major risks. Those who know history very well may object to fictional accounts. And such books do require a lot of research. But they can be quite successful.

What do you think about all this? Do you read crime fiction that features real historical figures as sleuths? What about those (such as Felicity Young’s Dody McCleland series) that include real historical figures, even if they’re not the protagonist?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Unbelievable Truth’s History/Fiction.


Filed under Caroline Woodward, Daniel Friedman, Elliott Roosevelt, Felicity Young, Francine Matthews, Jane Austen, Josephine Tey, Karen Harper, Leaders and Legacies, Nicola Upson, Stephanie Barron

39 responses to “And It’s Fiction Like All History*

  1. Pingback: And It’s Fiction Like All History* | picardykatt's Blog

  2. I’m rather partial to fiction (especially crime fiction) using real historical characters. I’m fond of the Nicola Upson series, as I think she has a sensitive and imaginative interpretation of Josephine Tey (about whom very little is known, actually). The Byron one sounds compelling. Not that long ago I read a book about the Shelleys and their friends by Lynn Shepherd and it did put me off Percy B. Shelley a little, but it was well done and quite plausible.

    • Oh, I’m glad you mentioned the Shepherd, Marina Sofia! I’ve always found the Shelleys really interesting. Your comment makes me wonder how they’re treated in that book. You’re right, too, that we don’t know much about Josephine Tey. I wonder if that benefits the Upson series… I think you have a good point that Upson takes an imaginative approach to Tey, and seems ‘tuned in’ to her.

  3. A.M. Pietroschek

    Her name was Margot McKinberg, and she was born in the Scottish Highlands? It is the year of the Lord 1066, and I am one more agent of our spymaster, tasked to subtly watch-out for assassins lurking for their chance to end the future of the rightful leader of our clan…

  4. Interesting books you mention, Margot. I enjoy books with famous protagonist. Gives a new twists to think about.

  5. Fascinating Margot and two more for my TBR list! I had no idea there were so many fictional historical sleuths. Murder crosses so many genres and is often shoe-horned in in the most unlikely way. Slightly off topic, but although she’s a very good writer and I enjoyed the book, there was something not quite right about PD Jame’s ‘Murder Comes To Pemberley’. Austen would have been horrified. Perhaps she should have been the sleuth in this tale 😉

    • Perhaps she should, D.S. Interestingly enough, you’re not the only one who felt that way about that book. I’ve read plenty of reviews and opinions that weren’t exactly positive. And you’re right; there are a lot of real-life historical figures who show up in crime fiction. When it’s done well, it really can be interesting. I think it’s got to be done carefully, though, if it’s going to work.

  6. I like historical novels, I like crime set in historical times, but actually I DON’T like sleuths who were real people, it makes me uncomfortable, not sure why. I can’t think of any that I’ve taken to. So I won’t mention any… perhaps there is one out there that I would like.
    So for example, I love CJ Sansom’s Shardlake mysteries, set in Tudor times. They are full of real people as characters, given dialogue and actions. But I would NOT like it if the sleuth was Thomas Cromwell or Queen Katherine or anyone else. That may not be logical but I feel strongly about it….

    • It doesn’t need to be logical, Moira. If that’s your preference, it is. And there is most definitely a difference between historical novels (I’m glad you chose the Sansom series – it’s great!) and novels featuring historical figures. They really aren’t the same. For a lot of people, having historical figures also serve as sleuths just doesn’t fit with what they know about those people.

  7. Col

    Nothing I’ve read among your examples, but I do have something a bit more contemporary from Daniel Friedman. Lord Byron seems a bit distanced from his Buck Schatz character!

  8. I guess my favorite(s) in the field would be the Judge Dee mysteries by Robert Van Gulik. While Judge Dee was a real person, I don’t think I could call him famous – not in the West, anyway – although he’s been a staple of the Chinese detective story for centuries. According to the author, anyway, Van Gulik’s books are quite evocative of daily life in ancient China, and they’re all great fun as well.

    • Of course, Les! Judge Dee! I’m so glad you mentioned him, as he is a really good example of a real person who’s also been written into crime fiction. And you’re right; those stories are certainly evocative of the time and place, aren’t they?

  9. It’s not something I’m particularly fond of – if I don’t know anything about the historical character then the fact of them being ‘real’ makes no difference, and if I do know something about them, then I find the fictionalised version tends to grate. I’ve read one of the Nicola Upson books, and quite enjoyed it since I know nothing about Josephine Tey. But I tried reading Giles Brandreth’s Oscar Wilde series and, much though I generally enjoy Brandreth’s writing and know that his research will have been thorough, I found the books tedious – too much emphasis on trying to fit in some of Wilde’s bon mots. On the whole, I’d tend to avoid this kind of thing rather than be attracted to it.

    • You make an interesting point, FictionFan, about the impact of how well you know the historical figure in a given novel. I hadn’t thought about it, but that makes a great deal of sense. And your examples really show that. And you know, this sort of novel isn’t for everyone. Some people enjoy it very much. Others don’t. And at least you won’t be adding these novels to your TBR. 😉

  10. tracybham

    I have read some of the Stephanie Barron series about Jane Austen, and I am interested in trying Nicola Upson’s series with Josephine Tey as the protagonist. That type of historical fiction doesn’t always work for me, but I like to try the series to see.

    • I know what you mean, Tracy. Sometimes this sort of series works very well; sometimes it doesn’t at all. If you do read any of Nicola Upson’s work, I hope you’ll enjoy it.

  11. I’m in two minds about mixing fact and fiction by using real people as characters. I don’t have a problem with historical fiction (so long as the facts are right) but I’m not so sure about its use in crime fiction. In Nicola Upson’s books for example I would have preferred it if Tey had been wholly a fictional character but as I don’t know much about Elizabeth Macintosh this representation of her persona as Josephine Tey seemed wholly fictional to me and actually she is a minor character anyway.

    I was interested in Elizabeth Mackintosh’s view, which Upson quoted in her
    Author’s Note in An expert in Murder:

    she ” took a dim view of mixing fact and fiction – but she allowed it if the writer stated where the truth could be found, and if invention did not falsify the general picture.”

    • Oh, that’s really interesting, Margaret! Thanks for sharing that. Mackintosh had clearly thought about this same issue, and it’s interesting to see her views on it. And you’re not alone in having reservations about using historical figures in crime fiction. Especially for people such as yourself, who are interested in history, getting the facts right is important, and that can impact how one might feel about this sort of novel. And there’s definitely a difference between historical fiction and fiction that features historical figures as sleuths.

  12. Fascinating, Margot. I’d love to read series featuring Jane Austen and Eleanor Roosevelt as well as “Murder in the Lincoln Bedroom.” I have read many books featuring historical figures, most of which have been in spy fiction and set during the Cold War. You can’t go wrong mixing fact and fiction in espionage, I think. It also lends credibility to all the suspense and intrigues around the CIA and KGB.

    • You have a point, Prashant, that using real groups such as the CIA and KGB can definitely add suspense to a novel. I think that’s very much true in a Cold War novel, where the author wants to reflect the tension of those times.

  13. I am not terribly fond of historical fiction of any kind. As a history major, I am always worried the writer is getting it wrong. And I especially dislike the use of actual historical figures as characters. Guess I am turning into an old fussbudget.

    • Since you’ve studied history, Patti, I can see why you’d notice historical (in)accuracies in a novel. I think we’re all probably particularly sensitive to inaccuracies in our own areas.

  14. I’m not a big historical reader, but I do like my crime fiction to be based in fact.

  15. Margot, thank you, thank you, thank you for bringing the Fireside Publishing House series with young Canadian prime minister sleuths. I had never heard of this – and it’s obscure – took me some time to find it on the Web! I finally tracked them down at!untitled/cnec

    I wish they were all available as ebooks so that I could afford to get them all, but at least I’ve downloaded the Paul Martin one. 🙂

  16. kathyd

    Well, regarding historical crime fiction, what comes to mind if the Adelia Aguilar series set in 12th-century England, written by Ariana Franklin aka Diana Norman.
    King Henry II is a character in the books; he has invited Adelia Aguilar to come to England from Salerno to investigate the death of some children.
    And he converses with her in Cambridge in “Mistress in the Art of Death.”
    I didn’t mind his appearance, however, I had to search to find out his history.
    Some readers criticized the protagonist as being a “contemporary feminist,” and not reflecting the real attitudes of women at the time. However, I and women friends who read the books liked Adelia Aguilar a great deal and did not mind her progressive attitude on women’s roles and other social issues, like the death penalty.
    Women weren’t allowed to be doctors then in England, and Adelia has plenty to say and think about that, although she devises a way of practicing medicine anyway.

    • There are definitely historical figures who play a role in many crime novels, Kathy, although they’re not the sleuth. And the Ariana Franklin/Diana Norman series is a fine example of that. While Adelia Aguilar is fictional, King Henry the II was not. It’s an interesting blend of history and fiction.

  17. kathy d

    I say Bravo to Diana Norman to writing the Adelia Aguilar series. Women readers love them. Friends have raced through them. Has anyone read any of her other historical novels?

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