There’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.