The Magazine

Murdering History

How the past became fair game for detective stories.

Jan 3, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 16 • By JON L. BREEN
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Chaucer and the House of Fame

by Philippa Morgan

Carroll & Graf, 341 pp., $25

Time's Fool

A Mystery of Shakespeare

by Leonard Tourney

Forge, 320 pp., $24.95

The Mask of the Red Death

by Harold Schechter

Ballantine, 308 pp., $24.95

Death by Dickens

edited by Anne Perry

Berkley, 320 pp., $6.99

Ambrose Bierce and the Trey of Pearls

by Oakley Hall

Viking, 216 pp., $24.95

The Tale of Hill Top Farm

by Susan Wittig Albert

Berkley, 286 pp., $22.95

The London Blitz Murders

by Max Allan Collins

Berkley, 260 pp., $6.99

THE LINE BETWEEN FACT AND fancy has always been blurred in tabloid newspapers, plays and movies "based on a true story," biographies for schoolchildren, television commercials, political-campaign material, and other sources of popular entertainment. But in recent years the confusion has spread even to reputably published novels for adults. Consider, for example, the growing fictional practice of making detectives of historical celebrities.

In a small way, the phenomenon has been around for sixty years (or even longer, if you count the nineteenth-century fictionalized exploits of such real-life investigators as Vidocq and Allan Pinkerton). The first author to write a detective series about a historical personage was probably Lillian de la Torre, who cast Dr. Samuel Johnson in the Sherlock Holmes role, with James Boswell as his Watson, for a 1943 short story in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. First collected in book form in Dr. Sam: Johnson, Detector (1946), the series would eventually fill four volumes.

Frederic Dannay, the editorial half of the Ellery Queen team, liked the idea. After publishing mysteries featuring Charlemagne, King Arthur, and Socrates, he discovered and nurtured the versatile Theodore Mathieson, who, beginning in 1959, made one-shot detectives of Leonardo da Vinci, Alexander the Great, Omar Khayyam, Hernando Cortez, Don Miguel de Cervantes, Daniel Defoe, Captain Cook, Dan'l Boone, Stanley and Livingstone, and Florence Nightingale. Mathieson followed his collected stories, The Great "Detectives" (1960), with one of the first novel-length examples, The Devil and Ben Franklin (1961).

Still, as recently as the 1970s, the practice was rare, involving only stray volumes like John Dickson Carr's final novel The Hungry Goblin (1972), with Wilkie Collins as detective, and Margaret Doody's Aristotle Detective (1978).

Then came the deluge. The ranks have included some whose real-life roles made them plausible sleuths--British magistrate Sir John Fielding, Al Capone's nemesis Eliot Ness, onetime New York police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt--while others were more unlikely: Queen Elizabeth I; Edward VII while he was prince of Wales; First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt; and such entertainers as Groucho Marx, the team of Enrico Caruso and Geraldine Farrar (she being the brighter one), and Elvis Presley.

Most of the subjects have been writers, usually but not always those associated with fictional crime. The appearances in detective fiction of Arthur Conan Doyle, who actually had some experience investigating real-life mysteries, have varied from the young medical student playing Watson to his mentor Dr. Joseph Bell (the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes) to the latter-day apologist for spiritualism, often in tandem with Houdini, the debunker of spiritualist frauds rather than the believer. Dashiell Hammett, once a Pinkerton operative, was a natural as a fictional sleuth. Also detecting have been writers outside or on the periphery of the field, including Mark Twain, Jack London, and Jane Austen.

AMONG RECENT ENTRIES, there's Philippa Morgan's first novel, Chaucer and the House of Fame, about Geoffrey Chaucer on a 1370 mission to France for his patron John of Gaunt. The Comte de Guyac, whose loyalty to the English king Chaucer seeks to clarify, is colorfully murdered in the course of a boar hunt. Chaucer's diplomatic profession makes him at least marginally credible as a detective, and Morgan spins a neat mystery plot. Chaucer has yet to write Canterbury Tales, and he gets the inspiration for the Miller's Tale in the course of his adventures. Some readers may question the decision to insert modern idioms into the dialogue, but given that Chaucer and his contemporaries spoke nothing like we do now, Morgan manages to make them sound natural while avoiding the most jarring anachronisms. She includes no historical notes, but her knowledge of the poet and his time is convincing.

The one unpublished effort in Theodore Mathieson's series featured Shakespeare, who narrated his case in the first person. Editor Queen wrote, "Imagine a pure detective story written by Shakespeare himself--in authentic Shakespearean language! It is no discredit to Mr. Mathieson that this incredibly daring attempt failed." The first-person Shakespeare of Leonard Tourney's Time's Fool might have attained Fred Dannay's editorial approval. Tourney, a longtime academic specialist in Shakespeare and his time, previously wrote eight Elizabethan-period mysteries about the husband and wife sleuthing team of Matthew and Joan Stock, who make a brief cameo appearance (though unnamed) in his new book. Tourney's complex Shakespeare displays no false modesty about his talents, bears the weight of grief over the death of his only son, rationalizes his double life as London party animal and Stratford husband and father, and often depicts himself in an unheroic light. The story begins in December 1603, when the prosperous Will is summoned to a meeting with the dark lady of his sonnets, now afflicted with the pox, who attempts to extort money from him. The novel is adequate as a mystery but more distinguished in its command of period style and detail. True, Will and the other characters are awfully eloquent in their everyday speech, but wouldn't Shakespeare have rewritten it that way had he recounted his experiences in the then-unknown genre of a detective novel?

HAROLD SCHECHTER also dares to have his subject narrate in the first person in his third novel about Edgar Allan Poe, who invented the detective story and provided a fictional solution to a real-life murder in "The Mystery of Marie Roget." The Mask of the Red Death gives us Eddie Poe, action hero, and plays the character largely (though not entirely) for laughs. The novel begins with the editor of the Broadway Journal considering the uninspiring review copies before him and bemoaning the lowly state of serious literature in 1840s New York. Every reference to the literary works of others comes with a sting in the tail. At one point, Poe responds with ostensible modesty to an admirer of "The Raven," in an everyday speaking style as ornate as his prose: "You are altogether too kind. . . . Both Shakespeare and Milton, after all, produced several works which--while not necessarily surpassing my poem in sheer originality of conception--may certainly be considered its near equal."

Comic egotism aside, Poe emerges as sympathetic, likable, and personally responsible, with his alcoholism under control. Other real-life characters appearing in The Mask of the Red Death reflect their public images: P.T. Barnum speaks in advertising copy for his American Museum, and Kit Carson is every bit the larger-than-life hero of the dime novels. Poe joins Carson's hunt for the mountain man, "Liver-Eating" Johnson, whose scalping proclivities are on display in a gruesome series of Manhattan murders. The whodunit part of the plot falls prey to a pitfall of mysteries featuring historical subjects: a shortage of fictional suspects to choose from. Some of the plot turns will elicit groans, but the background is fascinating and the language (apart from a sore-thumb appearance of the modern atrocity "as of yet") on the button.

CHARLES DICKENS WAS INTRIGUED by police work, and some of his novels border on detective fiction. Most of the stories in the recent anthology Death by Dickens put his fictional characters in original mysteries, but two present the man himself as sleuth. In Martin Edwards's "The House of the Red Candle," Dickens, in the company of drinking buddy and fellow novelist Wilkie Collins, solves the locked-room murder of a prostitute's customer in a shabby Greenwich bordello. The characters and the sordid atmosphere are nicely done, but the mystery is simplistic and easily seen through by the alert reader. In Peter Tremayne's "The Passing Shadow," an older Dickens, in the company of son-in-law Charles Collins (Wilkie's brother), is asked to investigate an unidentified body pulled from the Thames, resulting in a trumped-up "origins" story for both Dickens's Our Mutual Friend and Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone.

SAN FRANCISCO Examiner journalist Ambrose Bierce has as his excuse for becoming a fictional detective his employer William Randolph Hearst, who encourages investigation in competition with the official police. The title of Oakley Hall's Ambrose Bierce and the Trey of Pearls, his fourth novel about the quotably cynical author of The Devil's Dictionary, refers to a trio of women's suffrage activists in the San Francisco of 1892. The narrator, Bierce's colleague Tom Redmond, seeks carnal knowledge of his cousin, the member of the trio who advocates Free Love. The mystery, involving the murder of a philandering minister, turns on a clue that is fair at least to the linguistically knowledgeable reader. Hall came to mystery fiction with a mainstream literary reputation, and his prose is finely honed--on the scene of a suffrage parade, we read, "two mules stood in their mulish dejection with no gender to celebrate."

IN THE WORLD of Beatrix Potter, those mules would have had plenty to say. The creator of Peter Rabbit may have the least excuse of this group to be a fictional detective, but she fits right in with the self-sufficient heroines of contemporary amateur-detective cozies. In Susan Wittig Albert's The Tale of Hill Top Farm, Potter comes to England's Lake District, where she has purchased the titular farm and stays to solve possible murder and lesser crimes. While I normally draw the line at talking animals in an adult mystery, in this context they seem unavoidable. The author, who writes a series of Victorian mysteries with husband Bill Albert under the pseudonym Robin Paige, is one of the most scrupulous in separating fact from fiction, including a character list that asterisks the real people (and pets) in the novel, along with a concluding historical note and bibliography, a glossary of slang, and (this is a cozy after all) a selection of recipes. There is much charm to the writing and background, but the mystery plot is exceedingly thin, suggesting Albert was merely using the genre as an excuse to write about Potter.

OF ALL THE WRITERS of historical mystery fiction, Max Allan Collins has the highest ratio of real people to invented characters. In his Nate Heller private eye series, which is systematically addressing virtually every real-life mystery of the twentieth century, only the detective Heller himself is fictitious. Collins's knack for making real people come to life in fiction is a rarer gift and a trickier task than it sounds. His paperback-original "disaster" series puts popular writers in the role of detective: Jacques Futrelle (who really did go down with the ship) in The Titanic Murders; Leslie Charteris in The Hindenburg Murders; Edgar Rice Burroughs in The Pearl Harbor Murders; and Willard Huntington Wright (aka S.S. Van Dine, the creator of Philo Vance) in The Lusitania Murders.

I WAS ESPECIALLY IMPRESSED with The London Blitz Murders, in which Agatha Christie is the sleuth and Collins manages to plug a real-life crime into her style of classical detection. But when I passed it along with a recommendation, I got a surprising reaction from another reader who just didn't buy it. Would Agatha Christie at that time have these particular thoughts about how the detective-story genre was developing? Would Sir Bernard Spilsbury, a thorough forensic pathology professional, actually invite a detective novelist, however renowned, to visit crime scenes with him? This reader's disquiet found the use of real people for fictional entertainment, especially ones who lived relatively recently, a disturbing invasion of privacy.

Is that right? All of the novels considered above have something to offer as entertainment, but should the trend they represent be viewed with alarm? Maybe not if you assume an educated audience. Historical fiction involving real people implies an unwritten contract between writer and reader, hard to define but ideally clear in the minds of both. Obviously, the reader understands that the made-up dialogue was never spoken and some of the specific events and encounters never took place. But the reader has the right to expect that the hard facts of the historical person's life, the dates and places, the opinions and attitudes, the social and religious values, as far as possible the manner of speaking, are consistent with what is known about that person. When relatively little is known, as with Chaucer or Shakespeare, more can be invented than when much is known, as with Potter or Christie.

As cultural literacy declines, the everyday reader or viewer may have a harder and harder time making the needed distinctions between the real and the fanciful. Blurring the line in supposed nonfiction, as in Edmund Morris's semi-fictionalized Ronald Reagan biography, makes matters worse, as does the overly vague application of the useful neologism "docudrama," which should apply only to works that take their language from a printed record (a trial transcript, for example, or correspondence) but now often refers to any dramatic presentation ostensibly based on real events. So-called "reality" shows on television, the nonfiction equivalent of professional wrestling, may be passable entertainment if you know they are contrived but problematic if you think they are real.

True, this confusion is no new phenomenon. We have long heard of people writing advice to soap-opera characters or sending letters off to Sherlock Holmes at 221B Baker Street. Do we have to put aside our pleasures of mixing fact and fiction because some people are too ignorant or uninformed to tell the difference? Mystery novelists are not going to stop writing about real-life detectives, and I don't intend to stop enjoying them at least selectively.

But the current climate calls for a greater measure of care. One practice that should be encouraged is to provide a foreword or afterword, as Collins always does, spelling out exactly what is real and what invented. This is especially helpful when arcane events that sound like the product of imagination turn out to have a basis in reality.

The author, most recently, of Kill the Umpire: The Calls of Ed Gorgon, Jon L. Breen is winner of two Edgar awards.