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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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.