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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The one unpublished effort in Theodore Mathieson's series featured Shakespeare, who narrated his case in the first person.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.