Friday, November 7, 2008

Aubrey Hamilton

Aubrey Hamilton began reading the adventures of Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, Cherry Ames, and Donna Parker at an early age and became enthralled with the mystery literary genre and its many subcategories. A long-time member of and occasional poster on DorothyL, she also reads manuscript submissions for Poisoned Pen Press. She lives in northern Virginia with several cats and thousands of books.

At last month’s Bouchercon in Baltimore, I attended a forum on historical mysteries. One of the authors on the panel mentioned that historical mysteries didn’t sell much before 1989. which struck me as odd. Have we only been reading historicals for 20 years?

I checked the index on Stop! You’re Killing Me to establish the entrance dates for some of the long-running historical series: The first of Edward Marston’s many series was published in 1988; Australian flapper Phryne Fisher solved her first case in 1989; William Monk, the Victorian police inspector, made his bow in 1990; Gillian Linscott’s books about a suffragette in England began in 1991; the first adventure of Gordianus the Finder was published in 1991; Dame Frevisse first appeared in 1992; Laura Joh Rowland’s samurai series emerged in 1993; the Pennyfoot Hotel opened its doors in 1993; Sister Fidelma debuted in 1994; Bruce Alexander immortalized Sir John Fielding in 1994, and Daisy Dalrymple joined the journalistic corps in 1994.

Only a half dozen of those I looked up were published prior to 1989: Peter Lovesey’s Victorian detective duo in 1970; Amelia Peabody in 1975; Brother Cadfael in 1977; Thomas and Charlotte Pitt in 1979; and Max Allan Collins’ Depression-era PI in 1983. Oldest by far was Judge Dee, the Chinese magistrate from the 600s, who appeared in print for the first time in 1952.

So I asked myself: what was I reading before the deluge of historical mysteries? I distinctly remember working my way through Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh, Erle Stanley Gardner, and the stray unread Christie. A librarian in Louisville introduced me to the classic series by Patricia Moyes, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, Emma Lathen, Sara Woods, and Gervase Fen. “Merry-Go-Round”, a short story in Fen Country, is one of my all-time favorite stories even now.

I stumbled on Richard Stark’s professional thief Parker in graduate school, when I picked up a paperback of Slayground. The concept of the anti-hero was new to me and I was enthralled. Seldom do I remember how I discovered a series but that one was so utterly unlike anything else I had read that the memory has stayed with me.

I was a huge fan of Elizabeth Linington’s police procedurals. My mother first discovered the Luis Mendoza series through that Halloweenish entry, Coffin Corner, about an indigent family who took a creative approach to avoiding burial expenses and passed it on to me. I was elated to learn that Linington wrote similar procedurals under other names and I carefully acquired every title in each series, which I still have. Sadly, these books did not stand the test of time. Linington recreated the Los Angeles of the 1970s so vividly that it is hard to read past the anachronisms to the sharp plots and careful characterization.

Unlike Linington, Richard Lockridge created an almost timeless character in Merton Heimrich, a New York State police detective whose stories could have taken place any time in last half of the twentieth century. I preferred reading about Lt. Heimrich to Lockridge’s better known characters, Pam and Jerry North. The same is true of John Creasey, who wrote prolifically under many names, but I liked his Commander Gideon of Scotland Yard’s Criminal Investigation Division the most.

Of course Sharon McCone, Kinsey Milhone, Carlotta Carlyle, and their sisters began to appear in the 1980s and my attention was diverted to them. I was delighted by Charlotte MacLeod’s gently ditzy stories with clever plots that materialized about the same time.

I suppose the real question is not what I was reading before the onslaught of historical mysteries, but what happened around 1990 to suddenly make historical mysteries so popular?

Any ideas of why 1990 is the turning point for historical mysteries?

Aubrey Hamilton


  1. Hi Aubrey!
    This is fascinating, and I'm going to be very interested in hearing people's thoughts on why 1990 is the turning point for historical mysteries. This is a question that will now drive me to distraction.
    And this was a post that mentions a whole slew of writers I'm not familiar with, but now am anxious to become acquainted with - and I thank you for that!

  2. The answer can't be that writers weren't offering them. Why did publishers suddenly decide that the historical mystery was marketable? I have no idea.

  3. What an interesting question - I had no idea this was the case.

    Were historical romances selling well and publishers thought historical mysteries would also? That's feeble, but it's all I got, sorry.

    I love all of Richard and Richard and Frances Lockridge's characters, with the exception of a few of the standalones that Richard wrote. Besides Merton Heimrich, how about Lt. Nathan Shapiro and ADA Bernie ? (forgot his last name). I've been collecting these books for a while and have a fair number of them, but Mr. Lockridge was so prolific, I doubt I will be able to find all of them. It's fun looking, at any rate!

  4. ADA Bernie Simmons, yes, I read a few about both Bernie and Nathan and always came back to Merton Heimrich. I don't know why.

    I don't follow romance publishing nearly as closely as the mystery field but perhaps that was the link. A surge of Regency romances began sometime in the 1980s and it seems to continue, by what I see in the bookstores.

  5. I was having kids during the mid-to-late 1980's, so I can testify to the popularity of B-I-G historical romance novels during that time, (Rosemary Rogers -- Sweet, Savage Love? Aaah. Of course that was 1974, I find out now, courtesy of that ole devil Google, but I was busy living in the '70's, so I didn't need a book-type diversion until the mid-1980's and babies, and I'm pretty sure that the publishers were taking note of the profits. ;)

    Remember, though, that the 1990's also saw an explosion of female mystery writers - the big 5 NY publishers were willing to plonk down money on almost anything female in the mystery field for most of that decade. When was the first Kinsey? (Not that Sue Grafton was just "anything," but she definitely lit up the publishing trail.)

    Or this phenomenon might have more to do with the fact that most of us first read genteel Agatha Christie when moving into "adult mysteries," and her books would have been "historical" to our generation -- seems a natural through-line progression to ME! Publishers noticed. Bandwagons were forthwith trotted-out and jumped-upon. Books were published. Women enjoyed the historicals and bought them (hey, could it be for the dress-up details??) Trends were discovered, and discussed, and encouraged, and so forth and so on. ;)

    CJ :) thanks for the post! Oh, the memories...

  6. Great column, Aubrey and fascinating observation. Very astute. Wonder what we would find in connection with other subgenres of mysteries--funny, recipe, crafty, etc.

  7. I'll take a guess and suggest that police procedurals and detective novels were falling out of fashion in editorial circles so they were looking for something "new and fresh."

    I think this might be the case because TV shows like Hill Street Blues(1981), NYPD Blue (1993) and others were so popular that books seemed like a rehash of what we were watching every week.

    Add to that, the world stage was a mess. Desert Storm and the run up to it (1991) made people more eager to read books that weren't set in the present day.

    And let's not forget Steven Saylor's books: the first one, Roman Blood came out in 1991. It did well, and publishing loves to repeat its successes!

  8. Kinsey Milhone first saw print in 1982, the same year as the second Sharon McCone. A gap of 5 years between the first McCone in 1979 and the second. They preceded the great influx of historicals, which began around 1990, by about 10 years.

    And certainly Agatha Christie's earlier titles were historicals by the time we read them in the 1980s. That's an aspect I hadn't considered.

    It may well be whoever makes decisions about which manuscripts to buy saw a link between historical romances and historical mysteries. The mind of the publisher is hard to fathom sometimes, witness the cessation of some great series.


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