Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Bad Old Days

In addition to her award-winning archaeology mysteries, Dana Cameron’s Fangborn short story, "The Night Things Changed," won the Agatha and Macavity and was nominated for an Anthony Award. Her historical short story, "Femme Sole," appears in BOSTON NOIR and an historical Fangborn story, “Swing Shift,” will appear in CRIMES BY MOONLIGHT (April, 2010). Dana lives in Massachusetts and you can learn more at

In between gatherings with family and friends, we spent the end of this holiday season as we traditionally do: flaked out on the couch, eating too many chocolate shortbread cookies and drinking just enough whiskey, while watching whole seasons of serial drama. Last year, Rome was the focus of this marathon. This year, it was Deadwood, The Sopranos, and Mad Men. Criminal behavior set in the past (even seen through flashbacks) makes for a fine time, even if it meant our new shelter kittens Kaylee and Zoë learned some exceedingly bad language.

One of my most memorable moments as an archaeologist was the day I was working on a 17th-century house site. The guides would lead groups of visitors past, and usually they'd ignore me, pretending perhaps I was an over-sized and grubby garden gnome. Or maybe a vole. On this particular day, a woman gazed at me dreamily and said, “Wouldn't you love to have lived back then?”

My first instinct was to say, “Lady, are you kidding me? Potential attacks from pirates, Europeans, andIndians? Rampant epidemics battled with medieval medicine? Limited legal rights for women? And that's before you consider what this waterfront would have smelled like back then. Alex, I'll take the category “Things That Make A Seagull Retch” for $100, please. Rotting fish, garbage dumped outside, oil lamps, and privies? I think not. Give me indoor plumbing, electricity on demand, and antibiotics any day.”

Being a well-behaved garden gnome, I said, “The past is a nice place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there.”

Apparently, that was not concession enough; she looked disappointed. She clearly believed the good old days were better than these, that big skirts + petticoats + horse-drawn carriages = fine manners, crossed legs, and decency. To quote the Bart: Au contraire, mon frere. Do some spelunking through the court records of the era, and you'll see what I mean. Better yet, check out The Naked Quaker. This splendidly fun book runs down some of the highlights of 17th-century New England police blotter: violent fisticuffs in church, highwaymen, sex scandals, theft, cheating, witchcraft. I mean, it might as well be an episode of Maury.

Romanticizing the past is one of my pet peeves. It's something I frequently invoked in my Emma Fielding novels, and more recently, in my short stories. “Femme Sole” (in Boston Noir) is set in 1740s Boston. Anna Hoyt owns a North-End tavern and all the local toughs—including her husband—want a piece of it. I chose the setting because I'd never written noir and didn't want to sound like I was imitating Cain, Hammett, or Chandler (or Lehane, Pelecanos, Abbott, or Lippman), so I put my story a bit further back into the past. To me, noir isn't restricted by time or place; it's a story wherein people who live outside the law have to find their own solutions to life-and-death problems. I also wanted to see how a woman at that time might respond to the threats to her livelihood.

The story coming out in April is part of the MWA anthology Crimes by Moonlight. "Swing Shift" features elements from my “Fangborn” world. It's also set in historic Boston, but this 1940s Boston is full of vampires and werewolves, as well as Nazi spies, jazz, and nascent computer technology. Greed, crime, and secrets are as old as humankind.

The bad old days are familiar to mystery readers. From Didius Falco to Benjamin Weaver to Amelia Peabody to Paddy Meehan—who are your favorite historical detectives?

(Thanks to Maggie Barbieri and the Stiletto Gang for inviting me!)

Dana Cameron


  1. Amen, Dana! I once had a person say to me that it was now a scarier to time to raise children than in the past. She was speaking of her teenagers. I remember naming off a few of the scares you mention, and thinking that she didn't have live with the fear that they wouldn't live to be eight. Or die in childbirth, etc.

    Almost everyone who tells me about the wonderful long ago imagines himself or herself living as a very wealthy white person with excellent health. All the same, who the hell wants to live without antibiotics or anesthesia? Trip to an 18th century dentist anyone? I get irritated by that chain email that glorifies the1950s, so I don't want it to be 1750, either.

    Oh there are many folks I wish I could have met, events I would have wanted to behold and places I wish I could have seen before they were covered in concrete -- and some before the fell to ruin. But live there? No thanks!

    Thank you for this thoughtful post. Can't wait to read the stories!

  2. Nice post! While I love to write about the past, I wouldn't want to live there - although I think we could use a few things from the past like, well, I won't go into that. :) Anyway, I love all things Noir and this Boston Noir sounds fascinating!

  3. Thanks so much, Jan! I used to work at a "living history museum," and everyone loved the home of the wealthiest person in town--because it was the closest to what we have today. And when they got to the average person's home, where the fireplace took up about half the kitchen, they started to get the picture that the women who didn't die in childbirth often died from being burned.

    Time travel for me and you both. Thanks for stopping by!

    Kathy, thank you so much! Sure, every era has its highlights, every era has its ills. I wouldn't mind spending a little time where the men were as consumed by fabrics and tailoring as the women...

  4. Dana: Great post! I enjoy learning about the past, but don't romanticize it too much. We have a restoration home in the area--Van Cortlandt Manor--and it's just like you said: the home on display is where the wealthiest people lived and is quite lovely. But you can see where the servants lived and it's vastly different. And personally, churning butter seems like a whole heap of trouble and that seems to be the only demonstration I'm ever subjected to when I visit. Maybe they did other fun things, but I've never been exposed to them. Maggie

  5. Thanks, Maggie! I agree--did you ever see the PBS show, "Manor House?" It was a great lesson in the differences "upstairs and downstairs."

    Fun was, for the most part things like reading aloud, playing instruments and singing, going for walks, the occasional party or dance. Actually, come to think of it, having your iPod play music or a read a book to you isn't so different!

    Thanks again for inviting me!

    (I should clarify my answer to Jan: while women didn't die *only* of childbirth or burns, they were among the leading causes of death in the colonial period, last time I checked. I blame the kittens for my imprecision; they were demanding their lunch.)

  6. Dana, enjoyed your post. I didn't live back in the day some of you talked about, but I loved my childhood in the 40s and my life in the 50s and 60s and I suspect they could be called "the good old days."

    I also love your name because that's what the name I gave to my eldest daughter many, many years ago.

    Your short story sounds great, looking forward to reading it.


  7. Marilyn, many thanks! I hope you enjoy the story!

    I think the "good old days" vary from person to person, and if you're very lucky, there's more than one stretch. Some times, I think of the good old days when I was a carefree crew-hand (forgetting about the poison ivy, mosquitoes, and paper work!). Other days, I imagine I'll look back on this time, locked in my office, with my music blasting and my keyboard clacking, as the best.

  8. Dana,

    I will never got into the past unless I can take a lifetime supply of female sanitary needs with me. Steve has a great book called THE GOOD OLD DAYS-THEY WERE TERRIBLE! It explains a lot of the daily stenches.

    That being said, I still enjoy historical detectives like Amelia Peabody, and Gordianus the Finder from Steven Saylor's series, Decius from the the John Maddox Roberts books, and the wonderful Theo from Alan Gordon's Fool's Guild series.

  9. Toni, YES! Theo rocks! I really love Alan's books, combining Shakespeare's fools and history. What a brilliant concept. And Amelia Peabody will always be a beacon for me.

    There's a terrific children's series from England called "Smelly Old History," including TUDOR ODOURS, VICTORIAN VAPOURS, and ROMAN AROMAS. They actually have scratch-n-sniff sections of feet, food, and the like. They do a great job of getting the reader to think about these realities.

    Thanks for stopping by!


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