WHEN MYSTERY MEETS HISTORY, SPEED COUNTS
M. Ruth Myers
A mystery writer has to juggle a few more elements than the regular novelist. Set it in the past, and the writer needs to keep even more in the air to avoid painful goose eggs on the head. Here’s what goes up and how to keep it aloft. (Feel free to blow smoke in my face and tell me my story doesn’t check out. I’ve been grilled before)
Any good novel needs certain basics — plot, pacing, character, dialog – skillfully done and in a balance to keep the reader reading. A mystery, in addition, must have clues and red herrings woven through those basics, sometimes sliding by unnoticed, other times producing an “Ah-hah! I’ll bet I know whodunit!” reaction. Writing a historical mystery calls for an additional set of elements which, like clues, must be worked in without slowing the story.
Some of those elements are ones found in any historical novel. If you’re thinking clothing styles, technology and jargon of the era, as well as actual historical events and personages, give yourself a gold star. Then consider additional ones which are particularly important to a historical MYSTERY where people are followed, eliminating a suspect may hinge on the time required to get from Point A to Point B, detectives interface with police and life-or-death chases are known to occur. For starters:
* Streets. Which have vanished or appeared or changed direction between your time period and the present? Certain types of mystery, such as private eye yarns and noir, characteristically tell the route the detective is taking when following someone or being followed — or thinking through the fastest way to get somewhere. A writer can locate a business or house on a fictitious street, or better still, refer to it as “just off” (fill in name of actual street), but keep it anchored to real places in order to give the historical authenticity readers expect.
* When unincorporated areas around a city were incorporated as separate towns or villages. If a suspect lives there, and your detective is going to follow or question him, best know how to refer to the area. Also, differences in jurisdiction might come into play. Believe me, someone who has lived in the area or is a history buff will point it out if you slip.
* Changes in locations of government buildings, jails and police stations. Even an amateur sleuth may have occasion to visit such a place, so make sure buildings haven’t wandered.
* Changes in laws and speed limits. Some race cars of the late 1930s, when my Maggie Sullivan series opens, could go 100 mph or more. However the speed limit, even on U.S. highways, was 35 mph in most states.
* The attitudes and world-view of people in your chosen time period. This is far too often violated. It seems to me that writers are especially likely to attribute overly modern attitudes to female characters, presumably to make them more appealing to contemporary readers.
What forensic methods were available at the time? Were they widely used?
You may recall I said this information needs to be threaded through the mystery itself. If you periodically dump in paragraph upon paragraph, you stop the action cold. A historical MYSTERY is first and foremost a mystery. Maintaining pace is crucial.
Here are some ways I’ve approached it.
Tough Cookie, the second Maggie Sullivan mystery, opens with the PI in her office. She’s playing jacks with spare slugs for her .38 because: It beat trudging through slush and ice from Dayton’s last snowfall to spend three cents on the Daily News only to learn Herr Hitler was still bamboozling leaders in Europe. We get a sense of time (which becomes more specific later), of the media of the day, and of prices. Just as a new case walks in.
Later in the same book, as the case is starting to break, she waylays a photographer pal from the evening paper to ask him the fastest route to a town between Dayton and Cincinnati:
“Scenic or speed?”
“State route, then. The national’s better in places, but it swings west so far you lose time cutting back over. Speed limit’s thirty-five on both, so there’s nothing to even out the extra distance.”
“It entered my mind I might risk forty if I took the US route.”
“Adds lots of time if you get a ticket. Or blow a gasket.”
It sounded like the voice of experience.
In Don’t Dare a Dame, Maggie wants to call her client to warn her to expect the police: Going back to the office was faster than finding a pay phone.
Historical details need to become mere threads in the mystery itself. What’s the fast food of the detective’s time? What kind of lodgings does he or she have? Does he walk to appointments like Anna Castle’s Tom Clarady? Hire a horse cab like Susanne Alleyn’s Aristide Ravel? Or does she drive a DeSoto like Maggie Sullivan?
If you’re a mystery fan who hasn’t tried any with a historical setting, try some. You might enjoy them. If you favor historical novels, sample a few that are mysteries as well. You might discover new treats. Those of us who write them think the combination is as satisfying as tea and crumpets… or gin and tonic.