Category Archives: Historical

LARRY MILLETT. Sherlock Holmes and the Red Demon (1996).

SherlockRedDemon.jpgThe fiery clutches of the Red Demon—that’s a newspaper term for the conflagrations that periodically wiped away vast expanses of the 19th-century American landscape—metaphorically grab Sherlock Holmes when an agent for the railway baron James J. Hill visits him in London and asks him to investigate threats of arson in the timberlands of northern Minnesota. Already, another inquiry agent has disappeared, leaving behind not so much as a puff of smoke. Holmes, taking up the challenge, travels to the logging and rail center of Hinckley during the scorching summer of 1894, and there he follows the literally hot trail of a fiend who has adopted “the Red Demon” as his nom de feu.

Millett‘s yarn, while it certainly doesn’t lack for clues, resembles a Western more than it does a detective story. Peopling Hinckley are a corrupt local lawman, a station master who fancies himself an exemplar of Christian civilization, a rough-hewn lumber thief who practices his criminal trade on the model of a cattle rustler, and a cathouse madam who leaves in her wake the smell of expensive perfume and an air of tragic refinement. The famous sleuth and his equally illustrious companion, Dr. Watson, set up shop in the town’s lone hotel and then make the rounds to several other archetypal locales of the Old West: a seedy saloon, an abandoned quarry, a gaudy bordello. At one point, the pair fall prey to an ambush and survive only with the aid of a mountain man whom Holmes likens to a James Fenimore Cooper hero.

Holmes, in the end, rids the northland of the evil that has plagued it—but only after risking his life in a violent struggle on a railway trestle, and not before 400 people die in an epic (and historically real) holocaust. He and Watson, quite clearly, are not in Baker Street anymore. Watson’s narrative, however, retains the straight-laced, high Victorian diction that we know from the canonical Doyle stories, and Millett artfully dresses it with mock-scholarly footnotes and other Sherlockian paraphernalia.

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Posted by on April 8, 2011 in American, Historical, Novel


CHARLES TODD. A Test of Wills (1996).

The overt trappings of setting, character, and social observation in this tale are cut from the snug, well-worn cloth of the cozy-mystery tradition. With a sure hand, Todd knits together a world peopled by a pompous vicar, a crotchety doctor, a shiftless town radical, and other types who could easily have wandered over from a work of light rustic comedy. The authorial pair, however (“Todd” is a mother-and-son team), introduce a troubled protagonist and a level of complex plotting that take the book into decidedly uncozy territory. The result is a début novel that delivers the slow, seductive pleasures of a classic British procedural, and then adds to them an unusually dark resonance.

The year is 1919, and Inspector Ian Rutledge of Scotland Yard has emerged from the Great War not only with a bad case of shell shock, but also with an imaginary companion who goes by the name of Hamish. But Hamish, an acerbic Scotsman, isn’t very companionable; he taunts the man whose mind he inhabits with guilt-inducing commentary about the many horrors that Rutledge witnessed on the Western Front. TestWills.jpg Here, on his first big murder case since returning to the police force, Rutledge must ward off Hamish’s jibes and keep his mental turmoil well hidden, all while matching wits with the gentle folk of Upper Streetham, an idyllic-seeming village out in Warwickshire. He’s gone there to investigate the fatal shooting of Colonel Richard Harris. Swirling about the village’s pretty drawing rooms and ambling country lanes are secrets of love and war that connect the main characters in myriad ways, and any of those connections might have led to murder. The chief suspect in the Harris murder is Captain Mark Wilton, a flying ace who was overheard arguing with the victim on the eve of the crime. Did that argument have anything to do with Wilton’s engagement to Lettice Wood, a bewitching young woman who was Harris’s ward? And what of Miss Wood herself? Could she have raised a shotgun to her shoulders and blown away her guardian’s head on a fine June morning? Others in the cast include Laurence Royston, the colonel’s estate agent, whose upright demeanor hides a shameful deed in his past; Catherine Tarrant, a painter celebrated in London but shunned in her own community; and Mrs. Davenant, a cousin of Wilton’s and an elusively beautiful widow who may have loved Harris unrequitedly.

Keeping track of the motives and movements of those suspects is a heady task for Rutledge. (Nor is it an easy task for the reader, especially when it comes to tracking which character was in which place at which time. The book should come with a map of the area near the crime scene.) The villagers harbor their own suspicions of “the man from London,” as they call Rutledge—suspicions that run stronger than their wish to find out who killed Harris. The gravest challenge that Rutledge faces, meanwhile, is the one posed by the faceless Hamish. Under assault from the latter’s constant baiting, Rutledge worries that his youthful mastery of the sleuthing arts might have been a casualty of war. Yet, in the end, it’s precisely his willingness to wrestle with Hamish and other inner demons that enables him to understand and identify a culprit.

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Posted by on March 6, 2011 in British, Historical, Novel, Procedural, Puzzle


WILL THOMAS. Some Danger Involved (2004).

Thomas exercises a firm hold on the physical and social particulars of late-Victorian London life, and his feel for the doughty spirit of Victorian-style adventure fiction is equally strong. Yet, overall, this début historical thriller stumbles into the pitfalls of its sub-genre as often it rises to the peaks. SomeDanger.jpg Set in 1884, when an influx of Jewish immigrants to Whitechapel and Aldgate was roiling the precarious peace of the great metropolis, the novel follows “private enquiry agent” Cyrus Barker as he searches for the killer of a young teacher of the Torah. The victim had a Jesus-like visage—and, by all reports, a Christ-like sense of his own destiny. So, after police find his body hung atop a telegraph pole, its limbs arranged to suggest crucifixion, the suspicion arises that a religious motive lay behind the murder. Jewish community leaders hire Barker both to solve the crime and to quash an apparent pogrom in the making, and his chief method of inquiry is to mount a rogues’ tour of London’s leading anti-Semites. That investigation has a going-through-the-motions quality, however, and the whodunit aspect of the tale comes across as wholly peripheral to its “historical” and “thriller” aspects: As in many recent books of its kind, period trappings loom closer to the foreground here than they should, while the narrative pace veers unduly close to the frenetic tempo of modern action movies. (Thomas might have done well to borrow a little something from the moody, slow-building potboilers of the Victorian era.) Aiding Barker in his work, and also narrating this chronicle, is his new assistant, Thomas Llewelyn. A wide-eyed Watson with a tragic back-story, Llewelyn conforms to his literary type, and likewise the “danger” in which he and Barker are “involved” conforms to a pattern that other writers have explored previously.

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Posted by on January 7, 2011 in American, Historical, Novel


STEVEN SAYLOR. The House of the Vestals (1997).

In each tale of this collection, a moment arrives when every element in play—every character, every clue, every quirk and curiosity of life in ancient Rome—snaps into its right relation to every other element. The effect, sudden and viscerally immediate, calls to mind the snap of a Roman master’s whip as it lashes out to strike an errant slave. A great gap, in spirit as well as in time, separates us from the world of antiquity. HouseVestals.jpgIt separates us, not least, from the casual brutality of a realm in which slavery was more common than free citizenship. Yet Saylor, in these nine “investigations” of Gordianus the Finder, shows that a finely honed story has the power to make a distant world seem vividly near.

Gordianus, a citizen of Rome during the final decades of the Republic, earns his bread by shrewdly navigating the circus of crime and deceit that flourishes just beneath the surface of city life: The scion of a noble family, entangled in a kidnapping scheme that recalls the exploits of a young Julius Caesar, tests the patience of Gordianus, as well as his bravery and cunning. A death by bee-sting, unfolding almost literally in the shadow of the god Priapus, disturbs a vacation in the Etruscan countryside. Finally, in the title adventure, Gordianus enters the forbidden sanctum of the Vestal Virgins in order to solve a murder mystery with dire implications for Rome’s civic and religious peace. Saylor writes with ingenious wit and with a keen (indeed, classical) flair for turning a well-balanced phrase. Although his mode of storytelling betrays a modern sensibilityone that thrives on comic warmth rather than tragic austerity—his prose crackles with all of the sharpness of that slave-owner’s whip.

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Posted by on December 19, 2010 in American, Historical, Puzzle, Short Stories


RUPERT HOLMES. Swing (2005).

A swing band partakes of the brighter, frothier, more popular energies of jazz, leaving other players in that musical tradition to explore sounds and stylings that are darker, hotter, more intense. Just so does Holmes, for long stretches of this well-orchestrated historical thriller, play at the lighter, more romantic end of the mystery-genre register. SwingBig.jpg For better than half of the novel’s 358 pages, love receives at least as much attention as does death. On page 42, hero and narrator Ray Sherwood refers obliquely to the “killer” of a woman whom he has just seen fall to her death from the Tower of the Sun at the 1939–1940 Golden Gate International Exposition, in San Francisco Bay. Not until page 215 does he again mention that woman, or the possibility that she did not die of suicide. In between, Sherwood describes his abiding anguish over the accidental death years earlier of his beloved young daughter; tells of his work as a saxophonist in the Jack Donovan touring swing band, currently playing at the posh Claremont Hotel, in Berkeley; and recounts his burgeoning attraction to Gail Prentice, a fetching University of California music student who has charmed him into arranging a composition of hers.

In note-perfect prose, Sherwood’s narrative evokes a slice of golden California life at a moment right before the looming war would change everything—a lost world of sweet, sly songs crooned by men in white dinner jackets. And although it’s rather late in coming, a smartly plotted mystery does emerge, complete with hints of international intrigue and puckishly conceived clues (some of them musical) that would do Alfred Hitchcock proud. Even the story of Sherwood’s love life features a nice twist at the end, a final coda that offers both the comfort of resolution and the frisson of surprise.

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Posted by on November 16, 2010 in American, Historical, Novel, Puzzle


OAKLEY HALL. Ambrose Bierce and the Queen of Spades (1998).

BierceQueenSpades.jpgAmbrose Bierce, silver-tongued cynic of the Golden West, is not really the hero of this historical detective romance. The true protagonist is Tom Redmond, a budding scribe who narrates the story yet goes well beyond playing a typical Watson-like role. He falls in love, gets beaned on the head, involves himself in several other violent scrapes, learns a troubling Oedipal lesson, and travels back in time (and outward in geography, to Virginia City, Nevada) in order to dredge up the foundational sins of San Francisco. The saga that unfolds is less a yarn about crime and sleuthing than a bildungsroman, a tale of youth giving way to maturity—a narrative arc that applies not only to Redmond, but also to the great port city that he calls home.

What sets the story in motion are the “Morton Street slashings,” a murder spree that ultimately claims the lives of three prostitutes. (Morton Street, later renamed Maiden Lane and now known for shops that cater to the carriage trade, was once famous for its trade in flesh.) Yet that serial crime is merely a vehicle for entangling Redmond and Bierce, his gruff and acerbic mentor, in the driving forces of early Bay Area history. Those forces, in this telling, were sex, secrecy, status anxiety, and the Southern Pacific Railroad. Real figures from the time, including Mary Pleasant and Ina Coolbrith as well as Bierce, square off against fictional creations in events both actual and imagined. That mixture of fact and fancy makes for a light and lively romp, but at the cost of the full-bodied sense of “truth” that marks the best of both standard historical literature and pure fiction writing.

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Posted by on October 21, 2010 in American, Historical, Novel


ELLIS PETERS. One Corpse Too Many (1979).

OneCorpse.jpgAmid the carnage of a civil war, especially one that erupts during the death-haunted Middle Ages, an extra cadaver might not mean very much. But it means something to Brother Cadfael, a Shropshire monk who mixes herbs, dabbles in the amorous complications of noble young folk, and solves the occasional murder mystery. Following a victorious siege at Shrewsbury against forces loyal to the Empress Maud, King Stephen orders the hanging of all who had resisted him during that battle. He then charges Cadfael with tending to the dead. But the diligent friar, expecting to find 94 bodies to inter, discovers a 95th corpse among the slain warriors. Who is it (or who was it), and how did he come to die?

It’s a neat premise, one that sets the stage for some sharp detective work by Cadfael. With a rigor that seems post-medieval (even as it reveals glimpses of how life was lived in the England of 1138), Cadfael establishes how and why the squire Nicholas Faintree succumbed not to the king’s justice, but rather to a murderer’s greedy passion. Alas, Peters devotes only a small portion of her tale to detection, and instead fills much of it with the routine stuff of historical romance: stolen treasure, mistaken identities, a knightly duel, a case of temporarily star-crossed love. The tapestry that she weaves out of such material, though rich in color, delivers relatively threadbare satisfaction. What truly captures one’s imagination is that shrewd and likable monk, with his knack for discerning the proverbial figure in the carpet.

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Posted by on July 21, 2010 in British, Historical, Novel


LINDSEY DAVIS. Silver Pigs (1989).

In 70 A.D., all roads lead to Rome, seat of a vast empire. Yet Marcus Didius Falco, ironic fellow that he is, decides to take one of those roads away from Rome and toward Britannia, the empire’s most recent conquest—and, as all Romans know, the home of its most primitive subjects and the site of its foulest weather. SilverPIgsHC.jpg (Davis makes great sport of inverting the modern trope in which British colonials complain endlessly about the wretchedness of life in their back-of-beyond territories.) An “informer,” or what citizens of later empires would call a detective, Falco travels to that hinterland to find out who has been diverting “silver pigs” from the island’s grim, slave-worked mines. These “pigs” are ingots of precious metal, bound for the Roman treasury, but a shadowy group has been stealing them in order to fund a coup against the Emperor Vespasian. The tumultuous Year of the Four Emperors has just ended, Vespasian has yet to consolidate his power fully, and conspirators are angling to change the regime once again. These and other events have led to a further irony: Falco, a free man with strong republican leanings, now serves as an agent of the imperial state.

Falco narrates this adventure (his début appearance), and at first his way of turning a phrase suggests that he belongs in the tradition of the jaded, lone-wolf private eye. In the opening scene, he spots a fetching young woman as she flees a pair of goons who have chased her through Rome to the Temple of Saturn. He begins his story thus: “When the girl came rushing up the steps, I decided she was wearing far too many clothes.” But although Falco is both tough and witty, he isn’t hard-boiled, and he has something that no self-respecting 20th-century shamus ever had, but that every Roman does have: a big extended family—including, in Falco’s case, a mother who regularly drops in to clean his tenement hovel, taking care each time to remove any loose change or loose women that she finds there.

The mood here is essentially comic. Falco might earn his denarii by plying the crooked streets that branch out from the Forum—the dingy alleyways that, like the fabled sewers below, hold the secrets of Rome’s strength as well as its weakness. Even so, his creator shows less interest in detection than she does in romance. SilverPigsAudio.jpg The central drama of this tale concerns its hero’s entanglement with a haughty noblewoman, and its greatest mystery is whether Falco will tame this shrew, or indeed be tamed by her. Davis writes briskly and well, though, and she gives Falco a voice that ably carries a so-so plot.

[ADDENDUM: Lindsey Davis and Steven Saylor both launched their series of detective novels set in ancient Rome at about the same time, and new works in each saga continue to appear. The impulse to compare the two franchises is therefore unavoidable. (So, I confess, is the urge to pull out the “All roads lead to Rome” trope when writing about either series.) Davis and Saylor situate their heroes in different eras, and hence the Roman world has a different feel to it in each series: The Rome of Gordianus, still nominally a republic, displays a bracing aura of civitas, and its streets bristle with the sense that great public events can and will unfold in them. By contrast, the Rome of Falco exudes the tired, inward-turning mood of a culture that has settled in for the long haul of imperial decadence; there is life and intrigue aplenty, but all of it takes place behind gated iron doors. At the level of voice and character, however, the two series have a lot in common. Gordianus and Falco each have one sandal-clad foot planted in the ancient world and another foot that tap-dances somewhere outside of it—somewhere closer to the modern world, and to the modern ethos of tolerance and compassion. And each sleuth, following each of his errands into the social and political darkness, return to a boisterous family that grounds him in the cares and compensations of the everyday. In those two ways, each series makes its remote setting appear less alien and, for better or worse, less mysterious.]

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Posted by on July 7, 2010 in British, Historical, Novel


STEVEN SAYLOR. Roman Blood (1991).

In an era when brute power and irrational passion hold sway over reason and justice, a man of curiously modern sensibility conducts a murder inquiry and, through his shrewd and doughty efforts, closes the gap between our time and his. That was the formula that helped make the medieval thriller The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco, both a literary sensation and a popular one. It’s also the template for this historical thriller set in Late Republican Rome. RomanBloodHC.jpg But whereas Eco modeled his hero William of Baskerville on Sherlock Holmes, Saylor draws inspiration for the creation of his protagonist from Raymond Chandler. Gordianus the Finder wears the figurative mantle of Philip Marlowe only a trifle more loosely than he does his tunic, and his ethos clearly has a Marlovian cast to it: Down the mean “ways” of Rome—the Appian Way, the Via Flaminia, the Latin Road—a citizen must go who is not himself mean. From high on the Palatine, home both to ancient noble families and to power brokers of recent and dubious vintage, down to the squalid backstreets of the Subura, Gordianius travels far and wide on behalf of his client, a young lawyer named Cicero. He also narrates this first of his adventures, in a style that balances classical poise with wry modernity.

Cicero, now just beginning his illustrious public career, has signed on to defend Sextus Roscius filius, who will soon go on trial for the unspeakable crime of parricide. Months earlier, while strolling to a favorite brothel, Sextus Roscius pater had fallen victim to a trio of knife-wielding assassins. Gordianus, charged with finding out whether it was the son who hired them, explores the clash of Roscii against Roscii, as well as the vicissitudes of city life and country life, slavery and freedom, prostitution and paternity. All investigative roads, he finds, lead to an answer that pleases his patron very much. Yet the denouement of this saga, based on an actual case that Cicero recounted in his memoirs, involves a further layer of secret guilt and political intrigue. A slight letdown occurs, in an otherwise riveting work, when Gordianus ceases to be an agent of discovery and becomes a mute witness to the novel’s final set of revelations.

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Posted by on July 5, 2010 in American, Hard-Boiled, Historical, Novel


JAMJANG NORBU. The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes (1999).

When Sherlock Holmes returned to Baker Street after his Great Hiatus of nearly three years, he told Dr. Watson (who believed him to have died at the bottom of Reichenbach Falls), “I travelled two years in Tibet, therefore, and amused myself by visiting Lhassa and spending some days with the head Lama.” MandalaSherlockBig.jpg Many writers of “previously untold” Sherlockian tales begin by dismissing that statement as a screen intended to hide the Great Detective’s adventures in a more conventionally murderous clime—the American Wild West, for example, or Transylvania. But what if Holmes spoke the literal truth to Watson? That’s the premise of this well-wrought, frolicsome pastiche, one whose sole but defining flaw is that it ends by departing from the naturalistic rules of the crime-story game.

The early chapters are suberb. Taking Watson’s place is Hurree Chundar Mookerjee, an Indian “babu” (a servant of the British Raj) who springs directly from the pages of Kim, by Rudyard Kipling. Mookerjee begins by chronicling Holmes’s masterly handling of a Bombay murder case that recalls, and yet improves upon, Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic “The Speckled Band.” Then he travels with Holmes by train to Tibet, whereupon the story shifts from exploits of detection to escapades of the boys’-adventure sort. The pair do battle with a gang of dacoits from a Kali cult, for example. It’s when the action shifts to Lhassa that the narrative goes goes off-course. Norbu, himself a Tibetan, contorts his plot in order to score points concerning both Sino-Tibetan politics and Tibetan mysticism. The original Holmes was both a throwback to the chivalric ideal and a paragon of modern rationalism. That he would use his powers to thwart Manchu imperialism is easy enough to accept. But a climactic scene in which he performs telekinesis pushes Norbu’s ill-advised bid for the sublime into the realm of the ridiculous.

[ADDENDUM: A nice touch on the cover of the U.S. paperback edition, pictured above, is the use of a painting by Mark Tansey, whose work I’ve long admired. The painting, titled “Derrida Queries de Man,” is also a pastiche. It emulates the form of a widely reproduced illustration of Holmes and Professor Moriarty in mid-struggle atop Reichenbach Falls. ReichenbachPaget.jpg That drawing, done by Sidney Paget for the original publication of “The Final Problem” in The Strand Magazine, has attained iconic status over the years, and Tansey in his adaptation plays upon that image of a Titanic confrontation between two men of great intellect. There’s a comic poignancy to the notion that a clash between “the Great Detective” and “the Napoleon of Crime” would end with a wrestling match. Likewise, Tansey appears to see something revelatory but not quite serious in the disagreements that emerged between two self-important French literary theorists of the deconstructionist school. The painting renders the rocky cliffs that surround the Falls as mighty slabs of printed matter: The conflict between Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man is a “text of wills,” so to speak. Tansey’s pastiche, unlike Norbu’s, fully honors the spirit of its source material, even as it appropriates that material for purposes of its own.]

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Posted by on June 14, 2010 in Historical, International, Novel