Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Famous Dead People as Sleuths

Sandra Parshall

Jane Austen takes time off from writing to track down criminals.

Queen Elizabeth I skulks around castles and manor houses in search of conspirators and killers.

Leonardo da Vinci solves crimes in 15th century Italy, assisted by his apprentice Dino, who then records their adventures just as Watson chronicled the exploits of Sherlock Holmes.

Dante Alighieri has turned sleuth, Oscar Wilde pursues killers, Elvis enjoys a bit of detecting now and then. As if she doesn’t have enough to do as First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt goes after bad guys. Now Ernest Hemingway is getting into the act.

What’s going on here? Why are so many famous dead people showing up as amateur detectives in mysteries and thrillers? It’s more than a trend. It’s beginning to look like the way to make a mark in crime fiction these days.

So far I’ve resisted reading any of them because I would bring too much personal bias to the experience. I’ve never been a fan of historical fiction about the lives of real people. Even the use of a historical figure as a minor character, as Caleb Carr used Theodore Roosevelt in The Alienist, automatically stirs my resistance. I’d rather read straight history, with an index and a bibliography of sources. I can enjoy dramatizations, but only if they don’t embroider on the historical record. I’ve never forgiven the makers of the otherwise excellent 1971 film Mary Queen of Scots for the scene in which Mary (Vanessa Redgrave) and Elizabeth I (Glenda Jackson) had a face-to-face meeting. So you can imagine my reluctance to read a mystery series in which a real historical figure plays amateur sleuth.

I seem to be in the minority, though. Karen Harper’s Elizabeth I series g
ets rave reviews and, aside from the queen’s crime-solving activities, the author is apparently meticulous about the accuracy of period details. Stephanie Barron’s Jane Austen series has a loyal following. At the end of this month, Barron’s The White Garden will launch a new mystery series with Virginia Woolf as the protagonist. The Oscar Wilde series, written by British broadcaster and former Lord Commissioner of the Treasury Gyles Brandreth, seems to be going strong.

I haven’t read any of these books – yet.

Now, though, I’ve come across a historical mystery featuring a real person that I may not be able to resist: The Ninth Daughter by Barbara Hamilton, first in a new series about Abigail Adams. At first, I’ll admit, I was aghast. Abigail Adams is one of our most beloved First Ladies, possibly more admired than her husband, President John Adams. She was an intelligent, strong-minded, politically savvy woman, as well as a warm and loving wife and mother. How could any writer turn her into an amateur sleuth? Learning that “Barbara Hamilton” is actually Barbara Hambly, a graceful and insightful author, reassured me that Abigail is in good hands. And Abigail probably did have what it takes to be a good detective. A few sneak peeks into the book told me the writer has captured the roiling and dangerous atmosphere of pre-Revolution America.

I think I’m going to read The Ninth Daughter to find out how Abigail clears John of suspicion of murder. And it may open my mind to many more mysteries featuring historical figures.

Reading the books, however, won’t satisfy my curiosity about the reason why we’re seeing so many of them published. Is this a reflection of our modern celebrity-obsessed society? Do we want even our fictional characters to be genuine famous people, even if their activities in the books are entirely imagined?

Do you read any crime fiction featuring real people as sleuths? What attracts you to them? Do you insist on accurate historical details in the books?

And the big question: What’s next – or, rather, who is next? Ghengis Khan as a private eye on the mean streets of Mongolia? Lucretia Borgia trying to clear herself of murder charges? Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn teaming up to solve a murder that a major studio is trying to keep hidden?

What historical figure would you like to see as a mystery protagonist?


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

I haven't read any of these, no. I usually like coming to a protagonist fresh--and, if they were real people, I've already probably got preconceived ideas about them. Interesting trend!

Mystery Writing is Murder

iasa said...

I don't mind when historical figures play a minor role in fiction as long as there is not a great deal of poetic license. I have read one of Gyles Brandreth's Oscar Wilde series and I really like Ron Goulart's Groucho Marx series. I was drawn to those series because of the humor. The other ones you mentioned don't appeal to me at all.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

I think people perk up when they see a book is about somebody they've heard of. As for the fact that in real life, Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots never met f2f, isn't that the essence of the difference between life and fiction? In fiction or drama, you can't leave out the climactic scene with the most spectacular conflict.

Kate Gallison said...

I used Thomas Edison for the villain in THE EDGE OF RUIN (although of course not the murderer), in that he was the natural enemy of independent film producers in 1909 and pursued them ruthlessly. He never appears on scene. I like encountering historical figures in fiction, although I, too, become enraged when they act completely out of character, and even more enraged if the writer follows them into bed and describes their amatory practices, prude that I am. (I've seen it done.) That said,I think a great character, even a real one, allows a number of different riffs, just the way a great story can be repeated in a number of different ways.
I'm thinking of explaining what is real and what is not at the end of the book, with a link to an online bibliography.

Sandra Parshall said...

Kate, I think readers would appreciate an author's note pointing out what is fact and what is fiction. I know I would!

Roberta Alexander said...

Interestingly enough, I blogged about the same subject earlier this month ("Author, author" at

Julia Buckley said...

Sandra, this is a great question. Based on your examples, there is obviously a trend (subgenre)? here.

My own inclination is to read books with "new" characters, totally fictional ones that I am meeting for the first time. Like Elizabeth, I think preconceived notions might complicate the overall effect.

Sandra Parshall said...

There are lots more of these books that I didn't name. Is this the latest "hook" for mystery writers? For a while everybody was trying to come up with a craft or job that hadn't been featured yet. Is the focus shifting to real dead people? Will we reach a point where publishers will turn down a book because "we already have an Abraham Lincoln mystery series in the works"? Better grab a historical figure while you can, before somebody beats you to him/her. :-)

Neil Plakcy said...

Very interesting post. I have enjoyed the Jane Austen books by Stephanie Barron and Diane Stuckart's Leonardo mysteries, as well as a couple of the Oscar Wildes. I think choosing a real person as sleuth adds something.

Attila the Hun on the mean streets of Mongolia? Sounds like high concept to me!

Nancy said...

Thanks for posting the info about Barbara Hambley. I love her Benjamin January series and have wondered what she's been doing. Why the pseudonym, I wonder, since those books were so successful? That doesn't make any sense to me.

I read lots of historical mysteries and don't worry about walk-ons by "real" people, but I am drawn more to series that feature "regular folks," like Stephen Saylor's Gordianus and Sharan Newman's Catherine LeVendeur, than those about kings and queens.


Anonymous said...

Intriguing post. I want to read fiction with fictional characters, not fiction with real non-sleuth personae converted into sleuths. Wondering when the estates of these authors will sue these converters for invasion of privacy of their ancestor's identity, or for identity theft?

Diane Stuckart said...

Sandra, good discussion. As you might guess, I'm in the "pro" camp as far as liking my sleuths to be famous dead folks. :) With a character like Leonardo da Vinci, very little is documented about his personal life, although his public persona and works are incredibly well known. To me, that made him an ideal candidate for such fictionalization, because I was free to interpret him as I saw fit. Moreover, given his intense interest in art and science and engineering, it seemed almost natural that he would be the sort of man to take on the challenge of solving murders.

Still, I wasn't making up a character, willy nilly. I worked very hard to stay true to his personality as I gleaned it from contemporary accounts of him and from reading his own (quite extensive) notebooks. I'd already used other historical figures as secondary characters in my romances, so this wasn't really a new mode of operating to me. My rule of thumb for any historical figure is, if you can't say it didn't happen (in other words, if there's no historical documentation proving the character was doing X at the same time your fictional version of him is doing Y), then you are good to plot away.

But, again, creating a vision that rings true to what is known and generally accepted about a historical figure is paramount to the successful use of same as a fictional character. And following up on what couple of folks here mentioned, I do make a point of adding author notes at the end of each book telling what is true and what I revised or made up for story purposes. My job, in the end, is to give the reader an entertaining story with characters they will love and will want to spend time with from book to book to book. If it's not 100% accurate history 100% of the time, well, I'm not going to apologize for that.

So I do hope you will give some of our "famous dead sleuths" a try! (And thanks for posting a lovely pic of the cover for PORTRAIT OF A LADY.)

BV Lawson said...

As a crime fiction omnivore, I'll give almost anything a try. Having written one short story based on real-life astronomers, I think I have a new perspective on using historical figures in fiction. It actually presents more challenges in trying to get the era details correct, as there are plenty of historians (and in this case, astronomers) out there who could nitpick. It's actually easier to create a cast of characters from scratch, so my hat is off to writers who can create novels using historical characters in an effective way.

Patg said...

I'm with you Sandy on most of these books. Mainly not a historical or biography reader, however being human, there are alway exceptions.
Can't resist anything Jane Austen, and now you say there is an Abigail Adams series! Wow, on my list. I'm visiting the Adams Library on my trip next month, and I'm going strictly for Abigail.
And let me recommend Ariana Frankin. Henry the second, much maligned king, plays well in her 12th century female doctor books. And do you like Agatha Christie? Notice all those 'A's. Hmmm.

Lyn said...

Interesting post, Sandra. Why the trend? Do you want the cynical explanation? Maybe it is, as you say, a way of cashing in on ready-made celebrity, or perhaps it’s part of what looks like an ongoing assault on history. Non-cynically, perhaps we’re just looking at heroes whose books, that is to say, whose lives, we are reluctant to part with.

So, maybe I don’t see how a person could skulk around a castle whilst encumbered by a farthingale, but I am completely taken with the idea of Hemingway as a hero. Oscar Wilde? If someone could pull that off, I’d be grateful. Jane Austen might be a bit girly, and Emily Dickinson stayed at home too much, but maybe all she needs is her own Archie Goodwin. Da Vinci with his secret writing and all those diagrams, seems the perfect spy.

Or maybe it’s just high-level fanfic. As you wisely say, it depends.

--There’s a Groucho Marx series! Hurrah!

Anonymous said...

What about Lillian de la Torre's Dr Johnson mysteries? That's going way back to 1943. Or the John Dickson Carr tale with Poe as the detective? This is not a new idea, but I suspect that the current fad for dead celeb detectives has something to do with the popularity for such nonsense as THE DA VINCI CODE. Like that, they're mixing in fact and fantasy. You get a history lesson along with your crime. When the current craze is over, then the bad books will vanish back into obcurity and the good will (hopefully) remain in print.

CLM said...

I've heard good things about that new Abigail Adams book but in general I have been unimpressed by such books. The one exception, and I am not even sure it really qualifies, is the recent book by Nicola Upson, An Expert in Murder, which featured Josephine Tey as the heroine/sleuth. Tey was the pseudonym of a writer and wasn't famous (although very talented!) so hard to say if she qualifies. But I really liked the book!

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