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 gets 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?