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June 11, 2014

Historical Mysteries

I’ve talked some about the hard-boiled/cozy division in mystery fiction, and about why cozies tend to be considered lower-status. And recently it occurred to me to wonder about historical mysteries: With the exception of a handful of breakouts, like Caleb Carr’s The Alienist, and The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson (not a novel, but it reads like one), historicals tend to get lumped in with the cozies, regarded – by too many booksellers, male readers, and even female readers – as fodder for undiscerning women.

Why is that? Leaving aside the incredibly offensive question of why “women’s fiction” is regarded as inherently second-rate, why are historicals assumed to be part of that pack of also-rans? What is it about setting a story in the past that so “softens” it, in the eyes of many in the mystery community, as to make it suitable only for the little ladies?

Actually, the question is even tricksier than that, because “the past,” in this context, is a fairly fuzzy concept. Many of George Pelecanos’s books – including my fave, King Suckerman – are set in the 1970s, but no one would dream of calling them cozies, even if they do look nearly half a century into the rearview mirror. Jake Arnott’s “Long Firm” trilogy, set in the 1960s, is similarly thought of as tough stuff indeed. Some of this perception is down to the plots and prose themselves: Both Pelecanos and Arnott write books so hard-boiled they practically smell of sulfur. But some of it, I’d argue, is a function of how far past the past is. For Boomers (i.e., most readers), the 1960s and 1970s count as “the present.” We were alive then. We still listen to the music. We have personal memories of buying those brands, watching those TV shows, wearing those clothes, using those giant telephones attached to the wall. That sense of immediacy, of a world we recognize, cancels out some of the “make-believe” aspect of reading fiction, brings it closer to the experience of reading non-fiction.

And for many readers, non-fiction is thought of as being more important than novels. As everyone knows, women (and only women) crave chocolate and gooey desserts, while men prefer to tear into hunks of meat (for a fascinating and entertaining look at this assumption, pick up a copy of Laura Shapiro’s marvelous Perfection Salad). Similarly, women (and only women) are thought to seek solace in the childish pleasures of make-believe, while men opt instead for the more mature joys of biography and books about global warming – you know, real stuff. I’m willing to be argued out of this, but my hunch is that the more “real” a book feels, the less likely it is to be relegated to the low-status pink-collar ghetto.

What brought all this to mind was two books I read recently – neither of which, sadly, we publish. One was A Conspiracy of Paper, David Liss’s stunning debut and the first book in his series set in 18th-century London, and the other was Point of Honour, the first in Madeleine Robins’ terrific “Sarah Tolerance” series, set in the early years of the 19th century. Both books involve a fair amount of violence (Liss’s protagonist is a onetime boxer who continues to throw punches, while Miss Tolerance is regularly required to display her skill with a sword) and a fair number of lowlifes. Furthermore, both books are steeped in the perfume of corruption, and that aroma, I’d argue, is the single most defining element of hard-boiled mystery fiction. And both writers were very clearly very conscious of grafting hard-boiled conventions onto a historical framework (Robins has even described her series as “hard-boiled Regency”). But as a bookseller, I can tell you that Liss’s books were regarded as, at best, “transitional” – too strong, perhaps, for dedicated cozy-readers, but nothing we’d offer to fans of Michael Connelly. And to my shame, neither I nor my partners nor our staffers ever read even one of the “Sarah Tolerance” books – Madeleine Robins, after all, also writes Regency romances, and while she might be dabbling in the butch-er world of mystery fiction, her stuff was clearly going to be far too frilly and femme for our tough-minded tastes.

For both personal and professional reasons, historical fiction is going to be a feature of my summer reading. And the challenge I’d like to set for myself is to read those books with unsexed eyes, to read without automatically categorizing what I’m reading as a “girl book” or an unusual “one for the boys.” I’ve got a list, but I’d also welcome suggestions: What historicals, for you, transcend gender?



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