Eve Fischer, with whom I alternate Thursday entries in this blog, and I share several things in common. For starters, we've both published short stories with (among other venues) Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine (her stuff is better, though), we both are fascinated by larger-than-life characters who spring from the pages of history (like this globe-trotting rascal). And we're both professionally-trained historians (She's got a PhD., while I putter along armed with a mere M.A.) who write historical mystery. If you've not read her latest post about the Antikythera computer and her take on why we do (and should) study the past, give it a look here.
Eve concludes this terrific post with an examination of two distinct types of biases that people down through the ages have used to ignore the past: the first (often held by the young) is that history is irrelevant and has nothing to teach us, because, after all, if ancient people were so valuable to society as a whole, why didn't they invent a better mousetrap? The second is the rose-colored glasses view, where "everything just made so much more sense, back in (insert fondly remembered decade here)."
Pretty astute, my colleague from the Dakotas.
Reading her post got me to thinking about historical fiction and those who write and read it. Historical fiction (and by association its combination cross-genre/sub-genre historical mystery) is supposed to be at least somewhat rooted in fact. That separates it from other genres such as literary, sci-fi, fantasy, romance, and so on. And while it's possible to play fast and loose with the details (something every writer of historical fiction does to a greater or lesser extent), if you stray too far from the customs/events, etc., contained within the historical context, you're not writing historical fiction, you're writing a type of speculative fiction known as "alternate history" (like Harry Turtledove), or, if you go even further off the beaten path, steampunk.
I've read and enjoyed examples from both of the genres listed above. What's more, I certainly enjoy creative takes on existing subjects, otherwise I wouldn't have spent so much time writing and reading historical mystery lo these many years. And when it comes to respecting the work of writers in other genres, I yield to no one in my admiration for the professionalism, hard work and dedication of folks who write romance, be it contemporary or of the historical variety (and anyone who looks down thier nose at romance writers and is a fool. These folks are the very definition of "pros." AND they're usually the hardest-working people you'll find at any gathering of writers from the various genres).
That said, there is a particular variety of "historical mystery" that absolutely drives me up a tree.
I'm talking about what I call "anachronistic historical fiction."
Is "anachronstic historical fiction" contradiction in terms?
But that's because the stuff I'm talking about, which, admittedly is incredibly popular and sellssellssells, is not really historical mystery.
So why not call it what it is? To borrow a phrase that has recently popped up in the geek world: let's call it "cosplay" (short for "costume play").
This type of "historical" usually involves characters with refreshingly (and familiarly) modern attitudes, displaying them in times/situations that, if this were historical fact instead of historical fiction, would have gotten the people displaying said modern sensibilities, hung, shot, drawn and quartered, excomunicated, burned at the stake, or worse.
But the cosplay world in publishing these days seems to be a largely reality-free zone.
Let me give you an example (and since I'm not interested in picking on anyone in particular, it'll be a general one). In, say, early 19th century London, a plucky female protagonist stumbles across a dead body in her family's garden and decides to solve the mystery surrounding the person's death.
Well and good. You have my attention.
Now, let's say that this heroine strikes out alone, in the dead of night, to "interview" the street sweeper who was the last person to have a drink with the dead man in her garden. Big deal, you say.
Well, yes, it is. A small but important point- up until just a few years ago it was considered at the least bad form for a woman to go out unescorted in most European societies, and especially at night.
"But," you say, "this heroine is plucky!"
"And stupid," would be my reply. Big cities tended to be neither particularly clean, nor particularly safe during the period in question. A woman out unescorted during this time would have been considered fair game by some of the rougher element and deserving of whatever trouble came her way by most of the rest of society.
That's not what I'm talking about here.
What I'm getting at is that this is the sort of pretty anachronistic occurrence that gets thrown into cosplay fiction on a fairly regular basis. And usually without seeming remarkable to either the author or the character in question.
And then there's the language.
Which will be the subject of my next post!