Showing posts with label historical mysteries. Show all posts
Showing posts with label historical mysteries. Show all posts

27 April 2024

A Gal out of Time (aka Why Write Historical Crime?)

A few months past, I said on these pages that I would offer a post about writing historical fiction.   

In fact, I wish I had read this post before I started writing historicals!

Now, I had been forewarned.  Several years ago, my friend, the excellent writer of cozies, Vicki Delany, said to me:  "Don't write historical crime.  You narrow your market by doing that."

What she meant was this:  I've heard that only about 20% of the crime reading market read historicals.  Of those potential readers, most have preferences for  a certain time period.  Some read Victorian, and no other.  Some like classical Rome, and no other.  Some like between the wars, like me. Very few historical crime readers read all periods.

So you are reducing your market considerably.

I can attest that this is true, and would speak the same words to aspiring writers today.  But my emphasis for this post is different.

Here's what I have to offer, while writing the third book in the 1928 Merry Widow Murder series:

The trouble with writing historical novels strikes me as a very similar to that of writing comedic novels:  Not only do you have to come up with an original plot, wonderful characters, engaging dialogue, compelling pacing, and believable motivation like every other author, but you have this additional requirement that other authors don't have.  You have to make it funny.  And you don't get paid any more for doing it.

Historical novels - and I write exclusively mystery/crime novels now - are of the same ilk.  You have to include all the traditional elements of a great mystery book, but you also have to do a tremendous amount of research to get the time period right, and I don't just mean setting. Yes, I give great attention to detail of the food and drink of the time (was Chicken a la King served then?  How about a Sidecar?)  Music of the time (When exactly did Mack the Knife become available in sheet music?)  And clothing (the Flapper look wasn't the only look for clothing in the 1920s, and short skirts weren't as short as Halloween costumes now would have you believe.)

Questions like:  When did ocean liners move from coal to bunker C fuel?  (1917ish - after the Titanic)  

What were the mores of the time?  The etiquette?  Could respectable women travel alone on an ocean liner, in first class?  (Yes, with a maid.)  Did the maid have her own cabin, or did she stay in yours?

I nearly go mad with the research I have to do!  Every single page I write, I'm looking something up.  And that brings me to the comparison with comedic writing:

In historical novels, you have to do everything a writer of contemporary fiction has to do, but you also have this extra requirement:  you must research, you must get it right, and - you don't get paid any more for doing it.

I can speak to the importance of getting it right.  My first series was actually fantasy, the Rowena Through the Wall series, which takes place during the dark ages in Great Britain.  

'But even in fantasy, you have to get it right.  In book two of that series, Rowena and the Dark Lord, magic occurs.  Rowena inadvertently brings forth a Roman Legion fighting Bodicea.  Now, I did the usual thing.  Researched Celtic warfare, and researched Roman warfare, so I could get the battle styles right.  I also researched Roman armor and weapons, vs Celt.  It then occurred to me that I needed to dig deeper into what it would mean for a Roman Legion to vanish from battle.  Would they be considered deserters?  (Yes)  Would this affect their families back in Rome (Hell, yes.)  So they would do everything possible to get back to the battlefield, even if it mean imminent death.  And that created a turning point for my plot.

Believe it or not, and to my great surprise, some Roman scholars read the book, because they like to read everything that has anything to do with ancient Rome.  And one professor emailed me to say, "I can see you used Legion number XXX in the book, located at XXX in the month of..."  He enthused about the thrill of reading accuracy in fiction.  (Good thing I was a college professor at the time...)

Now, I know that if I had not done my research, I would have heard about it.  Even though the book is a fantasy!  People love to point out when you get things wrong in a book.  So I breathed a sigh of relief, that this time, I carried it off.

But it's a heck of a lot of work.

I've been lucky to get a two-book contract for books two and three, and an option for the 4th.  In some ways, I'm relieved, because I'm learning this period of time inside out, and it's good to be able to use it for more than one book.

But I have to ask myself:  why do it?  Why write fiction set in historical times?  I ask myself that every day, writing this third book.  And I've come to some sort of conclusion.

There's a certain amount of security, in writing and reading a book that takes place in the past.  Why?  It's a simple as this:

The world is still here.  Mankind survived the trials from the time of our book, survived WW1, the depression, WW11.  There's comfort in knowing that the world lives on after the book ends.

But in our world today, who knows?  The future is a blank.

And that's why I love writing about the past.

Melodie Campbell can't resist a classic mystery crackling with humour, and that's why she wrote one herself.  The Merry Widow Murders is her 18th book, and the first of a new series.

23 July 2022

Women in the Military: From History to Mystery

 Okay, this post isn't really by moi.  I'm merely fronting for my good friend here.

It is my pleasure to introduce Alison Bruce to all you SleuthSayers!  Alison is the Executive Director of Crime Writers of Canada (yes, she took over from me a few years ago, bless her!)  With a dad who was in the Canadian Navy, and a British mother who was in the Royal Observer Corp during WW-II, her take on using history to embrace story-telling is particularly inspiring, I think.  Take it away, Alison!

Women in the Military:  From History to Mystery

by Alison Bruce

My favourite teacher of my favourite subject knocked the academic wind out of my sales in grade thirteen.  He told me, "You'll never be an historian."

I was hurt, angry, and determined to prove him wrong.

It turned out he was correct.  After graduating with a double major in history and philosphy, I finally got it.  I write stories, not history.

I decided to do my undergraduate thesis on women in the military in World War 1 and 11.  The focus would be World War 11 because my aunt was in the British Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS).  I grew up listening to the war experiences of my aunt, mother (Observer Corps) and grandmother (first time in the workforce.)  Unlike Nana and Mum, however, my aunt kept in touch with the women she served with. With their help, the bulk of the paper was going to be based on the stories of women in the military.

They were able to reach out to friends of friends and post my call for volunteers locally, something I couldn't do in Canada.  (This was the 1980s.  No World Wide Web to access.)

If I'd had enough time to gather more stories,I might have written a good popular history book.  But, as my academic advisor pointed out, I didn't have enough primary research other than stories.

That was okay.  By this time I had added Philosophy as a second major, and had given up on the idea of teaching because of the horror stories I was hearing from friends.  (What do you mean I would be expected to wear  pantyhose and a skirt or dress?) I had also started my second novel.  (I lost the first one in the woman's washroom at college.)

Fast forward a quarter century.  I still love to research history, or almost anything else, but prefer to write stories.  I've used research to write a mystery set in the old west, a romance set in the American Civil War, three mysteries set in Canada, and one in the Arctic Ocean involving the US and Canadian Navies.  Now I'm going back to the stories that put me on the road to becoming a writer.

I don't know of any author who has written about being in the Royal Observer Corps.  If you do know of such a book, fiction or nonfiction, please let me know in the comments.  It was made up of volunteers except for a few naval officers who ran the outfit.  My mother's tales of her service were largely self-deprecating, but that just makes them tailor-made for storytelling.  And all those stories I listened to when I was writing my paper?  Grist for the mill.  I only wish my professor was still alive so I could send her a copy of the book...when I finally finish it.

Alison Bruce is the Executive Director of Crime Writers of Canada. She writes history, mystery, and suspense.  Her books combine clever mysteries, well-researched backgrounds, and a touch of romance. Four of her novels have been finalists for genre awards.


In her role as ghostwriter, Jen Kirby joins a Canadian Arctic expedition to document and help solve a forty-year-old mystery involving an American submarine station lost during the Cold War. The trouble is, there are people—living and dead—who don't want the story told, and they’ll do anything to stop her. 

10 June 2022

Historical Mystery Revisited

With the release of my latest book, I thought it might be time to revisit my first SleuthSayers article – Writing the Historical Mystery. Since the article aired in September 2016, I have had five historical mystery novels and fifteen historical mystery short stories published.

Accuracy vs. Fiction

Joseph Pulitzer wrote on his newsroom wall – “Accuracy, Accuracy, Accuracy.” Excellent advise for journalists but fiction writers are not journalists and we do not write history books. Historical accuracy is important in the historical mystery but is it more important than your story? I say no.

When we write historical fiction we are writing FICTION. I have a degree in European and Asian History and have had historical articles published in academic journals.

In writing academic historical articles, I strive to be as accurate as humanly possible. Nearly all history graduate students take a class in HISTORIOGRAPHY, the study of historical writing. They know unless you are an eye-witness to an historical event – and that’s one person’s subjective observation – then you must rely on first hand accounts of other contemporary witnesses or second hand accounts complied by other historians. So why worry if you get a minor detail wrong in your historical fiction as I did when I had a character wearing a Banlon shirt several years before Banlon was introduced? Oh, yes. Someone caught me and I had to miss recess that day. Same thing happened when I put a Parker T-ball jotter in a private eye's hand a few years before Parker distributed the pen. Wrong. An easy fix.

Historians in critically-acclaimed history books also get things wrong. Ever read history books of the Napoleonic Wars? British Historians and French Historians paint nearly opposite histories of the same period. It’s almost funny.

Back to my first statement - when we write historical fiction we are writing FICTION – I have fudged on historical accuracy to write a better story because, in my opinion, historical fiction is like someone’s name. John Smith is a SMITH, part of the SMITH family, not the JOHN family. Historical Fiction is FICTION and fiction outranks history, otherwise you’re writing a history book.

“ … fairness is not the historical novelist’s first duty,” the great historical fiction writer Bernard Cornwell pens in his notes at the end of Sword Song (2008). He is correct, of course. The duty of an historical novelist is to entertain, to elicit emotion in the reader and if mistakes of fact are made (from errors in research, by omission or by design), well, it happens.

Fiction writers make up stuff. We make up characters and events, sometimes with an historical backdrop.

Artistic license was taken when I wrote my latest, Hardscrabble Private Eye. I'm not a reporter, I'm a fiction writer.

A novel set in 1935 New Orleans. A tale of buried treasures. Diamonds. Rubies. Emeralds. A priceless stolen book. A tale of treachery with alluring femme fatales, gangsters, Mafiosi, gunfights, tommy guns peppering the night and a private eye harscrabbled in the middle.

That's all for now.

12 May 2021

Maisie & Jackie

I came to Jacqueline Winspear late, and started reading her books back to front.  I reported here last January about her enormously engaging and quietly unsettling memoir, This Time Next Year We’ll Be Laughing, and the first of her fiction I read was The Care and Management of Lies, a WWI standalone.  Lies is a novel of manners, in its breadth of purpose and minute attention to detail, but it’s a suspense story as well, where character collides with necessity.


My rule of thumb has come to be, that if I stumble across a writer new to me, I try to go back and start reading them from the beginning.  In this case, Jackie Winspear has a series; book sixteen of the Maisie Dobbs mysteries, The Consequences of Fear, came out this past March.  Girding my loins, I began with the first, Maisie Dobbs. 


Spring, 1929.  This is intentionally misleading, because there’s a long flashback, mid-book, to Maisie’s early time in service as an upstairs maid, and then to the war, a dozen years before, when she was triage nurse.  We’re often told that flashbacks are a narrative kill switch, but it’s a device that works for Maisie.  For one thing, the tension between past and present is exactly what gives the story its punch, and both the hook and its resolution depend on looking the unburied past square in the eye.  It’s a story about consequences, even if they aren’t the consequences of our own choices. 


Two things of note, both related to period.  The books take place between the wars, and as the shadow of the first war falls across the stories, the coming of the second war is a grim foreboding.  But there’s no feeling of artifice, or metafiction.  Winspear isn’t trying to recreate or reshape the Golden Age – one thinks in particular of Dorothy Sayers, and The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, very much grounded in the memory of the trenches – and you don’t feel she’s writing pastiche.  Winspear’s treatment of the time is far from nostalgic; it’s quite immediate.  The other thing is that barriers of class and gender are only dealt glancing blows.  They’re present, but they’re part of the fabric.  They don’t call attention to themselves.

It isn’t always the case that knowing something about a writer tells you anything about the writing, or gives us any special insight into the process, or the method, or even a worldview, but having read This Time Next Year, I do in fact think it sheds light on Maisie’s world, and how Jacqueline Winspear inhabits it.  There are influences and intersections, overlaps and dissolves.


“Maisie drove down to Kent in early September, when the spicy fragrance of the hops still hung in the warm air of an Indian summer.”  This is, unapologetically, transcribed from Jackie’s own girlhood.  She says, also, that knowing her grandfather’s fragility (from shellshock), but without understanding why, is part of what brought her to the primary matter of the novels, the injury that violence does to our sense of belonging.  It murders trust.


I don’t think the Maisie books are dark, but neither are they slight.  Winspear manages a sure balance between the night sweats and the sunny uplands, and gives us the confidence that simple decency is a lasting virtue.  It’s a comforting thought. 


13 April 2016

Nights in Berlin

NIGHTS IN BERLIN is the fourth of Janice Law's period mysteries featuring the painter Francis Bacon. The first book takes place during the Second World War, and the next two follow chronologically, but NIGHTS IN BERLIN takes us back to Weimar Germany in the 1920's, when Francis is only a teenager - although far from innocent - some years before he begins his art career.
Berlin, in the Weimar era, has a reputation for being wide open. "Life is a cabaret, old chum - " and you better believe it. Francis is sent off in the care of his uncle Lastings, in hopes Lastings will make a man of him, Francis being more than a little gay, but uncle favors a bit of rough, himself. He's also a scoundrel, working the black market, with a sideline as an informer, which turns out to be the part that proves dicey. Lastings is selling secrets to the highest bidder.  

In the event, uncle takes it on the lam and leaves Francis to his own devices. Playing fast and louche, Francis lands a job as a hatcheck girl at a drag bar. It's good cover when British Intelligence recruits him - blackmails him, in point of fact - because Uncle Lastings was freelancing for them. Berlin is in political ferment, with Bolsheviks, Freikorps thugs, SA brownshirts (Goebbels just arrived as Nazi party gauleiter), Prussian reactionaries, all stalking each other with violent and criminal results.

Francis is an entertaining guide to these wilder nooks and crannies, his voice alternating between the knowing aside and his native provincialism. There's something to the story of a Boy's Own Adventure, reminiscent of John Buchan, say, or Erskine Childers' RIDDLE OF THE SANDS. I think partly this is the age between the wars, revanchist, tribal hatreds boiling to the surface, but no real sense of the cataclysm about to swallow the Old World entire. It's also a function of our hero's age. Francis is old and wiser, and sadder, in the first three books of the series, whether London or Tangier or the Cote d'Azur, whereas turning the clock back, we see a previous, vanished Berlin, and through a younger pair of eyes. What contributes further to this is an avoidance of historical ironies. Hitler doesn't get a walk-on, or Sally Bowles, either. NIGHTS IN BERLIN is very much of the moment, as Francis inhabits it, and that lends it a sort of wandering air, the kid a little too much in pursuit of sensation for his own good.

The politics are really a side issue. The story is how the experience imprints on Francis. What did he learn? he writes to ask his former nanny. That the most unlikely people can teach us odd and useful things. And with this in mind, he's off to Paris at the end of the book. Both enterprising and alarmingly fey, in some respects, Francis seems like something of a blank slate, yet to be written on. In other words, we're still in the opening pages. The rest are empty. Francis will grow into himself. As the world itself will, passing into the savage 1930's, and then the war years. Pages yet to be written.

I jumped at the chance to read NIGHTS IN BERLIN. Janice had me at the title. I'm crazy about the premise, and the period, of course. I've lived in Berlin, I've read up on it quite a lot, I've written about it myself. I also recently discovered Philip Kerr's fabulous series of historicals, with the wartime German homicide cop Bernie Gunther. There's something endlessly fascinating to me about the city in the past century, with its many changes of clothing, Weimar, the Nazis, Occupation and the Cold War. I think if Berlin didn't actually exist, we'd have to invent it, as a metaphor, and for the purposes of fiction.

21 March 2013

Setting as Character

Setting. Everyone knows about it. Few people actively think about it.
And that's a shame, because for writers, your setting is like a pair of shoes: if it's good, it's a sound foundation for your journey. If it's not, it'll give you and your readers pains that no orthotics will remedy.

Nowhere is this more true than with crime fiction. In fact strong descriptions of settings is such a deeply embedded trope of the genre that it's frequently overdone, used in parodies both intentional and unintentional as often as fedoras and trenchcoats.

Used correctly a proper setting can transcend even this role–can become a character in its own right, and can help drive your story, making your fiction evocative, engaging, and (most importantly for your readers) compelling.

Think for a moment about your favorite crime fiction writers. No matter who they are, odds are good that one of the reasons, perhaps one you've not considered before, is their compelling settings.

Just a few contemporary ones that come to mind for me: the Los Angeles of Michael Connelly and Robert Crais. The Chicago of  Sara Paretsky, Sean Chercover and Marcus Sakey. Boston seen through the eyes of Robert B. Parker. Ken Bruen's Ireland. Al Guthrie's Scotland. Carl Hiassen's Miami. Bill Cameron's Portland.

And of course there are the long gone settings highlighted in the gems of the old masters. These and others read like lexical snapshots from the past.Who can forget passages like:

The city wasn't pretty. Most of its builders had gone in for gaudiness. Maybe they had been successful at first. Since then the smelters whose brick stacks stuck up tall against a gloomy mountain to the south had yellow-smoked everything into uniform dinginess. The result was an ugly city of forty thousand people, set in an ugly notch between two ugly mountains that had been all dirtied up by mining. Spread over this was a grimy sky that looked as if it had come out of the smelters' stacks.
—Dashiell Hammett, Red Harvest

Or this one from Raymond Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely:

1644 West 54th Place was a dried-out brown house with a dried-out brown lawn in front of it. There was a large bare patch around a tough-looking palm tree. On the porch stood one lonely wooden rocker, and the afternoon breeze made the unpruned shoots of last year's poisettias tap-tap against the cracked stucco wall. A line of stiff yellowish half-washed clothes jittered on a rusty wire in the side yard.

And no one did it better than Ross Macdonald:

The city of Santa Teresa is built on a slope which begins at the edge of the sea and rises more and more steeply toward the coastal mountains in a series of ascending ridges. Padre Ridge is the first and lowest of these, and the only one inside the city limits.

It was fairly expensive territory, an established neighborhood of well-maintained older houses, many of them with brilliant hanging gardens. The grounds of 1427 were the only ones in the block that looked unkempt. The privet hedge needed clipping. Crabgrass was running rampant in the steep lawn.

Even the house, pink stucco under red tile, had a disused air about it. The drapes were drawn across the front windows. The only sign of life was a house wren which contested my approach to the veranda.
— Ross Macdonald, Black Money

In each of the passages excerpted above the author has used a description of the setting as a tip-off to the reader as to what manner of characters would inhabit such places. Even hints at what lies ahead for both protagonist and reader.

With Hammett it's the stink of the corruption that always follows on the heels of a rich mineral strike. With Chandler, it's a life worn-out by too much living. And with Macdonald, it's a world and its inhabitants as out of sorts as those hedges that need clipping.

Brilliant thumbnail sketches each. If you haven't read them, you owe it to yourself to do so. And each of them was giving the reader a glimpse of a world they had experienced first-hand, if not a contemporary view, then at least one they could dredge up and flesh out from memory.

With the stuff I write it's not that simple.

In his kind note introducing me to the readers of this blog, our man Lopresti mentioned that when it comes to fiction, my particular bailiwick is historical mystery. In my time mining this particular vein of fiction I've experienced first-hand the challenge of delivering to readers strong settings for stories set in a past well before my time.

How to accomplish this?

It's tricky. Here's what I do.

I try to combine exhaustive research with my own experiences and leaven it all with a hefty dose of the writer's greatest tool: imagination.

"Counting Coup," the first historical mystery story I ever wrote, is about a group of people trapped in a remote southwest Montana railway station by hostile Cheyenne warriors during the Cheyenne Uprising of 1873. I used the three-part formula laid out above.
  1. While pursuing my Master's in history, I'd done a ton of research on the western railroads, their expansion, and its impact on Native American tribes in the region, including the Cheyenne.
  2. I've visited southwestern Montana many times, and the country is largely unchanged, so I had a good visual image to work from.
  3. Imagination!
An example of the end result:

Wash and Chance made it over the rise and and into the valley of the Gallatin just ahead of that storm. It had taken three days of hard riding to get to the railhead, and the horses were all but played out.

The entire last day finished setting their nerves on edge. What with the smoke signals and the tracks of all the unshod ponies they'd seen, there was enough sign to make a body think he was riding right through the heart of the Cheyenne Nation.

Stretching away to north and south below them lay the broad flood plain of the Gallatin. The river itself meandered along the valley floor, with the more slender, silver ribbon of rail line mirroring it, running off forever in either direction. The reds of the tamarack and the golds of the aspen and the greens of the fir created a burst of color on the hills that flanked the river on either side, their hues all the more vivid when set against the white of the previous evening's uncharacteristically early snowfall. 

"Suicide Blonde," another of my historical mystery stories, is set in 1962 Las Vegas. Again, the formula.
  1. I did plenty of research on Vegas up to and including this time when Sinatra and his buddies strutted around like they owned the place.
  2. I lived and worked in Vegas for a couple of years and have been back a few times since. I am here to tell you, Vegas is one of those places that, as much as it changes, doesn't really change.
  3. Imagination!
Which gets you:

Because the Hoover boys had started tapping phones left and right since the big fuss at Apalachin a few years back, Howard and I had a system we used when we needed to see each other outside of the normal routine. If one of us suggested we meet at the Four Queens, we met at Caesar's. If the California, then we'd go to the Aladdin, and so on. We also agreed to double our elapsed time till we met, so when I said twenty minutes, that meant I'd be there in ten. We figured he had a permanent tail anyway, but it was fun messing with the feds, regardless.

The Strip flashed and winked and beckoned to me off in the distance down Desert Inn as I drove to Caesar's. It never ceases to amaze me what a difference the combination of black desert night, millions of lights, and all that wattage from Hoover Dam made, because Las Vegas looked so small and ugly and shabby in the day time. She used the night and all those bright lights like an over-age working girl uses a dimply lit cocktail lounge and a heavy coat of makeup to ply her trade.

Howard liked Caesar's. We didn't do any of the regular business there, and Howard liked that, too. Most of all, Howard liked the way the place was always hopping in the months since Sinatra took that angry walk across the street from the Sands and offered to move his act to Caesar's. Howard didn't really care to run elbows with the Chairman and his pack, he just liked talking in places where the type of noise generated by their mere presence could cover our conversations.

You may have noticed that in both examples used above I've interspersed description of the setting with action, historical references and plot points. That's partly stylistic and partly a necessity. I rarely find straight description engaging when I'm reading fiction (in the hands of a master such as Hemingway, Chandler or Macdonald that's another story, but they tend to be the exception), so I try to seamlessly integrate it into the narrative. Also, since I'm attempting to evoke a setting that is lost to the modern reader in anything but received images, I try to get into a few well-placed historical references that help establish the setting as, say, not just Las Vegas, but early 1960s Las Vegas. Doing so in this manner can save a writer of historical mysteries a whole lot of trying to tease out these sorts of details in dialogue (and boy, can that sort of exposition come across as clunky if not handled exactly right!).

So there you have it: an extended rumination on the importance of one of the most overlooked and powerful tools in your writer's toolbox: setting. The stronger you build it, the more your readers will thank you for it, regardless of genre, regardless of time period.

Because setting is both ubiquitous and timeless. Easy to overdo and certainly easy to get wrong. But when you get it right, your story is all the stronger for it!

05 January 2012

Making Books

by Janice Law

I was recently in Pittsburg, Kansas, a former coal mining town on the flat and featureless Kansas prairie. The weather was hot, the cloudless blue sky immense, and the small lakes and ponds, remnants of old-time strip mining, occasionally dubious. This is the southeast corner of the state, the "Bleeding Kansas" of the run-up to the Civil War, when what we would today call "war lords" harassed folk who didn't share their political opinions and all too often killed them.

The immense Kansas plains struck me as a landscape demanding inner resources, especially during the torrid summers and the cold, windy winters. There are few places to hide on those vast grasslands, and trouble approaches from far off in a cloud of dust. A perfect place, one would say, given its history of political, and later, labor, unrest, for the mystery writer.

And yet, where are the frontier mysteries or the mysteries of the coal fields? To the best of my knowledge, nowhere to be found. And nearer to home in my own neck of the woods, mysteries set in Colonial times or around the first contacts with the Algonquins and the Narragansetts are thin on the ground. All those good witch trials might have gone unheard as far as the genre is concerned, while the chicanery surrounding early land claims and land deals, in itself a gold mine, is the province of the archivist, not the novelist.

The neglect of the Colonial period and of what seem to be tempting places like rural Kansas makes a nice illustration of the way that books are made from other books. Nowhere is this clearer than in the mystery genre. Thanks to Sherlock Holmes, gaslight London, and in a pinch, gaslight New York, are so favored we might still be living with belle epoch fixtures. How we love the railroads (see Andrew Martin's charming novels with rail road detective Jim Springer) and the complications of the class system, and the endless difficulties of would-be independent women (try John Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman).

The Victorian period is another favorite, as writers continue to prospect in terrain first mined by Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens, Sheridan Le Fanu, and their colleagues, all of whom found pay dirt in inheritance disputes, female oppression, and false identities. As a result, the UK, especially England, is still favored as the Victorian venue; Anne Perry's Thomas Pitt and William Monk mysteries come to mind.

It might have been otherwise, but our very own Edgar Allan Poe put his detective in Paris, and Poe's psychological dramas are set in the all purpose kingdom of the Gothic, with bows to Mrs. Radcliffe and "Monk" Lewis. The distinctive properties of the United States for mystery were tapped by the much less popular Charles Brockden Brown, whose weird and convoluted novels did not provide so happy, or so easily-followed, a template.

Our side of the Atlantic only came into its own, speaking of mysteries, with the twentieth century. Prohibition gave a big boost to mystery, as well as to crime, with bootleggers and drinking clubs, G-men, and the rise of the Mob with a capital M. As alcohol became criminal and public morals became flexible, the private detective, formerly associated with the Pinkertons, strike-breaking, and low company, morphed into a new, populist type of hero.

Helped, no doubt, by the rapid-fire patter of the movies, smart-mouthed detectives and their witty female companions pranced off the page and into the collective consciousness. Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade and Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe have proved irresistible models, while James M. Cain set the template for a tidal wave of pulp fiction. Retro forties style detective novels are still selling (see the Hard Case Crime series) and any number of smart, irreverent guys and gals are still paying the bills for their creators on the page and on the tube.

Sure, other historical eras have had their day. James Lincoln Warren and Steven Saylor have sent their sleuths to ancient Rome and classical Greece. Ellis Peters did wonders for medieval detection, and the Renaissance has its proponents, too. But in almost every case, the mystery follows where earlier literature has tread. "Write what you know," say the teaching gurus. And nine times out of ten, that also means, "Write what you've read" and what the public has come to expect.

So are those hot, open plains, former mine sites, and tiny rural towns teetering on the verge of extinction out of my range? Probably. I can see a lot of work, a lot of reading, and a good deal of imagination required for a novel. But the Jayhawkers and Bushwackers of the Civil War, not to mention the polyglot miners and the womenfolk of the "Amazon Army" have a definite appeal.

I think I hear the library calling, and perhaps a short story isn't out of the question.