Created By: jatay3 on January 22, 2013 Last Edited By: Catbert on November 17, 2013
Troped

Historical Detective Fiction

Mystery Set in History

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Trope
When Mystery Fiction meets either Historical Fiction or Period Piece—a mystery set in historical time. This enables the work to draw notice from both aficionados of mysteries and of historical fiction, and the attention to detail that is required in a good mystery can be put to good use in an environment that is both familiar and foreign at the same time.

At the same time, this makes good historical mysteries into a very hard genre to master—both historical and mystery fiction are noted as very demanding in the research needed. One of the challenges is that is often forces the detective to use the skill and assumptions of his time period, rather than modern investigative techniques. In settings where professional detectives would be anachronistic, the investigator is often a Amateur Sleuth.

Examples

Film
  • The Black Dahlia (2006) is a fictionalized tale based on the real-life 1947 Elizabeth Short murder. It was adapted from a novel by James Ellroy.
  • Chinatown and it's sequel The Two Jakes take place in the 30's near LA.
  • The Film Of The Book of The Name of the Rose (1986) has Sean Connery as William of Baskerville, a monk investigating mysterious deaths in a fourteenth-century abbey.
  • L.A. Confidential is a mystery that takes place in the 50's Los Angeles.

Live-Action TV
  • Cadfael is a TV adaptation of the Brother Cadfael book series.
  • In BBC America's 2012 Copper Kevin Corcoran is an Irish immigrant living in the Five Points neighborhood of New York City during the 1860s. He returns from fighting in the American Civil War to find that his daughter is dead and his wife has disappeared. Robert Morehouse, Corcoran's former commanding officer, uses his family's connections to arrange for Corcoran to be appointed a detective in the New York Police Department.
  • Foyle's War is British Series about a Detective Chief Superintendent Christopher Foyle. It is set during World War II.

Literature
  • David Liss's A Conspiracy of Paper, is the first of a series of novels about Benjamin Weaver, an ex-boxer and thief-taker living in the London of the early 1720's. The mysteries revolve around historical subjects such as the South Sea Bubble and the General Election of 1722.
  • The Amelia Peabody series blends mystery, romance, and comedy in its stories about crime solving Egyptologists. The series spans a thirty-eight-year period from 1884 to 1923, with most of the stories taking place in Egypt.
  • The American Girls series had a spinoff line actually called "American Girls History Mysteries" featuring characters unconnected to their main lines, but having the same little section about the historical part in the back. The main lines have spin off mysteries too.
  • Andrew Pepper's A Pyke Mystery series features the titular character as a Bow Street Runner turned private investigator, who works in the 1840's, at the time when the new railways are opening up Britain as never before.
  • The Aristotle Detective series by Margaret Doody has the historic philosopher Creator/Aristotle help his fictional student Stephanous solve mysteries and navigate Athenian politics during the age of Alexander the Great.
  • The Benjamin January books by Barbara Hambly tells the story of a free man of color (also the title of the first book) who investigates crime in the city of New Orleans of the 1830s, between working as a pianist and a surgeon.
  • The Ben Snow series by Edward D. Hoch is a series of American Old West mysteries set around the turn of the 20th century. These tales are carefully researched historical pieces, sometimes including real historical characters such as Butch Cassidy.
  • The Brother Cadfael series is about a medieval British monk who frequently ends up investigating crimes.
  • Death Comes as the End, by Agatha Christie, is set in Egypt circa 2000 BC.
  • Detectives in Togas is a Kid Detective series set in Ancient Rome.
  • The Elizabethan Theatre series by Edward Marston, featuring Nicholas Bracewell, stage manager (and amateur detective) for one of Elizabethan London leading theatrical companies.
  • The Enola Holmes Mysteries stars Enola Holmes as the 14 year old kid sister of Sherlock Holmes. While the original Sherlock Holmes stories would not be considered historical fiction because they are contemporary to the time they were written, these stories were written in the 21st century.
  • The Erast Fandorin cycle of novels, set in Imperial Russia, and sometimes Imperial Japan.
  • Alan Gordon's Fools Guild series, which follows Feste, the jester from Shakespeare's Twelfth Night.
  • The Gareth And Gwen series in Medieval Wales
  • Judge Dee is a series of novels about a Tang dynasty official in 7th century AD China, who solves various mysteries ranging from domestic crimes to conspiracies against the throne.
  • Groucho Marx, Master Detective and its sequels by Robert Goulart, which portrays Grouch as an Amateur Sleuth in 1930s Hollywood.
  • The Marcus Didius Falco series, set in ancient Rome at the time of the Emperor Vespasian.
  • The Monk Series by Ann Perry is set in Victorian London in the 1850's though the 1860's. The title character, William Monk, is at various times in the series a police detective or a Private Detective.
  • The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco is the story of the monk William with his novice sidekick Adso as they visit a famous monastery and investigate several mysterious deaths there.
  • Ann Perry's Pitt Series is set in Victorian London in the 1880's though the 1890's. Thomas Pitt starts out as an ordinary Scotland Yard Inspector at the famous Bow Street police station and eventually works his way up to the head of Special Branch. His wife, Charlotte Pitt, is a well born lady who sometimes uses her social status to assist her husband by investigating parts of upper-class female society that are not easily accessible by police officers.
  • The Roman Mysteries is a Kid Detective series by Caroline Lawrence, set in The Roman Empire.
  • The Roman Mystery Scrolls is a sequel to The Roman Mysteries, intended for younger readers.
  • Roma Sub Rosa is a Detective Fiction series by Steven Saylor, about a Private Detective called "Gordianus the Finder." Like the SPQR Series, it takes place during the final years of The Roman Republic.
  • Simon Hawke's Shakespeare And Smythe mystery series includes A Mystery of Errors, The Slaying of the Shrew, Much Ado About Murder, and The Merchant of Vengeance. They're all about William Shakespeare and a friend solving mysteries which bear strong parallels to Shakespeare's.
  • The SPQR Series by John Maddox Roberts follows the sleuthing and political career of Senator Decius Caecilius Metellus during the final years of the The Roman Republic.
  • The Western Mysteries, also known as The PK Pinkerton Mysteries, is a Kid Detective series by Caroline Lawrence set the The Wild West.
  • The Yashim Series by Jason Goodwin is set in Istanbul during the 1830's.

Videogames
  • L.A. Noire takes place in Los Angeles in the forties and even has the option to set the game to monochrome to fit the Film Noir feel.
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Community Feedback Replies: 34
  • January 22, 2013
    randomsurfer
    BrotherCadfael needs a "Literature/" in front of it, to become Brother Cadfael.

    • Edward Marston has written a series of mysteries starring Nicholas Bracewell, the stage manager for a theater company in 1590s London.
    • Groucho Marx, Master Detective and following by Robert Goulart, which portrays Grouch as an Amateur Sleuth in 1930s Hollywood.
    • Simon Hawke wrote a short series of books with a young William Shakespeare and a friend solving mysteries (usually but not always murders) which bear strong parallels to Shakespeare's future plays. The first was A Mystery of Errors.
    • Alan Gordon's "Fool's Guild" series, which follows Feste, the jester from Shakespeare's Twelfth Night.
  • January 22, 2013
    aurora369
    The entire Erast Fandorin cycle of novels, set in Imperial Russia. And sometimes Imperial Japan.
  • January 23, 2013
    Cassis
    Death Comes as the End by Agatha Christie is set in Egypt c. 2000 BC.

    David Liss's series about Benjamin Weaver, ex-boxer and thief-taker, is set in London in the early 1720s; the mysteries revolve around historical subjects such as the South Sea Bubble and the General Election of 1722.
  • January 23, 2013
    IsaacSapphire
    The American Girls series had a spinoff line actually called "American Girls History Mysteries" featuring characters unconnected to their main lines, but having the same little section about the historical part in the back. The main lines have spinoff mysteries too.
  • January 23, 2013
    Xtifr

    eta: I wonder if this shouldn't be called Historical Detective Fiction, to distinguish it from actual historical mysteries, like what happened to Jimmy Hoffa or Judge Crater? Who really killed the the princes in the tower? And that sort of thing.
  • January 26, 2013
    Chabal2
  • January 26, 2013
    Catbert
    I fixed some of the formating.

    Also under Literature

  • January 27, 2013
    Cassis
    Seconding Historical Detective Fiction...

    I've been trying to come up with some non-literary examples. I feel like I've definitely seen comics that fall into this category, but none come to mind at the moment. Maybe Sandman Mystery Theatre? Although I'm not sure how much of that was actual detection.

    Film:

    • The Film Of The Book of The Name of the Rose (1986) has Sean Connery as William of Baskerville, a monk investigating mysterious deaths in a fourteenth-century abbey.

    Live-Action TV:

    • In BBC America's 2012 series/Copper Kevin Corcoran is an Irish immigrant living in the Five Points neighborhood of New York City during the 1860s. He returns from fighting in the American Civil War to find that his daughter is dead and his wife has disappeared. Robert Morehouse, Corcoran's former commanding officer, uses his family's connections to arrange for Corcoran to be appointed a detective in the New York Police Department.

    (Note: I cribbed the Copper description from its TV Tropes page since I don't watch it.)

    What do you think about all the Sherlock Holmes pastiches (or for that matter Sir Peter Wimsey, or any other time-anchored detective)? The originals were set in the then-present, but current additions (barring modernizations like Sherlock and Elementary) are indeed set in the increasingly distant past.
  • January 27, 2013
    Catbert
    Thirding Historical Detective Fiction.

    Literature

    Live Action TV
  • January 27, 2013
    Catbert
    Also, this link provides a rather extensive list of mysteries set in in Ancient Rome.

    To name a few of them:

  • January 27, 2013
    Xtifr
    May be able to find more examples by looking at Historical Fiction (and its sub-pages) and Mystery Fiction (and its subpages), and finding works that appear on both.
  • November 14, 2013
    Catbert
    I am taking this over and will launch within a week. Please add hats and examples.
  • November 14, 2013
    robinjohnson
    Why not History Mystery for the title?
  • November 14, 2013
    Catbert
    Because that might be mistaken for Real Life mysteries that occurred in history, which is how the term is most commonly used.

    Historical Detective Fiction is the pre-existing term for what this covers.

    http://www.goodreads.com/shelf/show/historical-detective-fiction
  • November 14, 2013
    kjnoren
    ^ Because that sounds too much like a mystery on what has happened in history. Historical Myster would work OK but it's still not as unambigious as Historical Detective Fiction.

    ^^ Please hold on with launching until you have the hats - we have severe problems with premature launches right now. The description also stands some improvement.
    When Mystery Fiction meets either Historical Fiction or Period Piece—a mystery set in historical time. This enables the work to draw notice from both aficionados of mysteries and of historical fiction, and the attention to detail that is required in a good mystery can be put to good use in an environment that is both familiar and foreign at the same time. At the same time, this makes good historical mysteries into a very hard genre to master—both historical and mystery fiction are noted as very demanding in the research needed.

    The protagonist in a historical mystery tends to be an Amateur Sleuth, even though investigating crimes is a quite old profession. As an example, the office of the coroner is known since the 12th century in England, even though investigating sudden deaths was only a smal part of their duties then.

    For purposes of this trope, "historical time" can probably be defined as at least 50 years before the time the work was created.

    Examples

    Literature:

    • The Benjamin January books by Barbara Hambly tells the story of a free man of color (also the title of the first book) who investigates crime in the city of New Orleans of the 1830s, between working as a pianist and a surgeon.
    • The Name Of The Rose by Umberto Eco is the perhaps most famous example, being the story of the monk William with his novice sidekick Adso as they visit a famous monastery and investigate several mysterious deaths there.

    TV Series:

    • Life On Mars 2006 is a BBC crime drama, with a detective from 2006 sent back in time to 1973, and explores the cultural differences of 30+ years in great detail.

    (This one is borderline if it should be included.)
  • November 14, 2013
    Catbert
    I don't think it is a good idea to put a strict time limit on what constitutes being old enough to count as Historical Fiction. No one else does. There is no reason that a book written in the 1980's about World War II, for example, would not be considered Historical Fiction, even if there is only 40 years difference.

    Also, whether or not the protagonist tends to be an Amateur Sleuth tends to depend on whether or not the professional detectives were common during the period depicted. For example:

  • November 14, 2013
    Catbert
    By the way, as far as hats goes, it is my observation that while we have sometimes have premature launches, we have also had many a YKTTW draft that has been sitting around for years, are ready to go with good descriptions and plenty of solid examples, but still get ignored by the hat giving public.
  • November 14, 2013
    Catbert
    Life On Mars sounds more science fiction that historical fiction.
  • November 14, 2013
    kjnoren
    ^^^ 40 years was more thought to be a rough guideline, but whatever. The Amateur Sleuth thing was because from my admittedly limited reading of the genre, that type of detective tended to dominate, and thought it worth pointing out.

    ^^ Yes, I'm fully aware of that. But I think that problem shouldn't be solved by trying to bypass the system, making it work or fixing it is better. Bypassing just makes the situation even worse.

    ^ It has elements of both, yes, but I didn't see it enough to have any grounded opinion myself.
  • November 14, 2013
    randomsurfer
    Edited to add a link to the Fools Guild page, and then again because I somehow messed up the title.
  • November 15, 2013
    justanid
    • Chinatown and it's sequel The Two Jakes take place in the 30's near LA.
    • LA Confidential is a mystery that takes place in the 50's Los Angeles.

    • Doctor Who is this sometimes thanks to Time Travel, though mostly just science-fiction.

    • LA Noire takes place in Los Angeles in the forties and even has the option to set the game to monochrome to fit the Film Noir feel.
  • November 15, 2013
    Catbert
    I'm rather disinclined to consider Time Travel stories an example of Historical Fiction, and therefore an example of this subgenre thereof.
  • November 15, 2013
    justanid
    ^ Depends on the work in question. Bill And Ted is almost entirely about Time Travel, while the first & third Back To The Future movies are mostly Historical Fiction.
  • November 15, 2013
    Catbert
    No, not as most people would use the term. Historical Fiction properly defined excludes Science Fiction and Fantasy.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historical_fiction

    "Events portrayed in historical fiction must adhere to the laws of nature."

    "Artistic license is permitted in regard to presentation and subject matter, so long as it does not deviate in significant ways from established history. If events should deviate significantly, the story is likely to be classified as alternate history. "

    "Criteria for a historical fiction novel
    1. Plausibility (reader should feel as though the events in the novel could have really happened)
    2. Authentic setting/characters
    3. Accurate timeline of events that match up with the time period in which it is being written

    Back To The Future has its entire plot driven by unrealistic (and to the best of our knowledge impossible) elements that do not coincide with any historical period.
  • November 15, 2013
    DAN004
    Launch?
  • November 15, 2013
    gallium
    Man, I miss the Fandorin books. I can't believe they stopped translating them.

    Anyway, does Cadfael need to be listed in both TV and Literature?
  • November 15, 2013
    Catbert
    ^^I want to give it a few more days to collect a few more examples.

    Also, Cadefael is being listed twice because we have two distinct pages on it. When this launches, it will double as an index.
  • November 16, 2013
    jatay3
    I think we have enough examples. The only real need is to get rid of the red links.
  • November 16, 2013
    jatay3
    Gallum, I believe I found several Fandorin's in Kindle. They intrigued me enough to put on the wish list.
  • November 16, 2013
    Catbert
    The only way to get rid of red links is for someone to make the articles.
  • November 16, 2013
    Catbert
    Frequent Redlinks

    "Red links for works pages should not be removed. If you are familiar with the work, feel free to launch the page."
  • November 16, 2013
    AgProv
    Andrew Pepper's detective series features Pyke, a policeman turned private investigator, who works in the 1840's, at the time when the new railways are opening up Britain as never before. His first outing is in The Revenge of Captain Paine, in which he investigates murder, sabotage and industrial unrest among the navvies building the railway.
  • November 16, 2013
    gallium
    ^^^@jatay3, they are all great—the problem is that there haven't been any more English translations coming after novel #10. The last three Fandorin novels haven't appeared in English.

    Anyway...

    Film
    • The Black Dahlia (2006) is a fictionalized tale based on the real-life 1947 Elizabeth Short murder. It was adapted from a novel by James Ellroy.
  • November 17, 2013
    Koveras
http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/discussion.php?id=8jbfzgj5331n4qoxonxmms0y