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Thursday, 25 November 2010

Genre Overview - Historical Crime

"After writing some thirty books or more I find writing historical mysteries to be the greatest challenge of all, especially those set in the early medieval period, such as my John Crowner series." Bernard Knight.

Most periods of history have been tackled at one time or another by the scores of historical crime writers out there - From ancient Rome in the entertaining Lindsey Davies novels, to ancient Greece in the works of Margaret Doody. There are crime novels set during the American Civil War and some set in prehistoric times. Roman Britain has been explored in the works of Rosemary Row and the streets of Victorian London brought to life by countless writers.

Perhaps the best known of all historical crime writers is the late Ellis Peters with her hugely entertaining Cadfael series. The character of Cadfael himself is a Welsh Benedictine monk living at Shrewsbury Abbey, in western England, in the first half of the 12th century. The historically accurate stories are set between about 1135 and about 1145, during "The Anarchy", the destructive contest for the crown of England between King Stephen and Empress Maud.

Historical Crime  is a sub-genre of historical fiction which bears elements of the classical mystery novel, in which the central plot involves a crime (almost always a murder) and the setting has some historical significance. One of the big areas of debate within the community of fans is what makes a given setting historical. Most (but not all) agree that it should involve a time before the book was published. But how much before? 25 years? 50 years? 100 years? All have their proponents. Others think the setting should be X number of years before the author's lifetime, or before the readers' lifetime. There's also a lot of debate over how much historical accuracy is required to make a given setting historical rather than fantasy or alternate history or really just a modern story in fancy dress. While there has to be some elements of real life history to the setting under most definitions, the "detective" may be a real-life historical figure, eg. Socrates, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens,Mozart, or a wholly imaginary character.

"Writing historical fiction is a lot of fun. The research involved in producing medieval mysteries is exciting and absorbing and it seems that however much I do there is always more to learn." Susanna Gregory

I myself have dipped my toes into the historical fiction pond - my novel A Policeman's Lot is set in the year 1904 in South Wales and features such historical figures as Buffalo Bill Cody and Jack the Ripper. How does that come about? Well read the book and find out but I will say that my answer to the Ripper murders is credible and has never been done before. I'm proud of that...and you know I may just be right. It's certainly an answer that comes out of left field but I won't give it away here - check out the book and discover for yourself.

Possibly the first full-length historical whodunnit. was written by Agatha Christie, the Queen of Crime herself when she set Death Comes to an End in ancient Egypt. So what is the appeal of historical crime fiction? Well I'll counter the question with another question, what is the appeal of any genre?

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