Sylvia Dixon, who knows a thing or two about historical crime stories and who blogs for Crimesquad, traces the history of the genre and shares her favourite historical detectives, finding a place for a certain Jim Stringer, railway detective …
I love detective stories. I love history. What could be better than to combine the two into historical crime fiction?
For those writers who are setting their stories in the past, a vital part of the writing process must be the research into the historical background of the story. Readers like accuracy (or at least an acknowledgement of where the story deviates from the fact), and an insight into past lives is part of the enjoyment.
There are many historical ‘detectives’ out there – although of course it is only in more recent history that these sleuths became the police detectives or private eyes we recognise today. Roman examples included the incomparable Marcus Didius Falco from Lindsay Davis, and medicus Gaius Petreius Ruso from R. S. Downie. Members of religious orders are well represented as detectives in the Middle Ages – probably as they were among the few educated people. Ellis Peter’s Brother Cadfael was the first that I enjoyed, and his wisdom and common sense, together with a knowledge of herbal lore and especially the quirks of human nature, set a high standard. Since then I’ve encountered William of Baskerville in Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose, P. C. Doherty’s Brother Athelstan, Susanna Gregory’s Matthew Bartholomew and Sister Fidelma created by Peter Tremayne, all of which have been a source of enjoyment.
Tudor times are great for detective fiction. The era is fraught with religious tensions, people are worried about treason at home and abroad, and famous spymasters such as Walsingham and Cecil employ men to track down traitors and murderers on behalf of the monarch. Into this hotbed of uncertainty steps Matthew Shardlake, lawyer, freethinker and investigator. He has become one of our most loved detectives, as he travels through C. J. Sansom’s brilliantly described Tudor England. S. J. Parris’ Giordano Bruno, philosopher and spy, is another exciting character in the age of Elizabeth. Then there’s Rory Clement’s John Shakespeare, who cannot be ignored.
A particular favourite of mine is the feisty Mrs Harriet Westerman in Imogen Robertson’s series set in the eighteenth century. Yet a hundred years later we have detectives who, from our perspective, are set in historical times, but who, when they were written, were contemporary with the writer. Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Wilkie Collins’ Woman in White would go on to become the forerunners of our present day detective stories.
Jim Stringer: Railway Detective
The nearer to the present that the tale is set, the more information is available, and the more likely that any inaccuracies will be pounced on. It is therefore part of the charm of Andrew Martin’s railway detective, Jim Stringer, that the background knowledge and enthusiasm for railways that the author has is used to provide an accurate and fascinating backdrop for the stories.
Stringer doesn’t start off as a detective but simply someone who needs to know the truth. His success and determination to find the truth leads him into the business of railway detective, and the onset of the First World War and his enlistment develop his career further. Bravery and determination lead to his promotion. This chimes in well with his wife’s ambition to see him rise in the world. The character develops book by book, but throughout Jim’s overriding passion is the railway. Not only that, but Jim’s wife is a feisty independent lady with her own ideas for their future. A supporter of the co-operative movement and women’s suffrage, she nevertheless is determined that Jim will get on in life.
I love these books for their very masculine insight into the world of a family in the early twentieth century, for Jim Stringer’s wry humour, for the very distinctive voice that Jim has as he comments on life and his fellow men. His comments throw a light on the attitudes to class in the early twentieth century.
I have touched on a few of my favourite historical crime fiction writers. Andrew Martin is definitely one to put on the list.
The Baghdad Railway Club