The Changing Face of Historical Mysteries: Jane Austen, Victorian England & WWII New York

When we opened the store in 1992, Ellis Peters was finishing a long run with Brother Cadfael (the series was written between 1977 and 1994), and Anne Perry was deep into her “Pitt” series, which she began in 1979, though her Monk series didn’t begin until 1990. But as far as historical mystery went, those two ladies were pretty much it. And then, almost growing up with us as a business, came writers like Sharan Newman (her first Catherine LeVendeur novel came out in 1993), Candace Robb (the first Owen Archer novel in 1993), Margaret Frazer (Dame Frevisse made her debut in 1992), Kate Ross (Cut to the Quick was published in 1993) and Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell series hit the streets in 1994. I have grown fond over the years of both the books and the people behind Dame Frevisse, Owen Archer and Catherine LeVendeur; happily, there’s a gigantic medieval congress in Kalamazoo every May and the authors began to trickle over to Ann Arbor and Aunt Agatha’s back in the mid 90’s.

At first our Mother’s Day events (for this is always the weekend of the Congress) drew very few visitors—I still remember Candace Robb’s first signing with us for The Apothecary Rose. Sparsely attended would be a kind description. Once, early on, I e-mailed Sharan Newman that I expected at least two people for her event and she e-mailed back: “Good. We can play bridge.” Things have changed over the years!

As the books grew more popular—and people perhaps got used to our Mother’s Day event—more and more people began to turn up to see the ladies. In any case, I feel somewhat invested in their careers, and along the way, I’ve became an avid fan, not just of these three ladies (though they are three of the best) but of historical mystery fiction in general, which has simply exploded, and is as varied as Charles Todd, Jacqueline Winspear, Rhys Bowen, Cordelia Frances Biddle, Victoria Thompson, P.B. Ryan—I could go on. It’s a long and interesting list. Our Mother’s Day guests, Tasha Alexander, Carrie Bebris, and Kathryn Miller Haines, are part of the new wave of historical crime fiction.

Tasha Alexander (A Fatal Waltz) is three books in to her Lady Emily Ashton series, a series that can best be described as delectable. In the first novel (And Only to Deceive) Lady Emily has been very recently widowed—to a man she felt she hardly knew. Interestingly, as she learns more and more about him after his death, she truly falls in love with him, and she begins to grieve for him in earnest. At the same time she’s pursued by two suitors, one of whom, Colin Hargreaves, is her fiancee by the time the third novel, A Fatal Waltz, rolls around. I also felt Alexander had deepened as a writer by the third novel, and I was more caught by Lady Emily in this outing than I was in the first book. She’s come into herself more, and is a more interesting character.

In A Fatal Waltz Lady Ashton is a guest at an awkward house party where she has gone with her now fiancee, Colin Hargreaves, but finds to her dismay that not only is her host (and her fiancee’s mentor) Lord Fortescue, openly hostile to her, Colin’s former flame in the person of the beautiful, brave and intelligent Baroness Kristiana Von Lange is also in attendance. This double whammy—Lord Fortsecue is a powerful man, and Kristiana misses no chance to point out to Colin Emily’s naivete and youth—reduces the usually sparky Emily to a more or less quiet spectator; she whiles away the house party cataloguing some of the art objects that Lord Fortescue possesses.

Even reading a brief review of these proceedings should make it obvious that the unpleasant Lord Fortescue is begging to be murdered—and when he is indeed killed by a dueling pistol while out with the hunting party—the suspicion unfortunately falls on the husband of Emily’s friend Ivy. Ivy is almost incapacitated by grief and it is Emily, returning to her former strength, who agrees to go to Vienna to stay with her friend Cecile and try and find any clues that might help free Ivy’s husband Robert, who is now in prison.

While the first two books took place in London, the real fin de siecle glamour was going on in Vienna, and Alexander manages to capture the flavor of winter in that lovely and sophisticated city beautifully.

While Colin turns up from time to time, it turns out to be the Baroness who gives Emily the most help, but along the way Alexander sets the scene of 1860’s Vienna by inserting some real life characters—artist Gustav Klimnt and the Empress Elisabeth—that make the whole thing feel more authentic. The Empress Elisabeth, a celebrated beauty, is at the moment reeling from grief herself over the death of her only son at Mayerling, where he and his mistress were found dead in an apparent murder-suicide. This is a famous enough incident to tickle your mind and keep your thoughts percolating as you read.

More masterfully, Alexander manages to weave believable emotion into her characters, and to continue to flesh out the interesting Lady Ashton. I’m even looking forward to her upcoming marriage to Colin, something that in a series can sometimes spoil the tension, but this series seems well set up for these two characters to work as a team. Oh, and the description of gowns, art and furniture are never in the way. It’s part of the reason I read historical fiction—I like to go to another place and time, and to have a good picture of it as I read.

Carrie Bebris (Pride and Prescience) has an interesting premise for her novels. While she’s not speaking in the voice of Jane Austen, as Stephanie Barron does, she has instead taken one of literature’s most beloved characters, Elizabeth Bennet, and dared to tell a story from the point of view of Mr. and Mrs. Darcy, as her books take off where Pride and Prejudice ends. In general I’m not a big fan of this idea—Elizabeth Bennet is pretty sacred territory, as is Austen herself, but Bebris nevertheless manages to deliver an entertaining and compelling read that didn’t have me grinding my teeth in irritation. (And frankly, it’s kind of nice to imagine what might have happened to Darcy and his bride after the wedding). Besides, as I heard Stephanie Barron mention at a panel, people actually come up to her and ask if Jane Austen was a real person. In my opinion, then, Barron and Bebris are both delivering a more than valuable public service.

Unlike the present Austen-and-the-Zombies take-off, Bebris has her own voice, pacing, and narrative skill which she utilizes to the full. While you never think it’s Austen herself writing the words, the characters are so vivid you’ll definitely find yourself lost in a good story. Mr. and Mrs. Darcy, it turns out, have shared a double wedding with Elizabeth’s sister and Darcy’s best friend, Bingley. Bingley’s sister, Caroline—who as anyone will remember from reading Pride and Prejudice—is a fairly unpleasant and selfish person, decides to use the Darcy/Bingley wedding reception as a chance to announce her own engagement. The Darcys obligation to attend the wedding puts off their arrival at Elizabeth’s new home, Darcy’s beloved Pemberly.

Caroline Bingley—quickly Mrs. Parrish—soon proves to be behaving oddly, and her behavior ties together the Darcys, the Bingleys and the Parrishes as they all try and figure out what’s happening to Caroline and how to help her. In addition there’s a mysterious carriage accident and more seriously a fire, events that have Elizabeth suspicious and helping the lone policeman in charge to question the suspects. When a murder is discovered in the wake of the fire, and Caroline’s behavior becomes ever more peculiar, the tension as well as the action ratchets up. What’s brilliant, I think, is that Bebris is able to construct a locked room mystery with a limited pool of suspects and enfold it into the classic Austen paradigm of romance. The realities of “happily ever after” are Bebris’ more modern touch, but one imagines that Jane Austen, a clear-eyed observer of human nature, would have been able to see similar chinks in the perfection of marital happiness. Bebris tells her story in a brisk and engaging way that had me flipping the pages quickly to find out whodunnit.

I remember finishing Pride and Prejudice as a teenager and being late to the dinner table. When my grandmother asked me why I was late, I told her, and she asked in an exasperated fashion: “Oh, for heaven’s sake, don’t you know what happens?” Reading P & P for the first time, no, I didn’t; and Bebris had me just as stumped—and as engaged in her story.

Kathryn Miller Haines (The Winter of Her Discontent) is the comedienne of this bunch, and her highly original books featuring struggling actress Rosie Winter, set vividly in WWII New York, are as funny as they are clever. Haines, an actress herself, brings a real verisimilitude to the theatrical scenes, and there’s a scene in this book where Rosie tries out for the Corps de Ballet that’s so funny it had me chuckling out loud at the store. Lots of people asked what I was reading.

Here’s the first line: “Some guys brought you flowers; Al brought meat.” In that line, Haines shows all her strengths—she’s concise, she’s funny, and here in a simple sentence are the themes of the book. Al is in the mob (a central component) and meat rationing is remarked on frequently and ends up being a major plot point. Rosie rejects the meat—she’s sure it’s illegally gotten gains—and gives it to her landlady instead. Unfortunately Al soon ends up in prison, charged with killing his girlfriend, an actress named Paulette Monroe. Rosie and her roommate Jayne have two reactions: one, Al is innocent, and two, someone is going to get Paulette’s part in her present play, and it might as well be Rosie or Jayne.

Both things prove problematic. Their nemesis, the talented, beautiful and nasty Ruby, snags the part before they can even get to the theater, and Al isn’t talking. Worse, he maintains that he’s guilty. Jayne and Rosie try out for the corps de ballet and both are hired. Then the real fun begins. Haines’ book is a skillful mixture of theater, character, and WWII detail. She makes the canteen—where soldiers went to have a drink and a dance—come alive. You almost wish you, too, were living through the war if it meant you could hang out at the canteen and listen to Artie Shaw and Bennie Goodman in person. Details aside, though, the reality of the war—the incredible numbers of casualties, a constant in the paper and on the radio—deliver the heartbreak without too much sentimentality on the part of the author. It’s simply unnecessary. Even more heartbreakingly many of the girls who dance with the soldiers know what they’re doing is in the nature of a “last favor.” They’re sure pilots, especially, will never be heard from again, and it’s extra hard for Rosie, whose ex has disappeared though he’s presumed dead.

The play progresses, Al’s guilt is picked away at by Rosie and Jayne, and the horrors of Ruby’s love life are laid bare as Haines wends her entertaining way toward a conclusion. These books are both delightful and original—happy reading.