Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Surprises in historical mysteries, or, "Hey, those folks are just like us"

I've just read a story that raises questions of Larger Significance, as stories sometimes will. The story is Anthony Price's "The Boudicca Killing," in the Winter's Crimes 11 anthology, published in 1979, and it has everything a short story ought to have, including a surprise ending and a double-edged title. That title is a key to the surprise as well as a reminder that crime fiction can bring history alive.

The killing in question is financial (though the story is full of references to killings of the more literal kind, as befitting a tale of events occasioned by a famous revolt). The action begins with suspicions arising from a Roman speculator's huge gains in Britain at a time when everyone else was losing money.

Now, I suspect that most people don't associate ancient Rome with finances, speculation, investments, syndicates and allegations of insider trading, yet here they are, believably presented in fictional form. I don't know the Roman empire's financial history, but a quick search for "Boudicca's revolt" yields numerous references to the calling in of loans, so the connection is plausible. And, boom! Thanks to a short piece of crime fiction, I may think about the Romans a bit more realistically from now on.

And now, your questions: What historical crime fiction made you think: "Wow, I didn't realize they did that back then"? More broadly, what historical crime fiction left you feeling you had been taught some history?

(Read Tacitus' account of Boudicca's rebellion here. Also, "The Boudicca Killing" appeared in the UK in 1979, at the dawn of the Margaret Thatcher era. Its clear-eyed discussion of speculation as well the hand-rubbing glee of its last line lead me to suspect strongly that the author was commenting on what he suspected was about to happen. Any comments, British readers?)

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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9 Comments:

Blogger Linkmeister said...

Surely some Dutch author has attempted a story around the tulip craze of a couple of centuries ago.

February 12, 2008  
Blogger Peter said...

I don't know about tulips, but David Liss wrote a marvelous novel called The Coffee Trader whose subjects include manipulation of the seventeenth-century commodity trade in coffee.

February 12, 2008  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

Just from memory did not Alexandre Dumas write a book called The Black Tulip?
I also remember a book someone wrote about the De Witt brothers in 17th century Holland.
The Coffee Trader was brilliant as was A Conspiracy of Paper another David Liss novel.
Boris Akunin's Turkish Gambit about the Siege of Plevna in 1877, and Roger Miller's St Petersburg mysteries are very informative.

February 12, 2008  
Blogger pamos1949 said...

There is substantial book of essays on this subject -- The Detective as Historian: History and Art in Historical Crime Fiction, edited by Browne, Kreiser and Winks, published by Bowling Green State University Popular Press,2000. It comprises some two dozen essays, including pieces on Elizabeth Peters, Ellis Peters, Tremayne, Doherty, Tey, Eco, Cabel Carr, Margaret Frazer, and such. Robin Winks is a distinguished American historian who has also written a book entitled The Historian as Detective, also an intriguing work. I tend to be a bit leery of historical fiction of any sort, but I suspect too much so. Not a few writers of historical crime fiction, such as Peter Tremayne and Elizabeth Peters, have an academic grounding in the periods of which they write, sometimes a rather distinguished one, and I have to say that the writers who do not are nevertheless assiduous indeed in their research. Of course, that goes for nothing if the plotting, characterization and writing are below par, but there are no such problems and there are things to learn in Tremayne, Jecks, Elizabeth Peters, Frazer, Eco, Lovesey, and quite a few more.

February 12, 2008  
Blogger Peter said...

Uriah, you've solved one mystery already. I had not heard of The Black Tulip, but there was a restaurant in Montreal (there might still be) called La Tulipe Noire. I always liked the name, but I never knew its origin. From what I remember of Dutch history, the De Witt brothers might make a good, scandalous murder case.

Pamos, I've also been leery about crime fiction for reasons I've written about several times here. Chief among these is apprehension that the stories will not achieve a delicate balance between narrative and historical interest. I've just dugout a copy of The Historian as Detective that I bought some time ago at a second-hand bookshop. I may make it the day's reading. I had not heard of The Detective as Historian. That will obviously be a must-look-into for me. Thanks for mentioning it.

Peter Tremayne falls into that category of historical surprises, especially for the rights women enjoyed until Irish law in the seventh century and for abbeys where both men and women lived. I'd never have known about those aspects of Irish and Christian history if not for his historical crime fiction.

February 12, 2008  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Ha! My library has Historian as Detective available for checkout, so I just reserved it. Sounds like a good read. Thanks.

February 12, 2008  
Blogger Peter said...

I was flipping through the introduction today, and I very much like the editor's stated reason for compiling the book. It does have a serious message, though, and I may be able to draw a connection with a crime novel I read recently. If I do, that connection will find its way into a comment.

February 13, 2008  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

From wikpedia re The Black Tulip.

It is nice to know my memory is only partially amiss after reading this book 45-50 years ago.


The story begins with an historical event — the 1672 lynching of the Dutch Grand Pensionary (roughly equivalent to a modern Prime Minister) Johan de Witt and his brother Cornelis, by a wild mob of their own countrymen — considered by many as one of the most painful episodes in Dutch history, described by Dumas with a dramatic intensity.

The main plot line, involving fictional characters, takes place in the year and a half after; only gradually does the reader understand its connection with the foregoing killing of the de Witt brothers.

The city of Haarlem in The Netherlands has set a prize of 100,000 guldens to the person who can grow a black tulip.

This begins a competition between the country's best gardeners to win the money, the honour and fame.

The young and bourgeois Cornelius van Baerle has almost succeeded, when he suddenly is thrown into the Loevestein prison. There he meets the prison guard's beautiful daughter Rosa, who shall be his comfort and help, and at last his rescuer.


It was originally published in three volumes in 1850 as La Tulipe Noire by Baudry (Paris).

February 13, 2008  
Blogger Peter said...

Hmm, there is a Van Baerlestraat in Amsterdam. Is the character a historical figure?

The Dutch did have a way of treating admirable figures badly ... well, the De Witts and Johan van Oldenbarneveld, at any rate. A painting in the Rijksmuseum depicts the latter's persecutors as a pack of animals.

Perhaps I shall do some botanical research. Did anyone really try to grow such a black tulip?

February 13, 2008  

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