Not Yet, Mrs Robinson

Peter Lovesey on the rise of the historical mystery novel

Mystery readers watch out. Your favourite bookshops are under seige by ancient Egyptians, conquering Romans, mediaeval monks, cloaked Elizabethans and crinolined Victorians. The rise and rise of the historical mystery has been the dominant trend of the last thirty years. Authors like Ellis Peters, Anne Perry and Lindsey Davis achieved bestselling status. Other high profile writers better known for their modern settings — I’m thinking of Ed McBain, Michael Crichton, John Gardner, Colin Dexter and Ken Follett – could not ignore the trend and produced their own history mysteries.

In the days when there were fewer of them I wrote eight Victorian mysteries between 1970 and 1978 and I am often asked what inspired them. The answer is simple: the lure of money. In 1969 I saw an advert for a crime novel competition with a first prize of a thousand pounds, which was about as much as I was earning as a teacher. The script had to be delivered in a little over four months. Not much time for research and plotting. I’d already published a non-fiction book on the history of athletics, so it seemed sensible to write about something I’d already mugged up, a long distance running race in 1878. Tossing in a couple of murders, some steamy sex and Scotland Yard’s finest, I concocted a whodunnit that was different, if nothing else. The title, Wobble to Death, was catchy, and it won the prize.

In the next seven years I wrote a series using Victorian enthusiasms as backgrounds: prizefighting, the music hall, the seaside, inventions, spiritualism, boating and the waxworks. They were dramatised for the TV series Cribb in 1980 and, together with my wife Jax, I wrote six additional TV scripts using the same characters, Sergeant Cribb and Constable Thackeray. I was in serious danger of being pigeon-holed as a history mystery man and nothing else. I started plotting my escape, writing books set rather later in the twentieth century. I suppose they qualified as period pieces, if not what most of us think of as history. One called On the Edge was set in 1946, well within my memory. It took me twenty-one years to break out completely and write my first contemporary crime novel, The Last Detective (1991).

So what is the appeal of the historical mystery? I doubt if I’m qualified to judge. I enjoy writing them, but I don’t read many. I’ve heard it suggested that readers like to escape into the past when so much about the present is depressing. That may be so, but it isn’t obvious to me when I write them. I find I’m more intrigued by things that haven’t changed. It’s amusing to discover that human nature hasn’t altered in thousands of years. The little vanities and the bigger enmities are much the same whether the characters are living in caves or travelling through space.

Take many of today’s hot political topics and you find that people in the past were having to deal with similar problems in their own way. As I write this, the headlines are dominated by drug use in sport. In Wobble to Death, the athletes were taking drugs to improve their performance. The motives were the same, even if the chemistry was different. They pepped up their performance with strychnine; the modern athlete takes something called TGH.

The wider use of drugs in society is not a modern phenomenon. Victorians had their opium dens which were thought iniquitous by respectable people – who took chloral and laudanum as sedatives. The Queen herself was said to have been a cocaine freak, addicted to Marioli’s Cocoa Wine, in which pure coca was the main ingredient.

What else are our newspapers preoccupied with? Terrorism? The Fenian campaign of the 1880s (the basis of Invitation to a Dynamite Party) was quite as serious and scary as the IRA attacks more than a century later. The Fenians succeeded in bombing Scotland Yard, the House of Commons, the Tower of London, Westminster Hall, the Admiralty and Victoria Station.

Another hot topic of today is immigration. Accounts of Irish immigrants being dumped on the English and Welsh coasts by shipmasters after the failure of the potato crops in 1845 and 1846 have a strikingly modern ring to them. And any student of the Jack the Ripper murders of 1888 will confirm that the East End teemed with East European immigrants.

Royal scandals? I got to know Bertie, the fun-loving Prince of Wales, quite well when writing three novels based on the assumption that he would have made a not very competent, but unstoppable detective. Bertie’s situation, wanting responsibility and a hand in the affairs of state, yet compelled to wait, appealed to me. There are parallels with modern royalty that I need not labour here.

One of the delights of weaving history into the mystery is that trivia found in memoirs and biographies can be used to bring colour to the characters and their motives. I like the story of Bertie’s brother, Prince Leopold, having such a crush on Lillie Langtry — the Jerry Hall of her day — that he bought a portrait of her by Frank Miles and hung it over his bed. Queen Victoria spied the drawing and was so scandalised that she climbed on a chair and removed it. I read somewhere else that Victoria in old age achieved the perfect symmetry of fifty-eight inches both in height and waistline. Climbing that chair couldn’t have been easy.

I hope I’ve written enough modern mysteries to ensure that my publishers won’t get more enquiries like the one from a Mrs Robinson in 1981:

Dear Mr Lovesey,

    I have read two or three of your Victorian detective stories about Sergeant Cribb with immense pleasure, but I have not written to thank you because I assumed that you died many years ago. My husband Frank says he thinks you may still be alive. We had quite an argument about it in bed last night. I suppose it does not really matter, but we would be very pleased to have this question cleared up.

    Yours sincerely etc.

    PS Just in case, I enclose a stamped addressed envelope.