This Book Shall Remain Nameless

Or: How Not To Write An Historic Mystery Novel

There are no real "rules" for writing a novel. More to the point, any rules there might be can be freely broken, but the risk is that such breakage ruins the reader's enjoyment and/or simply doesn't work.

Famous exception: James Joyce's Ulysses, though later scholarship indicates that perhaps he never meant to do his "stream of consciousness" in the final product, but that the book (unfinished) which remained really was just that: a stream of consciousness set of notes for a final book. Still, it has challenged and intrigued readers the world over, and intended it not, it worked, at least for most readers.

It remains true, however, that when we sit down to a novel we have a certain set of expectations, especially when the novel we're reading is advertised as a genre: detective story, whodunit, romance, historic fiction, fictionalized biography, etc. Skilled writers might deviate slightly from the established pattern of each genre, but it can only be described as akin to sitting down to a steak dinner to have it taste like oatmeal. Oatmeal may be fine if that's what you're expecting. But.

So it was when I decided to give my readerly self a little break from too much thinking and analysis and enjoy what looked like an historic (specifically Scottish) mystery with a female protagonist.

For the most part, these types of books contain the following elements: a spooky manor or castle; a plucky heroine with unusual talent, an anachronistic independence, mysterious or sad past or some other unique characteristic; a brooding (or crotchety old) laird; a scheming wealthy female neighboring peer; a true romantic hero (he and the brooding laird may be one and the same); a gristly murder or two, and a lot of local color: accents, countryside and quaint villagers, meals, clothing and customs, and a dollop or six of historic context. For that reason, such novels are often set in the most compelling periods of Scottish history (and of course, this applies to almost any historic mystery - whether it's set in London, Philadelphia, or Paris).

Imagine my disappointment when I indulged myself in such a novel - set in Edwardian times, a not particularly interesting period of Scottish history - in an Agatha Christie-like setting of a house party, attended by what seemed to be a lot of English lords and ladies, who end up stuck at the house following a murder (without even a generous second murder to help it along and create a little suspense) until the "procurator fiscal" can arrive to set matters right. At least the writer got the name of the official correct.

The heroine is far too modern - and not the least bit conflicted about her talent for dissecting dead bodies and painting them. Her supposed possible guilt is patently impossible as there isn't even a hint that she really might be the murderer - even for the assembled party. There is no obvious suspect who will be proven not-so-obvious in the end. There are no twists and turns, surprises or chapters that leave the reader hanging and therefore determined to read at least one more chapter to get to the bottom of the red herring. Never once did I say to myself: I know who it was! Worse, I didn't care.

But while all of these failings might be true of any mystery worthy of the name, what was truly unforgivable was the one that sets an historic novel apart and gives it its true charm.

Details. Detail, details, details. Have the lady dress for the day and describe her clothing, its color and fabric and why she is wearing this particular ensemble (she is going riding versus down to tea) rather than that. What did they eat? What are the rooms like, and how large a house are we in? Is it a beautifully appointed modernized country mansion, or a castle with forbidden wings and dark and drafty passageways and mysterious staircases? What is the pace of the day, and what is our heroine's place in the social order? If she has interests that go against her social status, what is the reaction of those around her other than a vague disapproval?

Accents and speech patterns are de rigeur. (I can't help laughing when a character in a film epic set in ancient Rome says "Ok," or "Really?") These are the first and foremost indicator that you, the reader, are, for a time, in another time and place. A more formal language, accents among the lower born versus the upper, the proper name for each type of carriage and means of addressing one another are needed to lull us into our temporary, fictional world.

What else is happening in the broader world? Yes, by their nature such novels aren't strictly speaking historic novels that seek to place fictional characters in a dramatic period of history and examine the more sweeping events of that time through the eyes of our main characters, but what is happening that might be of interest to our characters? If our heroine's unusual bent is for dissecting bodies and painting what she sees, what is the state of medicine at this time, and the attitudes toward its pursuit?

In this particular book, there was no hint of Scotland other than the fact that we were told that's where we are - otherwise, it might have been any country home in any country. The sense of period was limited to the occasional "smoothing of skirts." Our hero is vaguely described as inappropriately handsome and blonde, and I was left with an impression of an early day hair band singer. He pouted a little, but very little else is known about him - and not in a deep, mysterious way (who is this handsome stranger, why is he here, what secrets is he harboring?) but just in a matter of fact "he's just a prop" sort of way.

Had the book been modern fiction set in any house party on a well-to-do estate (there wasn't even anything particularly British about it), it might have been so-so ok for a rainy afternoon's read. The writer hints that her hero and heroine will be brought together again, "sooner than she could have expected." I'm guessing I won't be there.


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