Historical Mystery

SE-RART Historical Mystery Discussion

cover of A Morbid Taste for BonesThis summary of the Southeastern Mass. Reader’s Advisory Roundtable meeting at the Sturgis Library in Barnstable has been a long time coming! If you haven’t posted your second title in the subgenre of historical mystery, please do! You may read the list of historical mysteries that have been submitted so far now, too.

We talked about whether historical mysteries fall under the genre of mystery or should they really be considered a subgenre of historical fiction, as some RA guides say. According to Joyce Saricks in The Readers’ Advisory Guide to Genre Fiction, “both Historical Fiction and Mystery readers choose these authors and their books for the details of a particular historical period, as well as for the puzzle and the characters.” This led to comments on how popular historical mysteries set in time periods in and around World War I and World War II are now — such as Anne Perry’s Charles Todd books, Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs books, and the Phryne Fisher books by Kerry Greenwood. About Maisie Dobbs, one member of the group commented that “the mystery is there, but what it’s really about is what life was like after the war.”

 The question of time frame for a book to be considered an historical mystery came up.  One of our readings said 1965 was the cut-off date, but the group decided that even though books that were written as contemporary mysteries may strike readers now as historical, there has to be a deliberate setting of a time that is not contemporary for it to be considered an historical mystery.  Robert B. Parker’s The Godwulf Manuscript was brought up as an example, and it was decided that “classic” does not necessarily mean “historical”.

According to The Mystery Readers’ Advisory, historical mysteries can fall under the categories of “hard-boiled,” “cozy,” or “traditional.” This goes back to readers’ comfort level with the amount, type, and graphic nature of violence in a given book or series.

Interested in reading our secondary reading material yourself? Here’s what we read, in addition to the benchmark title and our second titles:
Charles, John, et al. The Mystery Readers’ Advisory, 2nd ed., pp. 27-30Saricks, Joyce. Readers’ Advisory Guide to Genre Fiction, 2nd ed., pp. 223-26
Public Libraries Online: Jack of All Trades Readers’ Advisory
The Reader’s Advisor Online: Historical Mysteries

Click to see the Discussion Questions on Historical Mystery that we used to talk about the readings. We talked about GoodReads, NoveList, Fantastic Fiction, KDL What’s Next, and the Books and Authors database as sources for reader’s advisory.

The group also had a good discussion of A Morbid Taste for Bones by Ellis Peters (who is a woman, we found out) and talked about why it was chosen as a benchmark title. With the 1977 publication of A Morbid Taste for Bones that launched the popular Brother Cadfael series, Ellis Peters is sometimes called the godmother of the historical mystery subgenre, although historical mysteries have been around much longer.

Click to see A Morbid Taste for Bones Discussion Questions.

We have also posted the Historical Mystery Meeting Agenda from the Feb. 3rd meeting here in case you missed the meeting and want to catch up. New members who are interested in participating may jump in for the April 15th and/or June 8th  meetings. Don’t forget to register!

Thank you to Antonia and the rest of the Sturgis Library staff for hosting the February SE-RART meeting!

Murder in Retrospect (Libraries Unlimited, 2005) by Michael Burgess and Jill H. Vassilakos is a print resource specifically on historical mysteries. It won’t have new releases or new authors covered, but it’s worth checking out for its detailed descriptions of plots and characters. Indexed by author, series, title, major character, and setting, it is available to borrow through some library networks.

RA NEWS: Massachusetts library staff interested in reader’s advisory are invited to join a new Massachusetts Readers Advisory Group on GoodReads formed just recently by the Western Mass. RA Roundtable group. It’s by invitation, so we’ll include the link in our next email to  SE-RART members.


Second Title Suggestions — Historical Mystery

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cover of A Morbid Taste for BonesSuggestions for your second title reading from Miki, or you may choose your own from the historical mystery subgenre:

Mistress in the Art of Death
Ariana Franklin
Medieval Cambridge, 1171. Four children are found murdered in a small English town, and tension rises as townspeople blame the Jewish minority living in the area. Henry II sends a forensics expert to discover the truth, but the female coroner soon discovers that finding the murderer might be the least of her issues.

The Ides of April
Lindsey Davis
First century Rome. Private informer Flavia Albia (who has succeeded her father in the private informer business) must extricate herself from a sticky situation when her very first client winds up dead, with herself as a suspect.

Her Royal Spyness
Rhys Bowen
London, 1930s. Lady Victoria Georgiana Charlotte Eugenie, 34th in line for the throne, finds herself in hot water when she escapes an arranged marriage only to find a corpse in her bathtub.

Mortal Arts
Ann Lee Huber
Scotland, 1830. Artist Lady Kiera Darby reunites with her her fellow investigator—and romantic entanglement—Sebastian Gage as they work to clear the name of an old family friend recently released from an asylum, and accused of murder.

Absolution by Murder
Peter Tremayne
Ireland, 664 AD.  An abbess is murdered, and Sister Fidelma, a legally trained scholar, is asked to investigate. Also on the case is Brother Eadulf, a Roman monk and her ideological opposite. Sparks fly (in an age before celibacy), and the two must solve the case, during an ecclesiastical conclave to settle major divisions between the Roman and Celtic branch of Christianity.

What Darkness Brings
C.S. Harris
Regency England, 1812. Aristocrat Sebastian St. Cyr must navigate murky loyalties and friends with hidden motives in the  London death of a wealthy gem dealer. With the husband of a former flame is accused of murder, St. Cyr brings his newlywed bride along as he works to clear the accused.

Blood on the Water
Anne Perry
Victorian England. The pleasure boat Princess Mary is bombed, and while a disreputable foreign agent is quickly accused and convicted, William Monk quickly determines the man’s innocence. Is the bombing related to the opening of the Suez Canal? Or were 200 people innocent victims in a quest to kill just one? Monk must navigate tricky international waters of finance and intrigue as he races to find the truth, as always accompanied by his wife Hester and friend, barrister Oliver Rathbone.

The Carter Street Hangman
Anne Perry
Victorian England. “While the Ellison girls were out paying calls and drinking tea like proper Victorian ladies, a maid in their household was strangled to death. The quiet and young Inspector Pitt investigates the scene and finds no one above suspicion. As his intense questioning causes many a composed facade to crumble, Pitt finds himself couriously drawn to pretty Charlotte Ellison. Yet, a romance between a society girl and so unsuitable a suitor was impossible in the midst of a murder…”

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie
Alan Bradley
England, 1950. Young Flavia de Luce discovers a series of odd events around her impoverished family estate, not the least of which being the murdered man on her doorstep. As an aspiring chemist, Flavia is both appalled and delighted, life begins in earnest when murder comes to Buckshaw. “I wish I could say I was afraid, but I wasn’t. Quite the contrary. This was by far the most interesting thing that had ever happened to me in my entire life.”

A Fly Has a Hundred Eyes
Aileen Baron
1938 Jerusalem. Europe is on the precipice of World War II, and the region of Palestine is teeming with intrigue. In the midst of all this, American archeologist and student Lily Sampson winds up involved in theft and murder, and when the police seem uninterested in solving the case, Lily takes it upon herself to locate the killer.

The Light in the Ruins
Chris Bohjalian
Tuscany 1943 and Florence 1955. Someone is preying on the Rosati family, and all the clues point to the family’s WWII history where Nazis, Allied soldiers and partisans all gathered on the Rosati family estate to excavate and loot ancient Etruscan ruins.

A Poisoned Season
Tasha Alexander
Late Victorian England. Lady Emily, an unconventional young widow, decides to look further into the theft of a number of  several items once owned by Marie Antoinette.

Flesh of the God
Lauren Haney
18th century BC Egypt. A proud officer in the service of Queen Hatshepsut, it was Lieutenant Bak’s great misfortune to lead his charioteers in a raid of a house of pleasure frequented by Egyptians of very high station. Reassigned for his transgressions, theyoung, untested policeman confronts deceit, treachery, and deadly peril in an ancient and magnificent world.

In the Heat of the Night
John Dudley Ball
The Carolinas, 1965. When a famous Italian conductor is found dead on the side of the road, suspicion immediately falls upon a black man with a wallet full of money, and his arrest at the town train station signifies his guilt to many. However, the black man is Virgil Tibbs, a police detective from Pasadena CA, who makes it his mission to track down the killer, much to the delight of Police Chief Bill Gillespie (who has no gift for detection.) As the tenacious Tibbs begins to hunt down the killer, there are plenty of people in town who prefer that their racial hierarchy remain intact, regardless of the truth.

A Rage in Harlem
Chester Himes
New York City, 1950s. For love of a woman, Jackson surrenders his life savings to a con man who knows the secret of turning ten-dollar bills into hundreds—and then he steals from his boss, only to lose the stolen money at a craps table. Luckily for him, he can turn to his savvy twin brother, Goldy, who earns a living—disguised as a Sister of Mercy—by selling tickets to Heaven in Harlem.  With Goldy, and Harlem detectives Gravedigger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson, all pursuing the grifter gang, payback is guaranteed.

Thirty-Three Teeth
Collin Cotterill
Laos, 1977. Dr. Siri Paiboun of Laos—”reluctant national coroner, confused psychic, [and] disheartened communist”—employs forensic skills and spiritual acumen to solve a series of bizarre killings. However, his scientific acumen puts him at odds with the ruling Communist party, who quickly throw him in jail in order to suppress his autopsy findings, and the political implications that they engender.


Next Meeting of SE-RART is Feb. 3

cover of A Morbid Taste for BonesThe next Southeastern MA Reader’s Advisory Roundtable (SE-RART) meeting will be held on Tuesday, February 3, 2015, 10 a.m. – 12 p.m. at the Sturgis Library, 3090 Main Street, Barnstable. The snow date is Feb. 10.

We will be continuing with our year-long study of the mystery genre with a discussion of the historical mystery subgenre. Everyone attending should read the benchmark title – A Morbid Taste for Bones by Ellis Peters — as well as a second title in the Historical Mystery subgenre. Participants should be prepared to talk about both the benchmark title and your second title in terms of Joyce Saricks’ appeal factors: story, characters, tone, style, and pace.

Registered participants will receive an email with the background readings before the meeting. We will read and discuss Historical Sleuths–Crime Through Time (pp. 27-30) from The Mystery Readers’ Advisory: The Librarian’s Clues to Murder and Mayhem by John Charles, Candace Clark, and Joanna Morrison (ALA, 2002) and Expanding Readers’ Horizons with Whole Collection Readers’ Advisory (pp. 223-226) from The Readers’ Advisory Guide to Genre Fiction, 2nd ed., by Joyce G. Saricks (ALA, 2009), as well as the article Jack of All Trades Readers’ Advisory: How to Learn a Little About a Lot by Rebecca Vnuk on Public Libraries Online.

If you’re looking for ideas for your second title in the new subgenre, we’ve put some here.

This Southeast Reader’s Advisory Roundtable (SE-RART) is open to all library staff members in the southeastern Mass. area. You do not have to be doing reader’s advisory in your current position, as long as you have an interest in it!
Please register for the SE-RART on the Massachusetts Library System website. We plan to meet every other month, October through June — on different days of the week — so feel free to register for any that you can attend. You don’t have to commit to attending all of the meetings to join the group!

All the 2014-5 dates are on the MLS Workshop Registration calendar and here on the blog.

The SE-RART group is still new, so we’re all learning as we go. Thank you to the Sturgis Library folks for offering to host the February meeting!

Don’t forget to register!

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