I should be at the Tucson Festival of Books today, talking books with fellow readers and writers. Instead, due to Coronavirus, the festival was cancelled, and like most of you, I’m hunkering down at home. However, one of my panels had an advance copy of our questions from our moderator, David Nix. The show must go on, right? So, I’ve asked my fellow panelists to answer some of the questions, and I’m posting a virtual panel! This is a little longer than my usual post, so take a seat, and imagine yourself in sunny Tucson, Arizona, surrounded by thousands of book lovers.
I give you the Then and Now panel.
First I’d like to ask each of you why do you choose to write historical mysteries and thrillers instead of mysteries set in contemporary settings.
Iona Whishaw: I think, quite simply, I like the idea of people having little recourse to technology. There is something intriguing and atavistic about people having to use their wits. There are things they cannot not know easily. If they are up a mountain and their horse has bolted, they can’t look for cell phone bars and get someone to come get them. It is a people and resourcefulness-driven world. Relationships between people become the central coin of the narrative, and in a past with no portable technology (ok, flashlights and guns) people must deal with each other more directly.
Rosemary Simpson: I’ve always loved to read historical fiction, including historical mysteries. The research is engrossing and recreating authentic settings and characters an enormous challenge. I think that if you are going to spend up to a year working on a book, it should be set in a time, place, and social structure that you really enjoy. I may live in the modern era, but I can write in a past of my choosing!
Dianne Freeman: Historical fiction is the genre I most love to read because it takes me to a world I can’t visit in reality. I can travel to London, but not Victorian era London. I’ve always been a history buff and with each book I write, I learn more about the era. It’s like time travel.
How and why did you choose the era and locations you write about in your newest books?
Rosemary Simpson: DEATH BRINGS A SHADOW is the fourth book in the Gilded Age Mystery series. The first book, WHAT THE DEAD LEAVE BEHIND, was set in March 1888 in New York City, which was really the center of the extravagant lifestyle that has come to be called the Gilded Age. By the time of DEATH BRINGS A SHADOW, we have moved on to May of 1889. Each book, in addition to being a mystery, also has a social issue as one of its themes. I chose to take Prudence and Geoffrey to a sea island off the coast of Georgia because the isolation of the island reflects the lack of fundamental change in the everyday lives of its inhabitants nearly a quarter century after the end of the Civil War.
Dianne Freeman: The Countess of Harleigh mysteries are set in London in 1899. The time and place came from my fascination with the transatlantic marriages between American heiresses and British lords during the last quarter of the 19th century. Hundreds of new-money millionaires traded their daughters, and large amounts of cash, for titles, by marrying them into the British aristocracy. This didn’t strike me as the basis for a happy marriage. The dowry was handed over to the husband, who often left his new bride at his country home, while he returned to his bachelor ways. I wanted my protagonist to be one of those heiresses, and the time to be about ten years after the exchange of title for cash. What could possibly go wrong?
Iona Whishaw: Post war Canada was almost a fluke for me…I wouldn’t have said I was that interested in the period before I started. I was born in 1948, just after the period I write about, so my parents and other even older people I knew had lived in that period and even in the period of the first war, so it is at once familiar and exotic to me. I started my first book simply as a way to imagine my own mother, unmarried, and thrilling to the purchase of her first house in her new country.
At the moment we are surrounded by people who are struggling with their experiences of having been at war, and I was interested in what that would have meant for people who’d just come out of the Second World War. We have of course heard that my parent’s generation is called the ‘greatest generation’. And while probably in reality not particularly better than gens before or after, there was an agreeable lack of what my mother would call ‘fuss’. She herself had experience doing espionage during the war, but it was simply something she knew to be her job. She had skills of languages, and unbelievable courage and charm to spare, and she was asked to use it on behalf of her country. When the war was over, it was relegated to a job she had done, the way my father having been a bomber pilot was. It was duty. I think people tend to think that women of the pre-“liberation: period must have been victims of the sexist laws and restrictions placed on their choices, but the women I knew thought feeling sorry for themselves was rubbish, and simply went about doing what they wanted. I know that is not true for every woman; my mother belonged to a relatively affluent well-educated British cohort, but she never believed in making herself a victim of anything.
And finally, post war Canada has proved, as I have continued the narrative over 7 books, to be full of intriguing material including, for example, being chock-a-block with Soviet spies.
Please tell us how the era in which you locate your mystery comments upon and illuminates the present, especially gender roles, racial stratification, issues of marriage, divorce, sexuality and economic dependency for women.
Dianne Freeman: The Victorian era brought a great deal of social change, but it didn’t always apply to every class. In England, the 1880s introduced laws that allowed women to own property in their own right. Acquiring that property in the first place was the hard part, particularly among the upper crust, the status of my protagonist. Working for a living was a middle-class lifestyle, beneath the aristocracy. Men could get away with it to some extent. Men needed something to occupy their minds and challenge them, as long as it didn’t interfere with their social obligations. Women were still expected to be satisfied with domestic pursuits and allow their families; husbands, fathers, sons, to take care of them. If an aristocratic woman let it be known she worked for a living, she was both accusing her family of neglect, and being “mannish,” a double whammy. Society wouldn’t put up with such eccentricity and the woman would likely be dropped from many invitation lists and lose her social standing. Having said that, prominent women of the day headed many charitable and social organizations, showing they clearly had the skills, but they didn’t earn an income from this work.
Iona Whishaw: I was surprised to see how utterly relevant those issues as I cover them in books taking place during and after the second world war are today, and how they resonate with readers. In particular the role of women in society and within their families. In spite of the massive legal advances in the status of women, issues of domestic abuse, unequal treatment, and pay disparities continue. By the same token, I want to make the point that there were very ‘liberated’, strong independent women in those times. I knew them, from my own mother on, these were women of prodigious courage, intelligence and action. As well, one of my books deals with the callous and often abusive treatment of the Home Children, who were children who were scooped off the poverty-stricken streets of big English cities and sent to ‘better lives’ in places like Canada and Australia. In fact, the callous treatment of children who come into care, or indeed, arrive at the border, is as alive today as it was in the historical settings I depict. And finally, of course, the adaptation that are of necessity made by immigrants or refugees to a new country continue to be familiar across the many decades.
By the same token, I think it is important to depict the past with balance and fullness. I was once quite vociferously challenged when I was on a panel that it was unfair to have the ‘bad guy’ have the bad attitudes, and that things like racism were rampant…racism was certainly more open and accepted as the norm than it might be today, but then as now, there were people who did not have those attitudes.
I received a wonderful letter recently about my treatment of a gay couple in my fourth book, expressing gratitude for how the story was told. My point is, that even in an England where the police hunted down and persecuted homosexuals as they did during and after the war, there were policemen who were not inclined to do that and would rather concentrate on serious crime, and I wanted that story to be told as well.
Rosemary Simpson: One of the attractions of writing about the Gilded Age is that it was a period of rapid change throughout all aspects of American society. It was a time of invention, political upheaval, enormous wealth contrasting with deep poverty, mass immigration and the phenomenal growth of cities, immense industrialization, sprawling public transportation, and the growing demand by women for equality before the law. Think telephone, electricity, and the automobile, just to name three of the many things that changed daily life forever. Any era that embodies that kind of transformation also entails the conflict of social transformation and reordering. I find it mirrors many things that are happening today. And where you have social conflict you have a fertile field for the mystery author to plow.
What can you accomplish in an historical mystery that you can’t in a contemporary mystery?
Iona Whishaw: I think really allowing people to ‘get away’. Mystery fiction is by its nature escapist, and I think historical fiction is even more escapist. The world pummels us with anxiety producing information every minute of every day. Being able to get away to a simpler world is a boon. So while I take great care that any historical facts I use are as accurate as they can be, I still like to place readers in a world where they can be truly entertained and comforted. In fact, I receive numerous letters from readers who in particular use my books to get away, however briefly from the difficult stresses in their own lives.
Rosemary Simpson: I think one of the most important contributions of an historical mystery is that if the research is accurate and liberties are not taken with the events and personalities of the period, the reader learns a great deal about a past that she might not have explored otherwise. It’s a completely painless history lesson that entertains as well as instructs. There is also the challenge of solving a mystery when the protagonist cannot depend on modern technology such as DNA testing and instant communication.
Dianne Freeman: Crime fiction is always a social commentary. When it takes place in another time, it allows us into the lives of the people who lived in that time and shows us their hopes, fears, vices, and virtues. It’s time travel through reading.
Iona Whishaw was born in 1948 to English parents in British Columbia and brought up in Mexico and the US. She worked as a youth worker, taught high school and served for 16 years as a high school administrator in Vancouver, Canada. She earned a Masters of Arts degree in creative writing from UBC and was the recipient of the YWCA Women of Distinction in Education award and a Canada’s Top Principals award. Her first work was a children’s book, Henry and the Cow Problem, and because she has loved mysteries since her early love affair with Nancy Drew, she has recently embarked on a well-reviewed period mystery series beginning with A Killer In King’s Cove and Death In The Darkening Mist. The books are set in 1946 in a charming backwater community in BC that the author lived in as a child. It is a community that cannot, alas, escape the press of the wider darker forces of the world and the effects of the war they have just come through. Her main character is based to no small extent on her own mother who engaged in espionage during WW2, and provided a life of travel and high adventure for her daughter. Her next book in the series, A MATCH MADE FOR MURDER, releases in April.
Rosemary Simpson is the author of two standalone historical mysteries and the Gilded Age Mystery series featuring Prudence Mackenzie and Geoffrey Hunter. The fourth book in the series, DEATH BRINGS A SHADOW moves the protagonists from New York City to the sea islands off Georgia.
Dianne Freeman is the acclaimed author of the Countess of Harleigh Mystery series. She is an Agatha Award and Lefty Award winner, as well as a finalist for the prestigious Mary Higgins Clark Award from Mystery Writers of America. She spent thirty years working in corporate accounting and finance and now indulges her love of writing, history, and mystery. Born and raised in Michigan, she and her husband split their time between Michigan and Arizona. Her third novel in the series, A LADY’S GUIDE TO MISCHIEF AND MURDER, will release in July.