History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

22 February 2008

Urban Mysteries

I’m a big-city sort of person.

Born in Brooklyn, New York, longtime resident of San Francisco. Except for college, some hippie wanderlust, and a miserable suburban adolescence that’s best passed over with a shudder, I’ve spent most of my life in cities and am glad of it.

So when it came to writing my first romance, The Bookseller’s Daughter, I sent my heroine from Languedoc and Provence to Paris for the novel’s denouement. To Paris, where in 1785 revolutionary sentiment was simmering, and where everything I love in cities was (and still is) writ large:

Art, style, crowds, diversity.

Street life. Small business. Upward mobility (or so I like to hope).


And while I know full well that rampant urban consumerism can hardly be depended upon to give way to progressive social change, I think you can make the case for Enlightenment Paris. As (not surprisingly) did my heroine, Marie-Laure, in these meditations:

In stuffy, provincial Montpellier… you always knew who everybody was: merchant or magistrate; servant, shopgirl, or laborer. You knew by their dress, but also by their bearing. Somehow, you’d intuit a person’s place in the scheme of things as soon as you saw him or her on the street.

Whereas in Paris, decoding the identities of the mass of people rushing past her was like trying to read the patchwork tapestry of posters, playbills, and announcements pasted on the walls. New ones half covered old ones, bits were torn off or worn beyond recognition; you couldn’t get a fix on any single reality. In this city of actors and strivers and seekers -- of shoppers -- everyone was busy patching or replacing the roles life had handed them. Or trying to piece together something new, striking, and original, at the best possible price.
I still enjoy that intuition Marie-Laure and I shared about modern urban life: all those possibilities to remake your identity, and at the best price possible; mastering that particularly modern urban competence of keeping everybody guessing who you really are.

And I was forcefully and fascinatingly reminded of it during the last few weeks, since I’ve begun auditing a class at San Francisco State University in Detective Fiction - or to give it its full, formal title: “Mystery, Modernity, and Identity: Anglo-American Detective Fiction from the 1840s to the 1990s”.

Because what I’ve been learning in this terrifically interesting course is that it was the rapid advent of nineteenth century urbanism that created a new fictional genre - from the “urban mystery” to the detective story (the term was invented by Poe). And that it was exactly the sort of urban flexibility and fluidity of social role and appearance that made “detection” -- “reading” your fellow city-dwellers - a new and sensational concern. That fellow in a flash suit might be an embezzler. And as for that the smartly-dressed lady strolling in the Bois de Boulogne: who knows what sort of a past she had before she married her wealthy husband?

We’re reading, and will be reading some classic authors (Poe, Hammett, Wilkie Collins, Conan Doyle, Dorothy Sayers, Agatha Cristie, Herman Melville’s great story “Benito Cereno” - even Gertrude Stein attempted a detective novel, I learned). But we’re also be reading some lesser authors - at least in terms of what we think of as literary quality - who were wildly popular in their day. And we’re learning about important stops on the way to the modern detective story - the gothic novel of the Georgian and Regency periods, and the wildly popular “urban mystery,” of the 1840s.

Because before Poe created C. Auguste Dupin, the first detective hero (and one who applied himself to the crimes the Paris police couldn’t solve) “Urban Mystery” fiction exploited a generation’s fears of the dark, crowded, often pestilential conurbations that had expanded so rapidly with the rise of industrialism, and which swarmed with people who might be - anybody, even murderers.

The overarching urban mystery was how such places had come to be.

What my heroine Marie-Laure had seen as a dazzling site of self-creation, the heroes of urban mysteries began to see as a terrifying site of impenetrable masquerade, limitless conspiracy, and rampant hypocrisy (often in the figures of self-serving clergymen).

Eugene Sue had begun the vogue for such fiction with his 1842, which was read by everybody and counted Karl Marx among its reviewers. Sue’s The Mysteries of Paris is all but forgotten now, but it sold in huge numbers, published in magazine installments with suitable cliff-hanger endings -- and I’m told it remains one of the most widely read novels ever. ) The Mysteries of Paris spawned a host of imitators: there were Mysteries of London - even to Cincinnati, Ohio and Fitchburg, Massachusetts.

Our professor pointed out that the term “mystery” comes laden with earlier meanings: from the classical tradition, a sense of initiation into occult knowledge (as in the Eleusinean mysteries of ancient Greece), from the Gothic novel, a sense of the return of the repressed, of buried horrible family crimes.

In an urban setting, the mystery motif took the perversely pleasurably form of allowing the reader to feel herself privy (an initiate, if you will) to secret understandings (or perhaps urban legends) of an underworld, a crime hierarchy presided over by an evil genius. In the urban mystery we’re reading, George Thompson’s 1848 City Crimes, an unsavory character called The Dead Man presides over just such an underworld - literally an underworld, btw, of buried caves and waterways crawling with rats and reptiles (presaging that deathless Manhattan urban myth of the alligators in the sewer system).

Copping a detail from an earlier urban mystery and scooping Batman’s Joker by almost a century, urban villains like Thompson’s Dead Man deform their faces with acid - to hide their identities, or to reveal the inner horror of their souls? The ambiguity remains powerful even now.

Thompson (who also wrote in magazine serial form) lards his action with details ranging from gory to noxious to downright nauseating; his style is cheap, sensational, redundant, prurient (much is made of every lady’s “ivory globes”); his writing, for all that, is wonderfully, bracingly, compulsively readable. Things keep happening; just when you think he can’t top himself he does.

As a writer in a popular genre, I tip my hat to him; as a reader, I award him a grin and an appreciative shudder, and then turn to Wilkie Collins’ deeply comforting and beautifully crafted The Moonstone, granddaddy of a long line of genteel English country-house detective novels.

Because - although we haven’t discussed this in class yet - it's clear to me that one of the paradoxes of the detective genre is this movement from city to country. My guess as to why this was inevitable, is that at least in England, for much of that country’s history land was always the source of wealth and power, and the centuries of culture that surround this are too rich and dense, engaging and downright wonderful not to yield their own mysteries.

I’ve posted here already about Pemberley as one of the Great Good Places in the history of the English novel and of the romance as well. And yet Pemberley also had its secrets, didn’t it, to be revealed to Lizzy Bennet in the course of the development of the romance plot?
For myself, I discovered the power of the mythology of the English country house story when, in early versions of Almost a Gentleman, I tried to limit the action to London and discovered that I couldn’t - because…

But you’ll have to come back for the next installment of my own discoveries in this wonderful sister genre.

While as for questions: Do you read mysteries? Which ones do you especially like? How do they compare with your romance favorites? And for those of you out there (Tracy?) who combine the suspense element with the romantic, how do you see these issues?

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Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Very thought provoking post Pam. I'm a huge mystery reader and have been ever since my days of reading Nancy Drew, Enyclopedia Brown, and the Dana Girls. I then moved on to the gothic/romantic suspense novels of Victoria Holt and Phyllis Whitney before making way to Agatha Christie. I've read both The Moonstone and the Woman in White as well as Poe.

I love trying to figure out who did it. Reading a mystery satisfies a different part of me than reading romance does, and when I was working on a romance manuscript it was a nice escape, since I don't read in the genre I'm writing in while I work. I admire writers who write romantic suspense because it's a tricky balance to have a satisfying mystery as well as a love story at the same time.

10:17 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I totally forgot which mysteries/romantic suspense I like. I'm a huge fan of JD Robb, and Nancy Martin's Blackbird Mysteries. Also Lisa Scottoline and Michele Martinez are two of my new favorites. And who can forget Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum? I tend to favor books that have women as protagonists although I have loved several of Elizabeth George's books, and was a huge Anne Perry fan for a number of years, although I haven't read her in awhile.

10:19 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Wow, what a wonderful post, Pam! The class sounds fabulous. I've always loved mysteries, particularly mysteries with ongoing romances (Dororthy Sayers, Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh, Elizabeth Peters, Anne Perry, Elizabeth George, Laurie King.) I've always put mystery elements in my books (going back to when I co-wrote iwth my mom). The balance has tilted more and more toward mystery through the years, to the point where I realized I really should be writing historical suspense fiction with romantic elements instead of historical romances with mystery elements. Interestingly, in light of your post, the book I wrote then,"Daughter of the Game"/"Secrets of a Lady," explores London, it's dark corners and different social levels, more than any of my previous books. I'd written a lot about London before, but the stories tended to revolve around Mayfair. With "Daughter/Secrets," I consciously wanted to pull my hero and heroine out of their jewel-box life into the underworld--a gambling hell, a brothel, a debtors' prison, dark courts and twisting lanes. (Charles smashing his fist into the wall of their exquisite Berkeley Square house early on is sort of a metaphor for what happens to their perfect life). London became almost a character in the book.

I hadn't thought of it in these terms until your post, but I think perhaps the mystery novel is particularly well-structured to explore social complexities of a setting because by its very nature a mystery tends to call for a large cast of characters with different goals and agendas. As you say, though, that setting can be a country house or a village as much as a city. Interestingly, my second book in the series, "Beneath a Silent Moon," starts in London for about the first third and then moves to a castle on the Scottish coast (and the house is very much its own character in the story). In the revisions, my editor encouraged me to show more of the world around the house and the different characters from different walks of life. So I moved things around to show several scenes with villagers and people on the estate, in different settings (a tavern, a gardener's bothy), which I think make the book a good deal richer.

11:55 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I love mysteries! I'm especially fond of Sharon Kay Penman's Queen's Man series. They're set in the court of Eleanor of Aquitaine, and they're just sooooooooooooo good.

12:40 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I love trying to figure out who did it

Detective fiction implicates its reader in the process so strongly, doesn't it, Elizabeth? You find yourself trying to beat the detective to the punch, and yet you'd hate it if you did.

Or is that just me? I'm almost never able to figure it out -- but then, I tend mostly to read detective fiction for its romantic elements, when it has them, Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane being my favorite romantic couple of all time.

I haven't read much romantic suspense, though, except for Tracy (I'd love it if you suggested some more historical romantic suspense to me, Tracy).

While as for the host of characters and their class positions in the country-house mystery -- of course there's the brilliant Gosford Park, and also (in all its hoary Tory nostalgia) this quote from Dorothy Sayers' Busman's Honeymoon:

Whatever fantastic pictures {Harriet] had from time to time conjured up of married life with Peter, none of them had ever included ... village concerts. But of course they would go.... He belonged to an ordered society, and this was it.... [H]he spoke the familiar language of her childhood. In London, anybody, at any moment, might do or become anything. But in a village -- no matter what village -- they were all immutably themselves: parson, organist, sweep, duke's son and doctor's daughter, moving like chessmen upon their alloted squares. She was curiously excited. She thought, "I have married England."

And oh dear, this passage, only half-remembered until I looked it up just now, seems to have shaped Marie-Laure's thoughts too (only from the other side), hasn't it?

12:50 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I don't know the Queen's Man series, Kalen, thanks. A classmate just recommended the Allingham to me, Tracy. And I also want to recommend to you guys Kate Ross's Julian Kestral novels, set in the Regency. Janet Mullany blogged about them at Risky Regencies quite a while ago (I'm always behind in reading Janet's recommendations but they're always spot on).

12:58 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Peter and Harriet are close to my favorite romantic couple too, Pam! And I too love trying to figure out the puzzle of the mystery along with the detectives. (I got very excited last night because I had predicted a plot twist on "Lost" when discussing the show with a writer friend).

As to other historical romantic suspense (or mysteries with romantic elements)--I would include our fellow Hoyden Lauren Willig in this category--her books are fabulous--I'm currently in the midst of "The Seduction of the Crimson Rose" which I'm particularly loving (wonderfully cynical and edgy hero and heroine!). Laurie King, Elizabeth Peters, Anne Perry, and C.S. Harris all write historical mystery series with strong romantic elements and fascinating looks at the worlds in which their books are set. (King talks about being strongly influenced by Sayers and has some wonderful Sayers parallels in her books). Tasha Alexander and Deanna Raeburn also write historical mystery series with love stories that I've heard great things about, though I still have both tbr.

1:02 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

One of the things I enjoy about mysteries set in another time period is how they manage to solve the crime and find the culprit without the things that we take for granted in our modern world like fingerprints and DNA testing. I've heard about the Kate Ross books, but haven't had a chance to pick them up or the Diana Gabaldon. I agree with you Pam, there's something about a mystery with a continuing romantic element that I like as well. I always enjoyed the Tuppence and Tommy stories of Agatha Christie's for that reason as well as Dorothy L. Sayers. Have you seen the adaptations with Harriet Walter and Edward Petherbridge? I took a walking tour in London once that he led, and one with his wife Emily Richards.

1:04 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Heyer wrote a few books that are really romantic suspense (The Reluctant Widow, The Masqueraders, These Old Shades, The Talisman Ring). And you can't go wrong with Anne Perry. I particularly like her William Monk books.

2:08 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

What an amazing post, Pam. And I wish I were a fly on the wall to audit the class you are taking. The subject fascinates me ... and yet I've read very few mysteries, not because I shun the genre for any reason, but because that's just the way it's happened, I suppose. I don't tend to seek out specific genres. I'm no more a diehard mystery reader than I am a diehard romance reader.

I've read and admired Poe and Conan Doyle, and adore the stylish potboilers written by Hammett and Chandler.

Any yet when I happen to catch episodes of MYSTERY on PBS, I love the adaptations. Scott and I adored every moment of the FOYLE'S WAR series -- all 4 seasons, which we caught up via the God of Netflix.

Oh yeah, I do read that Tracy Grant woman's stuff!

Tracy's romantic suspense blows me away because not only does she create terrific characters and a strong sense of place, but she can plot, plot, plot, and I admire the heck out of authors who can do that with such skill. I've tried mystery writing (the manuscript is in the proverbial desk drawer) and because I found the plotting the hardest aspect of writing it, developed an even healthier respect for anyone who can plot a mystery and surprise the readers.

3:21 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Some of my all-time favorite "historical mysteries".... Ellis Peters' novels about BROTHER CADFAEL, 13th century soldier turned monk, who uses medieval medicine and botany to solve murders. Way cool!

4:44 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Some years ago, I recall now, I read three mysteries set in Elizabethan England, written by a contemporary author, a woman I think. I seem to remember that one of the principal characters was a jester. The novels were heavy on arcane vocabulary (it makes me giggle, because I recall the conversation Lauren and Kalen and I had the other night about readers who get upset when we use "too many big words.")

And if we're counting "historical mysteries with romantic elements," then I can certainly include Lauren's wonderful series. I've read the first three and "...Crimson Rose" (I love that the Romney portrait of Emma Hamilton as Circe is on the cover!) is up next!

6:44 PM  
Blogger doglady said...

What a great post, Pam. I love the novels of Caleb Carr - The Italian Secretary, The Angel of Darkness, and The Alienist. I love Heyer's mysteries as well. Poe is one of my all time favorites. I used to read him aloud to my students as a reward when they, as a class, did well on a test. They had no clue I was feeding them literature. They just knew they liked it.

The Pendergast series by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child are fabulous and the historical and scientific detail are fascinating. I love Amanda Quick's Arcane Society novels as well.

Just finished Tasha Alexander's - And Only to Deceive and A Poisoned Season. Clever and really well-written.

I have Deanna Raybourn's Silent int the Grave and Silent in the Chapel on my nightstand to read.

I want something that challenges me to discover who did what to whom.

7:27 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Amanda, your comments made me evening! What a lovely treat to come home to :-). My thoughts have always turned to suspense and plot intricacies. It seems to be the way my mind works. The Kate Ross books are fabulous--it's so incredibly sad she died so very young. There isn't a great deal of romance in the series, but I think there might have been more if she'd been able to continue it. I also have to mention one of my all time favorite books "Freedom & Necessity" by Steven Brust & Emma Bull--it's a combination of romance, suspense, mystery, and adventure, and a touch of paranormal, with a wonderfully-realized mid-Victorian setting (it would be a good companion to your class, Pam) with references to Hegel and Marx & Engels. The hero is somewhat Lymdonish and the heroine somewhat Harriet Vaneish, though both are wholly and uniquely themselves.

11:11 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

So many wonderful suggestions -- and I've promised my mom I'd get to her favorite, Anne Perry, sometime soon as well.

And I'll throw another into the pot -- Steven Saylor's wonderful Roman Blood series, about a detective during the time of Cicero.

11:33 PM  
Blogger RevMelinda said...


Your post sent me looking for WH Auden's essay "The Guilty Vicarage" (from his book of essays called The Dyer's Hand)--it's an essay examining, as Auden terms them, "detective stories."

It was an interesting read, especially in light of your comments about the "urban mystery." For Auden, a detective story "requires a closed society so that the possibility of an outside murderer is excluded," (comparing this to what he terms a "thriller, which requires an open society in which any stranger may be a friend or enemy in disguise.")

(Auden was an opinionated soul, God bless him--and I heartily disagree with him in numerous places--but it's intriguing reading nevertheless.)

Auden states that this closed society is "innocent" and "in a state of grace" until a murder intrudes, and it is the job of the detective to restore the state of grace by revealing the murderer.

Here is a paragraph that might interest you, particularly given your description of Pemberley as a Great Good Place:

"In the detective story, as in its mirror image, the Quest for the Grail, maps (the ritual of space) and timetables (the ritual of time) are desirable. Nature should reflect its human inhabitants, i.e. it should be the Great Good Place. . . the country is preferable to the town, a well-to-do neighborhood better than a slum. The corpse must shock not only because it is a corpse but also because, even for a corpse, it is shockingly out of place, as when a dog makes a mess on a drawing room carpet."

Auden concludes his essay with this: "The fantasy, then, which the detective story addict indulges is the fantasy of being restored to the Garden of Eden, to a state of innocence, where he may know love as love and not the law."

Fascinating use of religious language and theme there. . .

In terms of my own favorite mysteries lately--Deanna Raybourn's books top the list, the best I've read in years. I've also recently read Ariana Franklin's "Mistress of the Art of Death," which was also terrific, and I'm also crazy for Laurie King's Russell/Holmes novels.

Thank you Pam, for a great topic, and for the book suggestions others have given!


1:42 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Melinda, the Auden essay sounds like an ultimate endpoint on this sliding scale of assumptions about city vs country mysteries (and it's not on our class syllabus, either).

Thanks for the recommendation, which suggests once again that the detective novel has a deep family resemblance to the romance. And thanks for your fiction recommendations as well.

When I get a minute, I'm going to go to one of my most basic texts, Raymond Williams' The Country and the City, to if this great English literary scholar has anything to say on the subject,

2:58 PM  

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