Thursday, June 02, 2011

The Dead Have Never Been More Active

(Editor’s note: Today we welcome back Roberta Alexander, an editor and mystery reviewer in the San Francisco Bay Area, who writes below about the burgeoning field of “celebrity mysteries.”)

One of the most noticeable trends in modern mystery fiction is to employ real (make that dead) people as detectives.

Elliott Roosevelt, son of the World War II-era president, wrote a series in the 1980s and ’90s featuring his beloved mother, Eleanor, as a crime solver. (There is some question about whether those books were ghost-written, but that’s another story.) Then, beginning in the ’90s but continuing into the next decade, Californian Bruce Alexander concocted nearly a dozen books starring 18th-century English magistrate Sir John Fielding.

More recently, Nicola Upson created a series headlined by Josephine Tey, herself the pseudonym of the Scottish author Elizabeth Mackintosh. It took me a while to get my head around a crime series starring the pseudonym of a real person.

In addition, some authors revive a popular fictional personage and provide new adventures. For example, Laurie R. King writes a popular series featuring Sherlock Holmes and his young wife. In a further bit of mind-bending, Steve Hockensmith’s series is built around two 19th-century brothers, Gustav “Old Red” Amlingmeyer and Otto “Big Red” Amlingmeyer, who consider Holmes to be a real person.

By and large, I am not fond of these stories. I find them forced, as the authors seem to struggle to use the known data about a person’s life to fit the demands of his or her plot.

On the other hand, I liked Gary Corby’s The Pericles Commission (2010), which featured the Greek philosopher Socrates, but that may be due to the fact that I have a limited knowledge of Socrates’ real life.

Two other recent books that evoke the past do an adequate, though not excellent, job.

A Gentleman of Fortune, by Anna Dean (Minotaur) does not use a historical figure directly. It is, instead, written in the style of Jane Austen. (There was a series, created by Stephanie Barron, that did employ Austen as its protagonist. I found those books unreadable.)

In Dean’s version, Miss Dido Kent, who was introduced in last year’s Bellfield Hall, provides the Austen-like voice. Gentleman finds Dido visiting a cousin, when a neighbor dies in what looks like suspicious circumstances. In a society that limited the roles of women, the unmarried Dido does a little genteel investigating. Not surprisingly, she unearths a number of secrets people would rather not share. The setting, in Surrey in 1806, is portrayed well, and Dean doesn’t offer a bad imitation of Austen. I have read all of Austen’s work, and am an admirer. The problem here is that Gentleman is clearly faux-crab, not Dungeness. Nobody can do Austen like Austen.

Anna Maclean takes a different tack in Louisa and the Missing Heiress (New American Library).

Louisa is, of course, Louisa May Alcott. Set in the years before her writing career took off, this story deals with the death of Louisa’s friend, the newly married Dorothy Wortham. Since Dorothy’s husband is a well-known fortune hunter and no-goodnik, no good was expected to come of the marriage.

Once again, the background, which is Boston in the 1850s, is well rendered. Since the story is written in the style of the time--that is, sentences are longer and more convoluted--it takes a lot of work to stick with it. Too bad the characters are not sufficiently engaging to hold the reader’s interest for that long a time.

1 comment:

Yvette said...

I'm surprised that you're surprised by this sort of mystery, Roberta, since they've been around for awhile.

In general, I agree with some of what you say; I too found the Barrron books unreadable - although lately, I've been meaning to go back and check just to see if they've gotten any better.

But I did enjoy Bruce Alexander's depiction of the 18th century blind magistrate, enormously. These books deserve a wider audience.

I didn't like THE PERICLES COMMISSION in the slightest - only made it through a few pages before putting it down with a sigh of impatience. Most books set in this era simply can never get the speech patterns correctly. Not that I know with a certainty what those speech patterns would have been like - not having been alive then (though sometimes I feel as if I must have been), still, I know that it would not have sounded like 21st century speech with frills.

As for Laurie King's wonderful recreation of Holmes - we have another disagreement. Her Holmes/Russell series works on so many levels that I am surprised you lump it together with books of such lesser quality. i.e. the Josephine Tey books by Nicola Upson which do not work, for me, on any level. The writing is that amateurish and derivative.

King has taken Holmes and turned him into a 'flesh and blood' man and fashioned a woman who is edgy enough and brilliant enough to suit him. They are complete equals. It is the only sort of relationship I can ever see Holmes having with a woman and I thank King for thinking it up. She shows no strain in 'fitting' details of Holmes' early life into her own stories at all. For me, these tales are a seamless transition. Most especially the early books in the series. THE BEEKEEPER'S APPRENTICE, O JERUSALEM, THE MOOR, JUSTICE HALL. All, to my mind, brilliant.

One last thing: I wonder that you bother to say 'nobody can do Austen like Austen.'

Well, duh.

Despite all this, believe it or not, I did enjoy reading your round-up.