“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” These famous opening words to an L.P. Hartley novel encapsulate the real problem with studying history. It’s not just a matter of dates; it’s a matter of a whole culture that needs to be understood. And so, because the job is immense, we tend not to do it.
Unless, of course, we’re novelists, who go boldly where (in many cases) we should probably have feared to tread.
I integrate some history, in some way, into nearly all of my books, even the mystery novels. Whether it’s personal history (a family secret, an obscure act from the past, a hidden relationship) or community history (an old murder, a reinvented personality, a buried treasure), there’s a lot there that can provide a perfect backdrop for a modern mystery to be solved by a modern sleuth… as long as the author gets it right.
Because, after all, the past is indeed a foreign country, and they do in fact do things differently there. It may feel romantic to write a novel that takes place in Arthurian Britain, or the antebellum South, or feudal Japan, but really entering into those times in order to make a story feel at home there takes a lot of mental, physical, and emotional energy!
For me, it’s always worked the other way. I don’t know that I’ve ever consciously chosen an era; I think that they choose me. I grew up in
where history seeps into the air one breathes: it’s a medieval city, but when I
was a child, most people were still recovering from the German occupation of
the country—so both the middle ages and World War II have always called to me
for understanding and exploration. Angers, France
And once you find a place and time that calls to you, the stories follow. Invariably. Because when you step away from the dates and kings and factoids that are the way we learn history and really step into the past as a foreign country, the stories pop out. My most recent mystery, Deadly Jewels, seemed to write itself once I learned that in 1940 the British royal jewels had been carefully prised from their settings by the king and his two daughters, then shipped off secretly to Montréal for safekeeping in case of a German invasion: oh, goody! A secret! Wherever there’s a secret, there’s the possibility of intrigue, of blackmail, of the past coming back to haunt the present.
The first Martine LeDuc mystery, Asylum, pretty much wrote itself as well. In reading about the history of
, a city I love,
I came across a list of children who’d been buried in an asylum’s graveyard,
and that story pretty much hit me in the face. Why were so many children in an
asylum in the first place? and why did so many of them die? That led me to
uncover the truth about both the Duplessis orphans and the CIA’s MK-Ultra
program, and gave me an instant mystery for my very modern-day detective to
No matter what time and place you write about, you have to do research. Just as someone writing a hard-boiled police procedural wouldn’t fail to find out about the caliber of various guns and the habits of underworld criminals, so the mystery writer dipping into the well of the past must spend time in their chosen “foreign country.” And it’s hard work. We might well love to write, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy, or that it isn’t work. And it can be emotionally draining. I’ve spent a lot of time with my head in places that I’d really rather not go and learning things that I didn’t want to know, because that’s how you explore another culture: by immersion in it, all of it, the pretty parts and the dark places.
And as a mystery writer, it’s almost always those dark places that intrigue. It’s a safe way to explore some of the darkness we experience today, whether in our own times or in our own lives. It puts things in a kind of perspective. And, like any travel, it enriches the traveler.
There are a lot of mysteries that take place in the past, as well as other writers who take buts of the past on which to base present-day mysteries. Why not explore one or two of them? It’s a wonderful way to learn just how “they do things differently there.”
Jeannette de Beauvoir grew up in Angers, France, her
American mother kept the home well-stocked with Golden Age mystery novels, and
everything that has happened since can probably be traced back to reading them
at a very young age. She writes historical and mystery fiction (often combining
the two) and her most recent novel, Deadly Jewels, concerns a Montréal murder from WWII, disappearing diamonds, a
neo-Nazi group, errant stepchildren, and—of course—several meals involving
poutine. Find her on Amazon,
Element, or her website.
When Martine LeDuc, publicity director for Montréal, is summoned into the mayor's office, she's pleasantly surprised to find the city is due for a PR coup: a doctoral researcher at
claims to have
found proof that the British crown jewels were stored in Montréal during WWII. Martine
is thrilled to be part of the excavation project, until it turns out that the
dig's discoveries include the skeleton of a man with diamonds in his ribcage
and a hole in his skull. Is this decades-old murder leading her too far into
the dangerous world of McGill
neo-Nazi networks, or is there something going on that makes the jewels
themselves deadly? Is history ever really completely buried? With pressing
personal issues crowding into her professional life, Martine needs to solve not
only the puzzle of the jewels, but some more recent crimes―including another
murder, a kidnapping, and the operation of an ancient cult in Montréal―and do
it before the past reaches out to silence her for good. Canada