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February 21, 2005

Historical Mysteries

The Little Professor is unhappy with historical mysteries:

The Little Professor: Historical mysteries: Dismissing an entire genre or subgenre out of hand is, to say the least, unfair.  One never knows what literary miracle lurks on the next shelf.  Still, I suspect that all of us feel consistently dissatisfied with at least one genre--and, in my case, it happens to be the historical mystery... something about the historical mystery per se fails to click for me. 

Part of my dissatisfaction may derive from the historical limitations on mysteries as a genre.... The problem... is that while murder may spring eternal, the motives for same may not....  Most of the historical mysteries I've read do a much better job delineating historically accurate background than they do delineating historically accurate motives--and therein, I suspect, lies the rub.  It's not just that the criminals tend to feel modern, but that the detectives often feel that way as well.... Anachronism has always haunted the historical novel; one of Sir Walter Scott's reviewers argued that his female characters would be repulsive if they were really true to their times.... [N]ineteenth-century writers and readers always fetched up against certain pockets of resistance when it came to historical accuracy, and things haven't changed. Patricia Finney's Gloriana's Torch is an interesting example of this point.... My dissatisfaction-with-the-historical-mystery rule usually finds its exception in Finney, whose Gloriana's Torch is the third in a series of Elizabethan spy thrillers.... Finney's prose has real flair.... I'm not panning the novel, which I enjoyed a great deal.  But... Gloriana's Torch has some quite noticeable 'pockets of resistance' in and around its religious themes....

[For example,] the novel consistently puts sixteenth-century Catholic antisemitism in the equivalent of scare quotes.... As a result, the antisemitism is not so much disturbing--except in the most superficial of ways--as it is a clear marker of historical difference: this is how people in the sixteenth century thought, but we don't agree with them.  (You could write a novel in which the reader was forced to confront the antisemitism without the figurative scare quotes, in which case you'd have something far more demanding and, indeed, frightening--but also, I suspect, far less marketable.)  Whatever the characters think about religion, the narrator makes it clear which are to be blamed and which praised...

I, by contrast, am high on historical mysteries. The Fourteen-Year-Old has been working his way (and I have been following in his tracks) through Steven Saylor's books set in the last half-century of the Roman Republic: Roman Blood, Arms of Nemesis, A Mist Of Prophecies, The House of the Vestals, The Venus Throw, Catilina's Riddle, Rubicon, A Murder On The Appian Way, Last Seen in Massilia, The Judgment of Caesar, and the forthcoming A Gladiator Dies Only Once. Everything The Little Professor says is true: Gordianus the Finder is not a Roman, but a softer-hearted version of Philip Marlowe--someone who it is impossible to imagine surviving as a client of Cicero's and Pompey's in late-Republican Rome--and I find that somewhat jarring. But aside from the intrusion of a late-twentieth century Berkeley version of Marlowe into first century B.C. Rome, the stories are excellent and the achievement amazing. The density of information about late-Republican Rome--not just politics and war but high, low, and material culture--is absolutely wonderful.

So let me profoundly thank Steven Saylor: where else can you eat oysters with Marcus Licinius Crassus in one of his villas on the Bay of Naples, listen as Cicero tries his first big case:

I imagine that you, O judges, are marvelling why it is that when so many most eminent orators and most noble men are sitting still, I above all others should get up, who neither for age, nor for ability, nor for influence, am to be compared to those who are sitting still. For all these men whom you see present at this trial think that a man ought to be defended against all injury contrived against him by unrivalled wickedness; but through the sad state of the times they do not dare to defend him themselves. So it comes to pass that they are present here because they are attending to their business, but they are silent because they are afraid of danger. [2]  What then? Am I the boldest of all these men? By no means. Am I then so much more attentive to my duties than the rest? I am not so covetous of even that praise, as to wish to rob others of it. What is it then which has impelled me beyond all the rest to undertake the cause of Sextus Roscius? Because, if any one of those men, men of the greatest weight and dignity, whom you see present, had spoken, had said one word about public affairs, as must be done in this case, he would be thought to have said much more than he really had said. [3]  But if I should say all the things which must be said with ever so much freedom, yet my speech will never go forth or be diffused among the people in the same manner. Secondly, because anything said by the others cannot be obscure, because of their nobility and dignity, and cannot be excused as being spoken carelessly, on account of their age and prudence; but if I say anything with too much freedom, it may either be altogether concealed, because I have not yet mixed in public affairs, or pardoned on account of my youth; although not only the method of pardoning, but even the habit of examining into the truth is now eradicated from the State.

Or drink bad wine with Gaius Vallerius Catallus in the salax taberna:

Suns set and can rise again.
But once our brief light has set
Night is forever and must be slept out.

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Posted by DeLong at February 21, 2005 02:06 PM