Evoking the period


I haven’t read many books by Tey … let me see … Brat Farrar, that was one. A Shilling for Candles. I think only those two, though I liked them both.

Well, here’s this paragraph from the Crime Reads post:

The Franchise Affair has become a wonderfully evocative period piece, including the supposed raison d’être of the plot. Why would the respectable if isolated Sharpes commit such an extraordinarily desperate act? It is the alleged explanation which is so interesting: they were indeed desperate—desperate for domestic help. Marion Sharpe cannot cook, the house is large and too far away for the local cleaners to patronise. This kind of problem, which sounds fairly surreal as a motive for abduction today, appeared perfectly convincing to the middle classes of the late forties: the domestic staff who vanished into the war effort and were expected to return having signally failed to do so.

This makes me want to pick up this story just for that — though the author of the post also talks up The Franchise Affair as a story too! — but as it happens, the two things I most appreciate in murder mysteries are:

a) Character, and

b) Setting

Style would be third in line and plotting a distant fourth. I appreciate a mystery I don’t figure out, but I don’t mind much if I do figure it out, although if the mystery seems TOO obvious, that’s a shame. Still, I’ll enjoy the story no matter how obvious the murderer is, if the writing is good, the characters well drawn and sympathetic, and the setting beautifully evoked. I’m not sure why setting is so important to me in mysteries, but it is, so that’s a big reason I lean heavily toward historical murder mysteries, and also mysteries set in, say, South Africa.

Josephine Tey’s books were written with contemporary settings, which undoubtedly provides that little extra depth of verisimilitude, but of course plenty of excellent historical mysteries are written by modern authors. One of the best examples I can think of where the setting is beautifully drawn while the mystery itself is not that mysterious is Barbara Hambly’s / Hamilton’s series featuring Abigail Adams as the protagonist. I enjoy these books very much even though the murderer is relatively obvious in each of the books.

For wonderful contemporary-ish settings, it’s hard to beat the Tannie Maria series, set in South Africa. Unfortunately, the third book is for some reason not currently available, at least not from Amazon. Not just unavailable in Kindle, but unavailable period. That’s getting to be pretty unusual. Such a shame when it’s a book one would really like to read.

So: if you were making a Top Ten list for murder mysteries with beautiful, evocative, interesting settings, historical or otherwise, what would you put on it? Anything come to mind?

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14 thoughts on “Evoking the period”

  1. I read all (I think) of the mystery novels but couldn’t get through Brat Farrar. Abandoned it before my ereader was in danger of being thrown against the wall. All I remember was entitled people being entitled.

  2. Hah, that’s funny! No questioning taste, or taste-at-the-time…
    I read all or nearly all of her mysteries when I was a teen, too long ago to remember much. Brat Farrar was my favorite, and the only one I’ve reread once or twice in the decades since.

    I like the No.1 Ladies Detective Agency series by Alexander McCall Smith, for the setting in Botswana.
    I also like Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers, for the Oxford College setting.
    I mostly read mysteries in my teens and twenties, so they don’t spring to mind so easily.

  3. Checking up on Tey, I think my second favorite was The Franchise affair. Might be worth trying, if you’re in the mood for a period mystery.

  4. Irina, for me the problem with Brat Farrar is I could not believe a twin would actually be evil and that hit my suspension of disbelief. I was positive the evil twin must be playing a deep and subtle game and was offended when that wasn’t true.

    (That may be a spoiler, but the book came out in 1949, so …)

    Anyway, that’s honestly all I remember about the story. I read it a loooong time ago!

  5. Hanneke, I agree, but I read the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency a long time ago, and the Tannie Maria ones much more recently, so those are the ones that spring to mind for me. Plus, they have recipes! I love the juxtaposition of an advice writer who uses food for advice and ALSO, hey, a mystery!

    Gaudy Night is wonderful in practically every way.

  6. I love Rosamunde Pilcher’s books for evoking a setting, particularly “September” (focused around all the community members attending a party in the Scottish highlands in, of course, September). Mary Stewart as well, in books like “The Moonspinners” and “Thornyhold”, in which the setting is as much a character as any of the people.

    I liked Brat Farrar (mostly for the horses and the aunt) but the Kindle edition I have is SO full of typesetting errors that it’s hard to read. The improbably evil twin turns out so evil that he’s hard to take seriously. (And I question how none of his evilness spilled out after that one act… it doesn’t quite hold up, but I like the aunt.)

    The other other Tey I’ve read is DAUGHTER OF TIME, in which a police detective bed-bound with a broken leg solves the mystery of what happened to Richard II’s nephews. It’s a delightful archival analysis and an interesting example of a book set entirely within one hospital room.

  7. Yeah, I love Rosamund Pilcher too, but never labeled her books as ‘mysteries’ to myself. And Mary Stewart’s ‘damsel in distress’ books were my introduction to romance – they certainly should count as mysteries too. I’ve reread those several times, some even fairly recently; I din’t know why I didn’t think of those.

    I too liked the horses and the aunt in Brat Farrar, they were the reason for rereading it!
    I know too little about the possible causes of the kinds of defects that cause some (rare) people to be born incapable of empathy to know if this could happen pre-natally to one twin but not the other. I do know that even identical twins are not completely identical in character and taste etc., so I could see one getting some invisible damage while the other was okay.
    I know some people are born that way, with a diminished sensitivity to some signalling chemicals or a mistake in their “wiring”, and grow up with a psychopathic personalty, though they don’t always become criminals (some become succesful CEOs).
    I also know that a strongly psychopathic personality can allow even a 10 year old child to commit deliberate, premeditated murder for almost no reason – there was a much-publicised trial in England of this happening to 3 year old James Bulger in 1993.
    I just thought the evil twin was born damaged the way the young murderers of that toddler were, an innate psychopath probably from birth, but an intelligent one. (Same as the older brother Peter in Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s game, later.) So that wasn’t a dealbreaker for me.

  8. I think what bothered me most about the evil twin is that he did this one evil deed and then…nothing else, for something like 10 years. His sisters and aunt, all of whom were vulnerable and practically at his mercy, all thought he was normal, kind, and caring. If he’s an inherent sociopath, would he have been content with the one deed as a child and then nothing else?

    Agree that Rosamunde Pilcher’s books are barely mysteries at all, and half of ‘em have the same plot and characters. I consider them comfort reads but I can’t devour too many at once or the similarities become too much!

  9. Kathryn McConaughy

    Elizabeth Peters’ historical series about two Egyptologists who solve mysteries in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is strong in character and setting. Relatively weak in plots.

  10. Definitely the horse in Brat Farrar! And I guess the aunt, but frankly what I remember is (a) twin was evil, and (b) the horse.

    I like the idea of Daughter of Time a lot — I’ll look that one up for sure.

  11. I quite like Daughter of Time, but she did fudge the research. Someone or other’s diary that she doesn’t mention does contain contemporary accusation.

    Her look at the patterns of behavior of the two people who had motive, however is very interesting.

    Why, yes, I did go through a Richard III period, why do you ask?

  12. In the barren ground by Loreth Anne White. Many of her books have really beautiful, atmospheric wilderness settings.( I’m a European city person so the Canadian wilderness is a remote exotic location. Maybe not so much for Americans:).) The plotting and the characters are quite good too.

    Do fantasy murder mysteries count? I liked J Kathleen Cheney’s Golden City novels. Especially the setting, a magical alternate Portugal around 1900.

    Or Consulting Magic by Amy Crook. Also the setting. A contemporary magical alternate Britain. Quite cozy, the characters spend more time eating delicious food and making friends (also with magical creatures like sprites and brownies) than investigating.

  13. I found DAUGHTER OF TIME entertaining. And it’s sufficiently compelling that it (more or less) created a pro-Richard III movement among amateur history enthusiasts which is still going strong. (One of my best-educated friends is among them: it embarrasses him a little, since he knows that real historians of the period treat them like any other set of cranks. And he’s a subject matter expert on crankery.)

  14. Maria, they do now! I will definitely check out your suggestions.

    Craig, ha ha ha! Must be Ken, right? I bet he can hold his own in any argument about Richard III (or anything else).

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