Mystery? History? Do I Have to Choose?
I’ll confess from the start: I’m lazy. I sometimes think that I wrote nothing but historical fiction for a while because a) I’d studied history and b) the stories were already there, just waiting to be plucked.
Okay, so I’m being a little factious, but not too much. I wrote about past events and eras for a long time, and then, for various reasons, left that kind of writing behind. When I started doing mysteries, I created protagonists who traveled, protagonists with interesting backgrounds, protagonists who stayed firmly in the present… and found my own attention waning. The thing is, I really like history. Not as merely an academic endeavor, but as a conduit, a way to help us explore our own humanity.
Which is what the best writing is all about, anyway, isn’t it?
I was doing a talk recently about my new novel, Asylum, which incorporates a great deal of the past into the protagonist’s present, and a participant asked, “How important is it to get the history right when you’re writing fiction?”
It’s a good question, but I’m not sure it’s the right question. Does any fiction get the past exactly right? Of course not: the reality is that no two historians would even agree on nonfiction getting the past exactly right—the moment that history is recorded, it becomes a point of view. And, of course, a mystery.
For me, the question is more about how the backdrop of the past is used to address questions about the human condition.
Look at it this way: any writing that incorporates history is, essentially, a conversation between the past and the present. But readers and writers alike sometimes forget that a conversation is two-sided, that you have to listen as well as speak. And when you’re bringing your knowledge and experience of one era and looking through that lens at another one, you’re doing most of the speaking.
Mystery writing that incorporates history, to me, is absolutely the best way for that conversation in general—and for listening in particular—to take place. Mysteries are all about asking questions, after all, and listening very hard to the answers.
Using history as a backdrop to mystery allows for suppressed voices to be heard. In the case of Asylum, it’s the suppressed stories of the “Duplessis orphans,” children falsely certified insane and locked into mental institutions where they were abused and often killed. The mystery is intrinsic to their voices: Why were they there? Who stood to gain? How did their stories get buried? Who needed to keep their fate sealed?
I didn’t have to look far to uncover these secrets: I spend a lot of time every year in Montréal, but anyone with access to Wikipedia could have found out about the Duplessis Orphans and the even more terrible activities of the CIA’s MK-Ultra program around the same time.
The point is that the stories are out there, amazing stories, baffling stories, strange stories, and every one of them represents a mystery of some sort. Every one of them is ready to start a conversation with the present.
What I’ve found works best for me is to enable that conversation by choosing a modern-day protagonist with a modern-day mystery that can only be solved by questioning the past. Through the protagonist, the reader is then able to ask some of those same questions.
Let’s face it: humanity is all about secrets. We have them in our personal lives and in the lives of our families, our communities, our countries. They’re secrets for a reason: most of us don’t want them revealed. To what lengths would we go to keep them hidden? The expression of the past coming back to haunt one is very real. In some cases, it’s not just real, but dangerous as well.
And that’s where mysteries come in.
Is it important to get the backbone right, the history correct? I think so, insofar as it’s even possible: at the end of the day, the conversation needs to have a foundation in facts. But conversations are often filled with lies; does that make them any less real, any less meaningful?
Every book we read makes us richer in some way. Allowing mysteries to open a window on the past also allows them to open a window on the human heart. And that’s the greatest mystery of them all!
What do you think? Do you like reading about the past in the midst of a modern mystery? Or do you prefer mysteries that are set firmly in a prior time (I’m thinking, for example, of Ellis Peters and Brother Cadfael)? I’d love to hear your thoughts, and will select one commentator at random to receive a copy of Asylum!
About Asylum: Women are being murdered in Montréal’s summer tourist season, and everything points to random acts of a serial killer—but it’s publicity director Martine LeDuc who discovers that the deaths reflect a darker past that someone wants desperately to keep hidden.