Sunday, March 1, 2009

Historical Mysteries: Rome and Japan

Another short post on books. I'm a pretty big fan of genre fiction-- sci-fi, fantasy, horror and mystery. I have fairly general tastes regarding the first three genres, but I'm more choosy about the last. I grew up reading Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Encyclopedia Brown and Sherlock Holmes. In late grade school I graduated up to reading everything I could from Agatha Christie. I remember the SBPL had large-print editions of many of her books and I always preferred reading from those. My dad read mysteries quite a bit-- we had a fairly complete set of Travis McGee novels. I always associated those with the Rockford Files, I think because one had a cover featuring James Garner (and I think Bruce Lee) from some movie adaptation. But I never really read those-- nor the mysteries my mom read, the Cat Who... books, Lawrence Block, or V.I. Warshawski. I'm not sure why. I tired to get into the Ed McBain 87th Precinct novels, and some other American detective fiction but didn't like it. One time I read every Spenser for Hire book but realized about halfway through the exercise I didn't like them. I guess the only real American detective stuff I really card for were Raymond Chandler and Dashell Hammett-- the former because they were classics and the latter because he wrote amazingly well.

My general preference in mysteries is for foreign police procedurals. I've read R. D. Wingfield's Frost Mysteries, all of PD James, most of the Colin Dexter Morse books, a bunch of Hill's Dalziel and Pascoe, some Ian Rankin, Michael Dibdin's Aurelio Zen novels, and a bunch of others. I'm not entirely sure what grabs me about those. I'm not entirely without discretion on those books-- for example I still can't get into Elizabeth George. But generally I like those kinds of mysteries pretty exclusively.

On the other hand, there's another genre of mystery I like, pretty far removed from those procedurals: historical mysteries. Again, here I've got weirdly focused tastes. The classics of this sub-genre are the multiple Brother Cadfael novels set in Medieval England (I think). I've tried those and didn't like them. In fact, I don't like Medieval mysteries at all-- I tried the Mistress of the Art of Death recently and gave up a quarter of the way in. I've also tried some other periods (Ancient Egypt, Historical China, Regency England) and little caught my attention. So I stick with the two periods that I do enjoy: Ancient Rome and Feudal Japan. I've found more success with the first than the second. So here's my quick take on the various series in these settings that I've had a chance to try:

Ancient Rome

Lindsey Davis' Marcus Didius Falco

I love this series. Falco is an “Informer” which translates pretty close to gumshoe for the tone of these books. Davis manages to combine historical detail with real-life descriptions in a way that doesn't block you from enjoying the story. There's a certain anachronism of tone that Sherri's doesn't care for, but it works for me. I like the main and supporting characters and I've enjoyed seeing the evolution of their situation over the course of the series (there's like a eighteen volumes or something). I collect these books and have a fairly complete set. They're set in the time of Emperor Vespasian so they're a later period series. One of the books was made into a move that had Bryan Brown in it as the main character. If I had to recommend one historical mystery series, I'd pick this one. Great Fun.

My only caveat about these books would be that several volumes fall into the historical mystery trap of being “road trip” books, where the detective follows a trail outside of their usual confines so the author can demonstrate their erudition about other places. They're significantly weaker than other volumes and that's true across all of these series.

Steven Saylor's Gordianus the Finder

Saylor's probably the best known of the historical mystery writers for this period. I've read a couple of these, plus a collection of short stories. I don't care for them. I find his writing boring and stuffy-- plus I really don't like the main character for some reason. He does manage to balance historical detial with plot, but they don't spark for me. I'm pretty sure his stuff is set in the late days of the Republic, before the Emperors took power. Generally not recommended, but I'll eventually give them another try.

John Maddox Roberts SPQR mysteries

He's got a dozen volumes in this series, but I still can't make it through the first one. Dry and too overly concerned with the period detail. Again, might try again later.

Ruth Downie's Medicus and Terra Incognita

I'm most of the way through the first book of this pair and I don't like it. I enjoy the setting, Roman London, but I really dislike the main character. Downie's clearly setting up to have a full ongoing series here, but they make a big thing of calling these “Novels of Ancient Rome” rather than mysteries. That's fine if you want to pull yourself out of the supposed slum of genre fiction, but the result is kind of a mess to me-- neither straight novel, nor straight mystery and unsure of what it wants to do.

David Wishart's Marcus Corvinus series

I've read a couple of these-- I had some more by lost them in the fire. I don't think I've be replacing those. I'm really torn here. The first volume I read, Ovid, had a dynamite mystery and some of my favorite characters. I really like them and want to know more, but I hate the way Wishart writes. He is turgid and boring in places-- things take too long to get around and he spends more time on historical exposition than is necessary. I'll come back, maybe, to these if I run out of others. I feel bad saying that-- like I'd love to see these characters and ideas handled by someone with a more deft touch.

Rosemary Rowe's Libertus series

This is my other favorite Roman mystery series. The main character is a freed slave in Roman Britain during the reign of Nero. He's a tilemaker with a certain gift for deduction which makes him a useful pawn to his Roman Patron. Great characters, a nice other-side perspective on the lives and activities of the Romans, and decent mysteries to boot. I've enjoyed every one of these I've read. The only bad thing is that they're published by a British publisher rather than American. That means you have to get them online or from a specialty bookstore and they're relatively costly.

Feudal Japan

Sigh. I love this period. I enjoy reading general history for it and, of course, have enjoyed running rpgs set in various versions of the setting. But I'm really disappointed by the two mystery series I've read using this backdrop. Still I buy them because the detail might be useful for a game, but the books themselves are decidedly bad. The first series is Laura Joh Rowland's Sano Ichiro novels. She had some great ideas but the writing is so overwrought, the characters feel false and there's a weird vibe that reminds me of Mercedes Lackey. They're work to slog through, even if you're just trying to mine them for ideas. But the completest in me keeps me coming back to pick them up in paperback. I think I have a little more than half of these-- not recommended unless you really, really love the period.

Having read the Rowland novels, I was excited when I saw another series was forthcoming from a guy named I.J. Parker. I waited for a year before they were finally available in trade paper in the States. Not good-- they're weirdly stilted volumes. In many ways they read like Judge Dee mysteries-- written in the early part of the 20th Century (IIRC). Parker keeps writing them, so the series must be doing OK. I might swing back and look when he gets to the the fourth book or so-- it sometimes happens that a series finally hits it's stride then.

If you want to read the best series set in feudal Japan, albeit a fantastic one, then the thing to read is the Tomoe Gozen series by Jessica Amanda Salmonson. That ought to be required reading for anyone thinking of running a Legend of the Five Rings campaign.


  1. I love Roman history, but I still can't get into novels set there. My favorite listening is a Roman history podcast. I'll listen to it over and over again. The Libertus stuff sounds pretty good, and I'll add that to my list.

  2. Gene, if you see this - could you tell me where I can find the Roman history podcast? We are going to Italy (and Greece) this spring and I was looking for something like this.

    I never really got into mysteries until I was an adult. Since starting I am too much in love with Sherlock Holmes and Christie's Poirot to be happy with any others. I've read them all and I want to read more of that urbane gentleman, intellectual or effeminate, type of sleuth.
    Can you recommend any like that Lowell?

  3. Early PD James might fall into that category, and possibly August Dereleth's Solar Pons series-- though that's probably well OOP.

    My favorite series not mentioned above that falls into that category of classic urbane detective is the Lord Darcy series by Randall Garrett. It is set in a Victoriana England with magic, but one which operates by very logical principles that then shape the mysteries. Great fun to read as I remember.

  4. Hey Cher Mere, prepare for 45 episodes of history!

    It's one history geek who started off with the legendary origin of Rome, and has only now gotten to Caesar's final victory against the Senatorial armies.

    He was inspired by this podcast about Byzantine history:

    Belisarius totally rules. I had never even heard of him before this podcast.

    Finally, even a fan of drawing room mysteries can't go wrong with Dashiell Hammett. My personal mystery genre reading started with a Dragon magazine review of (can't remember) Swan, a space opera hard boiled detective. He was inspired by Raymond Chandler, who was much better. Chandler said he could never be as good as his inspiration, Hammett. So I tracked him down, and he remains one of my favorite writers. I'm no longer as much of a fan of Chandler, or Frank Herbert, or many other writers I loved as a kid, but Hammett just gets better as you get older. Try starting off with The Thin Man, and work your way backwards chronologically.

  5. Thanks! I think I have some Dashiell Hammett in my personal library. And I got the podcast set up on my iphone.

    Lowell, I will try to find a Lord Darcy book. Thanks