From The Alienist miniseries. (Photo by Kata Vermes/TNT.)
Many of us enjoy thrillers, mysteries, detective novels, and other genre fiction as an occasional part of our reading mix. And many of us consider it a bonus when those books are set many years earlier than when they’re written.
Yes, that gives us not only the genre fiction experience but the kind of interesting history lesson that “general” historical fiction can offer. We see major real-life events that occurred before we were born, perhaps get some cameos from actual historical figures, and learn about the “primitive” tools used years ago to investigate crime. Shockingly, computers and smartphones were hard to find before 1900. 🙂
I thought about all this as I’m currently reading Caleb Carr’s excellent The Alienist, published in 1994 and mostly set in 1896. It’s a mystery about the gruesome murders of children from New York City’s underclass, and how the novel’s alienist (psychiatrist) and others covertly investigate those killings by using approaches modern for the time. Future president Theodore Roosevelt has a strong secondary role as NYC’s police commissioner, and there are also characters who are the first woman and Jewish people in the NYC police department. Last but not least, it’s fascinating to take in the novel’s many well-researched period details about Manhattan.
Jack Finney’s riveting novel Time and Again partly unfolds in 1970 — the year the book was published — but mostly takes place in 1882 Manhattan as protagonist Simon Morley goes back in time 88 years to find the meaning of a provocatively phrased, partially burned letter. Adventure and romance ensue as we learn (like we do in The Alienist) a lot about latter-1800s NYC — helped by the terrific vintage photos Finney includes.
Walter Mosley’s first two compelling Easy Rawlins mysteries — 1990’s Devil in a Blue Dress and 1991’s A Red Death — are set in late-1940s and early-1950s Los Angeles. We learn a lot about what that city and California were like in the years soon after World War II — and, in the second novel, we also get some education about America’s shameful McCarthy era.
Umberto Eco’s memorable 1980 novel The Name of the Rose is an intellectual murder mystery set way back in 1327 Italy. Readers are schooled about the 14th century and religious matters at the time (the novel is set in a monastery), plus there are plenty of philosophical ruminations.
Daphne du Maurier’s gripping 1969 time-travel novel The House on the Strand is also largely set in the 14th century, and we get the opportunity to see the same English town six centuries apart. It’s engrossing to experience an identical burg both as a barely developed rural area in the 1300s and as a much more populated 20th-century community. The book includes mystery elements.
Jean M. Auel’s six absorbing “Earth’s Children’s” novels — the first of which was The Clan of the Cave Bear — include thriller moments even as the books are more general fiction than genre fiction. They were published from 1980 to 2011, and set more than 25,000 years ago. It’s eye-opening to learn, via Auel’s mix of speculation and deep research, how humans lived back then.
Any genre novels you’d like to discuss that are set years before they were published?
My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.
In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com every Thursday. The latest piece — about my town’s manager being sued for hostile workplace behavior to women employees — is here.