Engineers in Historical Mysteries

Mystery novels have featured a variety of protagonists – almost every profession that we encounter in our daily lives shows up in mystery novels. I’ve read cozy mysteries that feature artists, bakers, caterers, cat lovers, dog walkers, flappers, police and private detectives and even wedding organizers – well, you get the picture. Historical mysteries are a little more constrained in how their protagonists make a living. Yet they too feature a wide variety of roles – detectives, doctors, historians, politicians, soothsayers, soldiers, and spies – despite the constraints of history.

However one particular profession, that of an engineer, makes far fewer appearances in historical mysteries and surprisingly, even in regular mystery novels. But when they do, boy, do they make an impact. (disclosure: my colleague Ramesh and yours truly were both formally trained as engineers, though few are willing to publicly admit that we are such.)

Robert Harris’ Pompeii is probably the most well-known mystery to feature an engineer as its protagonist – the young Marcus Attilius Primus. The story begins with a simple tale of an engineer being despatched to solve a technical problem – not unlike one we’d encounter ourselves after a particularly violent storm or hurricane. Water supply  to the greater Naples region is affected as springs run dry and the engineer in charge of the aqueduct has disappeared. Of course as modern readers, we know – whether we are aware of it or not  – that Mt. Vesuvius is about to burst to high heavens.

Harris does a great job of building up the story, from what starts off as a simple municipal service problem that a maintenance engineer could address, to both a tale of political intrigue and nature about to let lose. The book does a great job of explaining the engineer’s role in those times. More importantly, it brings to fore the critical role that engineers played – be it laying the roads, or building the aqueducts – that allowed the Roman empire to not just grow, but thrive.

The next engineer I encountered was also one troubled by the impending explosion of Mt. Vesuvius in the short story collection Pompeii — A Day of Fire. We’ve written about it earlier in prose and in verse. The focus in this tale is on the human end of things – how his unwilling bride re-assesses our engineer hero, who’s not only older than her but seems unromantic – in light of his actions even as the world they know seems to be ending in fire and brimstone. It’s a short but sweet rendition of engineer as human.

However, Thomas K. Carpenter goes one step further, building an entire 7-book series – Alexandrian Saga. Featuring Heron of Alexander – who’s widely believed to have invented the first steam engine in the 1st century CE – the series suggests that it is actually his twin sister posing as him. Carpenter has him/her solving a variety of problems that have vexed mankind since then, starting with who might have burned the Great Library of Alexandria. Carpenter has also written a short story, The Virtues of Madness, where he shows how Temple “miracles” were performed thanks to engineers such as Heron.

The use of war machines, the building of roads, temples and major civil projects, many of which stand to this day, meant engineers played a big role in historical times. And they are beginning to get their due, none too soon, in historical mysteries too. Tell us about your favorite engineer or other professions in historical mysteries!

Books featured in this post

Robert Harris Pompeii

Stephanie Dray A Day of Fire: A Novel of Pompeii

Thomas K. Alexander Alexandrian Saga 

Thomas K. Carpenter, Virtues of Madness 


Does History Matter?

It’s easy in this election season to feel that “Things have never been this bad.” Old fogies might say, “This isn’t as bad it was back in ______!” but if you are a millenial looking to get a decent job, you might find it hard to agree.

So depending on how you are feeling it’s easy enough to think, Things were much better in the good ol‘ days or the exact opposite, It’s never been better. Either way, we can get caught up with our own lives. So, should we care about the past, and specifically should we care about history? I’d argue yes.

In fact, it’s one of our favorite historical characters, who features prominently in a variety of historical mysteries, who says it better than most others can.


Marcus Tullius Cicero, lawyer, orator, consul of Rome, and staunch supporter of the Republic, said that almost two millenia ago. I ran across this specific quote in Robert Harris‘ newest novel Dictator – the third in a series of books centered around Cicero.

So today, whether we focus narrowly on the unfolding US presidential primaries or the re-emerging cold war between Russia and the US, the rise of ISIS, or the refugee crisis unfolding in Asia Minor – I’d argue, as Cicero did, that history has much to teach us. And yes, reading historical mysteries, is just as good a way to – a more fun way I’d argue – to learn about history. Tell us which is your favorite read!

Musa of Mali – Mysteries in Africa

Rich as Croesus” is an expression that’s in common parlance even today.

History is filled with tales of men (maybe that’s why it’s termed his story) of fabulous wealth. Croesus, the King of Lydia (c. 500 BC) was probably the first man to be tagged as the richest in history.  The first occurrence of this phrase was in 1390 in John Gower’s Confessio Amantis, according to Wikipedia. Even earlier references exist in Greek and Persian sources that pre-date the Christian Era.

Readers of historical fiction may know of another wealthy man, Marcus Crassus, contemporary of Julius Caesar and Gnaeus Pompeii. Crassus is considered the wealthiest man of Roman times and even of all time. Yet it appears neither Crassus or Croesus, legendary as they may have been, were as wealthy as King Musa of Mali (c. 1300). When magazines such as Time or Forbes compile lists of the 10 richest men of all time, they rarely agree on #2 through #10, but they all agree that Mansa Musa of Mali was #1 – the richest man of all time. Of course, given more people may know of Timbuktu than of Mali, it’s not surprising that Musa of Mali is not a household name.

catalan_atlas_bnf_sheet_6_mansa_musaUnfortunately, news about Africa invariably seems to be centered around disaster – famine or civil war. It’s only occasionally that the promise of African history breaks through the clutter. The attacks on historical monuments in Timbuktu have drawn attention once again to Mali’s resplendent past. Alas, the news cycle did not allow for much attention as to what makes Timbuktu, Mali and West Africa a place of immense interest to fans of history and historical fiction.

Most of the attention in historical fiction seems to get heaped on Egypt. Historical mysteries set in Africa have rarely featured the sub-Saharan part of the continent. Granted both mysteries – real and fictional – abound in Egypt, but it is still only a small part of Africa. Does the rest of the continent not provide adequate fodder for mysteries?

Before you despair, thanks to Margaret Tomlinson’s amazing site, HistoricalNovels, I did discover a slew of mysteries set in Africa, outside of Egypt. A great number of them are set in South Africa and a preponderance of others are set in colonial times and around the World Wars I & II. Two of them actually feature Mali:

D.T. Niane, Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali and
Rafael Scott, Beyond Mali which actually features Musa’s son

Given the amount of ink that Crassus has received in historical novels and mysteries, I’m surprised that more hasn’t been written about Mansa Musa. This is particularly interesting given contemporary accounts of Musa’s famous trip to Mecca, during which he triggered a currency crisis in Egypt with his splurging of gold. As Rudolph Ware, a professor of history at the University of Michigan, puts it: “Musa’s riches were so immense that people struggled to describe them.”

To me, it sounds like a rich vein for writers to tap into – with so much money, can crime be far behind?


Fossils of Ariyalur – In the News

Image: The Newsminute

Both Ramesh and I are big readers of science news. And where history is involved, science is rarely far behind. And as readers of historical mysteries, both history and science — even if it’s occasionally of the pseudo kind — interest us.

So when folks wonder with bated breath, if indeed Nefertiti’s tomb is hidden behind Tutankhamen‘s – we sit up and take notice. Similarly wine-making or even fish-sauce making has its share of science. Swords and other weapons of war too fascinate us – Damascene swords (that came from India), iron pillars that don’t rust – are all inanimate things that animate us. Another whole class of inanimate things are fossils, the only remnants of often extinct, birds or animals – dinosaurs, fishes, nautiluses, which help us solve many a mystery about the world around us.

Recently I read about the Fossils of Ariyalur.  Despite having grown up in Chennai, less than 200 miles away, I knew nothing about them. Luckily this video (below) and article introduced me to the wonders of Ariyalur fossils. Like far too many things in India, these are not valued as much as they should, but hopefully, stories such as these will change that. Check out the video and share with us your own favorite fossils and stories about them. Read the original article here.

Flapper Detective – Phryne Fisher

Cocaine Blues coverClearly the advent of Netflix and Amazon Prime has changed our TV watching habits. Now it’s debatable whether we are better for it – but as with anything new, the family and I have taken to it with gusto. Imagine our surprise when we discovered the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (that ABC) has brought Phryne (pronounced Fry-nee) Fisher, the irrepressible Flapper, to the (not-so-little) screen and thanks to Netflix we were able to catch the entire first season in one short week of binge watching.

Readers of this blog are old enough to recall when the Lord of the Rings trilogy (or if you are older, Superman) was going to first make it to the silver screen. I recall hoping that they don’t ruin the darn thing. I first encountered Kerry Greenwood’s 1920s English socialite Phryne in Book #1 Cocaine Blues. A sale on BookBub (if you haven’t subscribed, you should) for the Kindle is what brought Cocaine Blues to my attention.

I’ve met my share of unusual and interesting female detectives on said Kindle (Julie Smith’s Rebecca Schwartz, Pamela Fagan Hutchins’ Katie, my own favorite Patricia Mason’s Imogene Tuttle aka Mo, to name just three). But Phryne Fisher went one step further, combining a great detective (independent-minded socialite risen from a poor childhood) in a not-so-common setting (’20s Melbourne) with a sizable cast of supporting characters. Check it out on Netflix, and let me know what you think!

Writing a Damn Good Mystery – Book Review

HowToWDGMCan a writer of historical mysteries do too much research? I think the answer is a resounding yes. But what’s too much you ask? If all you are doing is research and not writing, then it is too much. I guess we could take some solace in that it’s not just writers of mysteries who use research as an excuse to procrastinate. But enough already, let’s get down to writing.

Of course, once you get writing, you might – as I did – find you do need help – may not necessarily be with your history but certainly with your mystery. This is where How to Write a Damn Good Mystery: A Practical Step-by-Step Guide from Inspiration to Finished Manuscript by James N. Frey comes in handy.

I found it immensely useful – particularly in the context of writing mysteries. Three techniques I took away, in the order of value

  • Plot behind the plot what drives the murderer – I’d always been so focused on the protagonist/hero/detective
  • Journals for key characters this was different in that it was done in their voice revealing interesting facets to them
  • Step sheets while I’d tried and read about outlining, the step sheets – were a great way to get a quick handle on where you wanted to take the story and in some instances where the story wanted to take you

I really liked the chapter on writing titled Writing Damn Good Prose – almost reminiscent of Strunk & White – concisely capturing a lot of good actionable ideas on writing tight prose.

Frey outlines a book Murder in Montana as a means to illustrate the points he makes about step sheets, the plot behind the plot and character journals. In Goodreads and elsewhere other reviewers complained of it being “cliche-ridden and too long.” However, I really liked that he tried to work through all of Murder in Montana and found it useful, as an actual practice of what he preached – regardless of whether it was the final manuscript, seeing where he started and how it evolved, even more than where it ended. It taught me a whole lot. The main value that Frey brought was he did away with most excuses all of us, as writers, make and took apart any obstacles that stand in our way – by providing practical methods to work through them. It’s now to each of us, reader and writer to make as much good as we want out of this.

I’m going out there to buy this as a keeper.

This review first appeared in an earlier draft form on Goodreads.

Why Roma? Podcast #1

Ever since I read my first Steven Saylor novel, I’ve been hooked to mystery stories set in Ancient Rome.  For the first few years, I was too busy reading and chasing down the ones I hadn’t read. And I never stopped to ask “Why are so many historical mysteries set in Rome?”

So for our first podcast at HistorynMystery, Ramesh and I decided to explore this question and more. As promised in the podcast, here are the authors and books that we talk about in this first podcast.

Authors, Series

Albert Bell, Pliny the Younger case series
Bruce MacBain, Plinius Secundus series
Caroline LawrenceThe Roman Mysteries
Colleen McCullough, Masters of Rome series
John Maddox Roberts, SPQR series
Kate QuinnMistress of Rome series
Lindsey Davis, Marcus Didius Falco series
Robert HarrisCicero series – Pompeii
Steven Saylor, Roma Sub Rosa series

Let us know why you think Rome is such a popular setting for historical mysteries, and what your favorite Roman mystery novels are.

Books of October

book_coverNot that the world needs another list, but at least this one is short!

Here are the books we read or wrote about in October, categorized in our own, shall we say, subjective way. Let us know what you think — of the list, the books, and the authors.

We’d love to hear from you, so don’t be shy.

Ancient Rome (it’s not like home)
A Gladiator Dies Only Once (on Goodreads)
A Day of Fire (in verse, on Goodreads)
I, Claudius (on Goodreads)

English Middle Ages (positively med-evil)
The Archer’s Tale (on Goodreads)
The Pilgrim of Hate (on Goodreads)
Great Tales from English History (on Goodreads)

Indian Middle Ages (very different from middle-aged Indians)
Social History of The Deccan (on Goodreads)

The Deccan 1300 – 1761

The Deccan is a large plateau, about 200,000 square miles in size, straddling the central part of southern India. It is over 2,000 feet above sea level on average and is bounded by mountain ranges on three sides: the Western and Eastern Ghats on either side, and the Vindhya range to the north. The name “Deccan” is an anglicization of the Sanskrit word dakshin meaning south. The Deccan’s early history is not well-known, but low rainfall must have made it hard to inhabit until humans developed rudimentary irrigation techniques. Since about the 4th century BCE, though, it has been fought over by many lowland rulers in India for its abundance of mineral resources.

Till recently I’ve been generally oblivious of the Deccan and its role in Indian history. Somewhere between the story of Prithivraj Chauhan (1177 CE) and the First Battle of Panipat (1526 CE), my formal history curriculum in school took a huge leap from late 14th century Delhi to tales of the 17th Century Mughal Empire. Between Muhammad Bin Tughlak’s push towards Daulatabad and the British taking over all of India, vast swathes of Indian history between the 14th and 17th century set in the Deccan were completely absent from my formal education. You’d have thought nothing significant happened south of the Narmada between the time Alauddin Khilji hankered after Padmini of Chittor and the British took on Haidar Ali and Tipu Sultan. Of course I might have merely slept through it. Neelakanta Sastri with his History of South India filled this gap — though it did not make it to my high school curriculum.

Later historians, notably Romila Thapar and recently Salma Ahmed Farooqui, have covered Deccan History from the 12th to 18th centuries nicely. The challenge in reading history is that it could easily become a mind-numbing series of who blinded, deposed, imprisoned, or married whom, with names, places and dates running into one another. Making history both accessible and a ripping good tale is a tall order in general. Doing it in a way that allows readers to make sense of all the available facts while informing them of the many contrasting views is neither easy nor common, certainly in India.

Source: Goodreads

Richard Eaton’s A Social History Of The Deccan, 1300-1761: Eight Indian Lives does a great job of this difficult task. First and foremost, it tells a good tale, with eight historical figures in the foreground and history narrated around their – at times sparse – personal stories. The methodology of telling a historical figure’s story – or social history – around which the events of history flow, makes it easier to follow, as well as want to stay with it. The nitpickers among us can always argue whether these were the best eight characters to pick – others may wonder if the author was being politically correct in picking an Andhra warrior (or two), a Sufi saint, an Ethiopian slave, an Iranian nobleman, a Maratha queen and a non-brahmin saint – almost one for every demographic. Yet this choice of characters itself says more about the melting pot that was the Deccan of the 14th-17th century than all the other books we’ve read.

While history is often written by the victors, social history of the kind Eaton and others have pursued reveals history to be far more textured and nuanced. For instance, the common view, when we’ve actually read any history of the Deccan, that the “Hindu kingdom” of Vijayanagar was the bulwark against the onslaught of Islam, quickly falls apart. The influence of Persia and Central Asia on the Deccan, the role that trade and politics (even more than religion) played in shaping history, and how deeply embedded in history are the linguistic roots of South Indian society — these were all eye-opening, and challenged so many assumptions for me. I not only read it in one sitting the first time I borrowed it, but bought myself a copy and re-read it afterwards.

Gladiator Dies Only Once

Jean-Leon Gerome Pollice Verso.jpg

Jean-Léon Gérôme [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve never figured myself as a big reader of short mystery stories. Of course that never stopped me from reading O. Henry or Guy de Maupassant – admittedly some of that was in high school, but mysteries, especially historical mysteries had to be full length productions, ones that keep me up late, skipping meals and (gasp) ignoring family. Yet as I ran through an entire collection – Robert Parker’s Spenser series for instance, or Steven Saylor’s Roma Sub Rosa series, I found myself hankering for more tales of these sleuths and prepared to read short stories, if that is all I could lay my hands on. Boy, am I glad that I finally got over my silly hang ups around short stories and read Steven Saylor’s A Gladiator Dies Only Once.

The stories are set between 77BC (after the events of the first book in the Roma Sub Rosa series Roman Blood) and 64BC, when Gordianus the Finder moves to his Etruscan farm. It introduces a host of Roman characters whom we don’t meet in the full length novels – all of whom interesting in their own unique ways. A consul’s wife, a rebel general, an aging censor, gladiators all engaged in a variety of nefarious activities ranging from attempted murder, plain old fraud to rebellion and sedition. The book shines because of the author’s attention to the details of Roman food habits, the minutiae of fish farms, gladiator schools and gymnasiums. The stories themselves are set in a wide variety of locations across Italy and even Spain,  and take us well beyond Rome to better understand the empire and its people – citizens, senators and freedmen, gladiators and slaves.

The stories vary in length from a short mystery set in Gordianus’ own home, to the longest story (from which the book derives its title), which clearly seems to imply that gladiators don’t die only once. Do they? For even those who are not familiar with Steven Saylor’s excellent Roma Sub Rosa  series, this book can be a great introduction to not just Rome at the end of the Republic but to a great detective still evolving early in his career – driven by “human’s insatiable longing to see the truth” as Cicero puts it:

Natura inest in mentibus nostris insatiabilis quaedam cupiditas veri videndi