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 et.al. A Day of Fire: A Novel of Pompeii

Thomas K. Alexander Alexandrian Saga 

Thomas K. Carpenter, Virtues of Madness 

 

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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.

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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.