Murder in 500 Words


Photo: Poughkeepsie Day School

“It’s one thing to talk about this in the abstract, Fred, but tell me – have you ever, like, actually killed someone?”

“Other than my tours of duty with the Marines? No. But I kill people with words, every day.”

“Oh, come on, Fred. Killing people off in novels is pure fiction, pardon the pun.”

“No, I’m not talking about my novels. It’s my reporting work, my crime beat. People die every day, and I write about them.”

“But that’s just not the same thing, Fred. For one thing, you had no hand in their deaths, other than writing about it after the fact.”

“Well, the public at large doesn’t know they’re dead until I write about them. These people die in the public mind only when they read what’s in the papers.”

“Really, Fred? You’re going with the ‘If a tree falls in a forest…’ trope?”

“It’s actually more than that. And I’m quite serious. Alright, how about a concrete example? Joe Bloe rats on his Mafia bosses, goes into the Federal Witness Protection Program, and becomes John Doe. And Joe Bloe disappears. Gone, poof! I’d say that classifies as a death.”

“But not in a physical sense! At best, that works as a loss of identity.”

“I think you’re being naïve, if I may say so. Our identities define us. Or have you not read about the Ship of Theseus?”

“I can’t believe I’m listening to this. Ship of Theseus? Tearing down and re-creating an identity doesn’t change physical and biological facts.”

“But it gets to the very heart of what we know, how we know it, and how that knowledge defines reality.”

“I’m a simple guy, Fred. We can debate this in the philosophical realm all you want, but it all falls apart the moment you get down to biology. Death has to involve a lifeless body, you know — a heart that’s stopped ticking. Habeas corpus, and all that. Produce the body!”

“But we accept death everyday, simply on the basis of having read about it. We assume someone, somewhere must have seen the body. In our minds, in the minds of my half-a-million subscribers, these people are dead.”

“Alright, fine. I’ll go along. Where are we going with this?”

“Well, surely you have heard of identity theft by now? My thesis is not unlike the Joe Bloe example. Hack into the system, erase all trace of an identity – and bingo, we have identity death. Then we write about it, and it all becomes quite real.”

“I think you’re getting quite carried away, Fred. You’re banking on anonymity here. Those newspaper deaths you keep talking about – they work because we don’t know any of those people personally. You can erase my identity, but my wife would still know I exist. My kids, my friends, …come on!”

“And I think you’re counting on all of those things a little too much. You clearly haven’t thought about this as much as I have. It’s quite powerful, actually. All I need is a test case, and it will become quite clear that this is not idle speculation.”

“A test case?”

“Yes, exactly. What if I erased your identity, for example?”

“Well, I’ll just call my wife. No, wait, even better. I’ll Face Time her. You can say hello, if you want.”

“On your cell phone? You really haven’t thought through this, have you?”

“OK, fine, I get that. My cell phone wouldn’t work anymore because I’m ‘theoretically’ dead. But, I can call her on the landline. I can drive home and see her in person.”

“I don’t want to burst your bubble, but there are a few minor issues that might prevent you from getting there. The police, for one, will want to know what you’re doing in a vehicle that once belonged to someone else, now deceased. Not to mention how immeasurably crude and insensitive it would be to put your wife, or should I say, your widow, through all that while she is mourning your loss.”

“Fred, I think you’ve been brooding here by yourself a little too much, man. You’ve totally lost your marbles! I think I should leave now.”

“Oh, not at all. I’m quite alright, thank you. And I wouldn’t go anywhere just yet. Especially not without reading this first.”

“What is this? … Oh my god, what sort of sick joke is this? Fred, this is my obituary!”

“Yes, I’m afraid it is. I needed a test case, remember? You’re dead, Jake. Or Dan, or Frank, or whatever your name is in the digital afterlife. It’s quite a nice obituary, actually. One of my better pieces. And quite generous, too. I gave you 500 words.”


Books of April

book_coverI think we can all agree that there is something magical about Spring, with buds beginning to bloom, and fresh greenery for the eyes to feast on. The days are longer too, after the brief blink-and-you-miss-it periods of sunlight during the cold, dark winter months. It’s a time of renewal at home when we clean out the closets and get the dust out of rooms that haven’t breathed the outdoor air for months. It’s also the perfect time to make new lists of books to read – so we can look forward to spending the coming summer months curled up with one, while parked underneath a beach umbrella, or swinging gently in a hammock in the backyard. And that, at least, is something we know we can help you with.

So, without further ado, here are our reading recommendations, culled from our blog posts over the last month or so. Each is a historical mystery, with its own unique setting in time and place:


D.T. Niane, Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali

Rafael Scott, Beyond Mali

The 15th Century

Philippa Gregory, The Other Boleyn Girl

PC Doherty, The Serpent Amongst the Lilies

Margaret Frazer, The Novice’s Tale

Alex Rutherford, Raiders from the North

CC Humphreys, A Place Called Armageddon

The Vikings

Bernard Cornwell, The Last Kingdom

Medieval England

Ellis Peters, An Excellent Mystery

Peter Tremayne, Absolution by Murder

Ancient Greece

Paul Doherty, The House of Death

We hope you find something on this list that catches your fancy. In any case, do let us know what you think, both about the list itself, and the books that are on it.

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!

If Attila Met Augustus

History mashupsLike other parents with young children, I have been through many a parental summer rite of passage in my life. No, I’m not talking about baseball games or vacations to Disneyland — I’m talking about being the designated chaperone for those popcorn-filled orgies that are called children’s movies. Sure, there was the occasional Toy Story or Finding Nemo, but more often than not, I had to sit through the mind-numbing torture of the likes of Nacho Libre, Daddy Day Care, and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. So, when I was commandeered some years ago to take my kids to see Night at the Museum, I feared the worst — my only faint hope was that a movie featuring Ben Stiller had to have some redeeming qualities. And redeem itself it did — because the movie, quite literally, brought history to life.

The central conceit of the movie, as some of you may know, is that a mysterious Egyptian artifact with magical powers causes the exhibits at the American Museum of Natural History to come alive between sundown and daybreak. Imagine a wild party each night, featuring an eclectic guest list that includes Teddy Roosevelt, Attila the Hun, Sacagawea, a Roman general, a Neanderthal, and a cowboy from the Wild West, and you’ve got yourself much more than the setup line of a two-part joke. I was thinking about this the other day and it struck me that this could be an extraordinary way to blend history and fantasy in a way that’s quite different from what’s been done before. Tolkien and his modern day successor, George R.R. Martin, invented whole worlds and mythologies in the Lord of the Rings and the Game of Thrones respectively. Others, like Michael Crichton, have cannily blended history and science fiction (with a dose of cinematographic screenplay thrown in for good measure), in books like Timeline. And then there is the even more complex fantasy space occupied by works like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, which combine historical settings and characters with fantasy and horror.

But instead, what if we took a bunch of real and fictional historical figures from different eras, different geographies, and cultures, and made them inhabit the same narrative space? What would the story-telling arc look like if we pitted Attila the Hun and Augustus Caesar against each other? Or if we sent William of Baskerville forward in time to investigate a poisonous death orchestrated by the Borgias? Of course, we may have to make appropriate concessions for the clash of eras and cultures — adjustments would be needed for at least one side of the historically mismatched characters, in terms of language and attire and worldly knowledge. But for all we know, these perceived obstacles may well turn out to be just the literary devices we need to free us from the shackles of historical fact and let us explore the unfettered world of fantasy.

Needless to say, I have looked at this idea very much from the naive perspective of someone who has not really researched whether it’s already been done. But it seemed too delicious a dessert to wait for — having sampled the appetizer, and smelled the aroma of what’s baking in the oven, can one be faulted for wanting to skip the veggies and the roughage to get straight to the final course? Moreover, if it indeed has been done before, that should be no deterrent to doing it again, and perhaps even doing it better. I think this has the makings of a meal comprised almost entirely of dessert.

Let me know what you think.


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?


Women Writers Through the Ages

Julian of Norwich
Photo: Courtesy of The Friends of Julian of Norwich and Felicity Maton

Readers of our blog (you know who you are, all three of you!) are well aware of our abiding interest in history, good writing, and page-turning whodunits. We love it even more if all three of those areas have a happy convergence. What may be lesser known is our occasional fascination for some historical detective work of our own — whether it is wondering when the business of sleuthing began, or how the Mayan civilization collapsed, or what mysteries lie hidden in the fossils of Ariyalur.

So when my friend and collaborator, Srikrishna, sent me a recent article in the Guardian about an exhibition of manuscripts by the earliest known women writers in English, I couldn’t help but ask the obvious question: who were the first women writers in history? We have always been fans of women writers on this blog (see our previous post, which is a great starting point for anyone who wants to explore women writers of historical fiction, and our podcasts, which highlight a number of leading women writers in this genre). So I had more than enough incentive to research the answer to my self-posed question.

enheduanaAnd here’s what I found, in what I would like to think was my informed, but unscientific quest. The consensus among many historians and literary scholars is that Enheduana, a high priestess in ancient Sumeria, is not only the first female author and poet in history, but in all likelihood, the world’s first author by name, male or female. She was the daughter of King Sargon of Akkad and her poems about the goddess Inanna, written in the 3rd millennium BC, quite possibly influenced the psalms of the Hebrew Bible and the Homeric hymns of Greece. Paul Kriwaczek’s excellent history of Babylon, worth reading in its own right, offers a fascinating glimpse of Enheduana’s life and writings.

Other parts of the ancient world can equally lay claim to women writers of great avvaiyardistinction. In India, the Avvaiyars (Tamil for “wise women”), were a series of several female poets, the first of whom lived and wrote in the Sangam period, between the 1st and 2nd century AD. A second Avvaiyar lived in the Chola period in the 10th century AD, and wrote poems which remain popular even today, often recited in Tamil schools in India. In China, several sources credit the Lady Xu Mu, who lived in the 7th century AD, as being the first recorded female poet in Chinese. Her haunting poems of homesickness and longing were not only appreciated by her contemporaries from the period, but also admired by later generations. Greece, never far from any conversation about ancient culture, has its own share of the market on early women writers. Sappho’s enduring reputation as an extraordinary lyric poet of antiquity has survived the passage of time and the loss of most of her works. Plato even called her the “the tenth muse.” However, I found very little about her life, other than the broad outlines of where and when she lived (between 615 and 550 BC, on the island of Lesbos).Sappho

Regretfully, that’s about as far as I went. I know it’s a mere scratch on the surface of the vast body of women’s writing through the ages. But I would like to think it’s not half bad for a pleasant afternoon spent clicking through online sources and quaffing multiple cappuccinos (I refuse to confirm how many, out of respect for the 5th amendment). Of course, I need hardly say that being an informed fan is not the same as being an expert, so take what I have found with a grain of salt (or if you’re so inclined, a suitable glass of wine, or god forbid, multiple cappuccinos).

And do tell us what you think, especially if you feel there are other women writers from history that we should explore on this blog. We are always on the lookout for any excuse to read and write on our favorite topics!

Historical Mysteries Set in the 15th Century

map of the worldThere’s a birthday keepsake that hangs on the wall of my son’s bedroom. It lists all the important events that happened on his birth day, and in his birth year. There are names of famous people throughout history that share his day of birth, and there are important events across the world that happened in his birth year. Of course, also included in the mix are a number of plain old factoids — how much a gallon of gasoline cost back then, or what TV show had the most ratings, or which movie won the Best Picture Oscar that year.

I was looking at that wall hanging the other day, and it dawned on me that it would be pretty interesting to try an exercise like that with the historical fiction genre. I could take a particular era, say the 15th century, and cast an eye on everything that happened in that time frame, around the world. Without really planning anything out, I instinctively started with Europe at the tail end of the middle ages (with Henry V at Agincourt, and Joan of Arc burned at the stake), and then slowly transitioned into the Renaissance (with the emergence of great artists like Michelangelo and da Vinci). Across the Atlantic, the Americas were still in the early days of being invaded and colonized by the Spanish. Meanwhile, around roughly the same time, Timur Lang and his marauding hordes were conquering Damascus, and beating up on the Ottomans in Turkey. The Vikings’ foothold in Greenland had just ended after a 400-year occupation. The Ming Emperor in China was building the Forbidden City. Over in India, Guru Nanak had started a new religion, Sikhism, while the Bahmani kingdom was reaching its peak in the Deccan plateau. In Africa, the Mali kingdom of West Africa was in decline.

I suppose I could have gone on, depending on how granular I wanted to get. But while the historical exercise was fascinating in its own right, what I was really itching to discover, given my perspective here on this site, was the historical fiction set during that period. So I followed the trail and cast about all the familiar places I haunt (Goodreads, Historical Novels, to name a few). Not surprisingly, I found literally a ton of fiction set in 15th century Europe: from Philippa Gregory‘s series on the Tudors, to PC Doherty‘s mysteries featuring his sleuth, Matthew Jankyn, to Margaret Frazer and her Benedictine nun as crime-solver.

As I trekked over into Asia and the Middle East, though, the landscape started to thin out: Alex Rutherford’s novels on the Mughal empire did begin in the 15th century with Babur, and CC Humphreys’ novel about the fall of Constantinople was a good find, but I didn’t see a whole lot other than that. And while I dug up a wealth of historical fiction set in Japan and China, the 15th century didn’t seem to be much of a historical hotspot for those writers. It was the same story in the Americas — I found a good cache of fiction set earlier than the 15th century (the Mayan and Aztec civilizations, notably), or later than that, with the romanticized Wild West occupying much of the book shelf. Africa turned out to be no different — again, a heavy concentration of material set in ancient Egypt, but hardly anything touching the 15th century specifically.

So there you have it — I started with an idea (which, of course, seemed absolutely brilliant at the time), and took it as far as I could with the resources I had available. And while it didn’t quite turn out to be the magical journey I imagined it would be, it certainly gave me a glimpse of the kinds of fictional roads I could travel. I still think it’s an idea worth exploring for all lovers of historical fiction — whether to find new reading territory, or even just for the sheer fun of it.

Looking back on my little journey across time and space, perhaps the arbitrary choice of the 15th century was not a great one, if the goal was to find historical fiction set during that period in many parts of the world. But the good news is that there are plenty of other centuries to choose from. To borrow from Stephen Bayne, having so much historical fiction to explore is rather like “being a mosquito in a nudist camp.” So, happy exploring, everyone, and let us know what your favorite time period is!