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Why historical mysteries?


Poison bottle with smoke coming from top

I’ve thought about this a lot, but I can’t find where I’ve ever written a blog post about it. It’s possible one does exist, though, so if this all sounds familiar, feel free to skip reading this iteration.


Back when the African Violet Club mystery series was my current project, I ran into a problem. I try not to make the method of the murder the same in every book, because if every victim is shot with a rifle, that’s boring for me, and so I assume it’s the same for you. That’s also the reason I’d avoided using poison as the method of death. Everyone who’s ever read Agatha Christie knows all about arsenic, strychnine, and cyanide. If I say “bitter almonds,” most of you will shout, “Cyanide!” before you even read this whole sentence.

I’d come up with something clever for Double Pink Murder (at least, I thought it was clever), but for the new book, I was having a problem. I thought about going back to the unholy three, but, as you might have guessed, obtaining any of them would be a problem now. While those poisons used to be ingredients in readily available household products, it’s against the law to use them in anything the general public can purchase in the twenty-first century. You need all kinds of certificates and stuff to buy them, which would provide clear evidence of who the murderer had to be.


I can’t tell you how many hours I spent searching for a poisonous substance that could be ingested without the person noticing something off about it, that was still legal to purchase over-the-counter, as it were. I did come up with something, but the work involved to get there discouraged me from trying to do it again.


And then there’s the other little thing that has been a game-changer as far as mystery writers are concerned: the cell phone.


A standard mystery trope is that the sleuth has to get themselves into trouble, usually by stepping into a trap set by the killer. They can’t have any outside resources, and generally must use their wits to come up with a means of escape or a way to outsmart the villain. But in today’s world, they carry a device in their pocket which can dial 9-1-1 from almost anywhere, give them directions to the nearest town if they’re driven blindfolded to a remote location, or research any device ever invented to find a workaround to escape it. And there are only so many times you can have the battery die or be out of range of a cell tower before readers are laughing instead of shivering.


Fortunately, in roughly the same years, a little program called Downton Abbey appeared on PBS and became all the rage. I loved every episode, and the first two movies after the series ended. (We will not speak about the last one.) Better yet, Julian Fellowes subsequently came up with a new historical series, The Gilded Age, which captured the attention of all those Downton Abbey fans, including me. And it just so happened that a small Massachusetts town I once lived in played a prominent role in the social life of the same period.


It doesn’t take a genius to put two and two together. The Gilded Age barely had telephones, much less cell phones. And the Consumer Product Safety Commission didn’t exist back then, in fact, wouldn’t come into being until decades later. People had plenty of dangerous things in their homes and businesses. (Insert evil laugh here.)


And that’s why I started writing historical mysteries. Plain laziness. (Ignore all those hours of research to find out when electricity replaced gas for lighting, what occupations were suitable for women, etc. That’s fun, if you’re of a certain mind frame, which I am.)

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