Wildside Books publishes a great many short novel/novella pairs as “Doubles”; this is their second Mystery Doubles collection. It focuses on historical mystery short stories by Darrell Schweitzer and Robert Reginald. The long and short of it is that if you enjoy historical mysteries, then you’ll want to pick this collection up.
Some mild plot spoilers follow.
DEADLY THINGS: A COLLECTION OF MYSTERIOUS TALES by Darrell Schweitzer: Schweitzer is one of those extraordinarily prolific authors you see everywhere in anthologies, though I had not previously read a collection of his work. This is a highly enjoyable collection of “historical” mysteries in three types. First are three mysteries set in ancient Rome, two of which feature Pliny the Younger as an investigator. Though I’m a historian by trade, the ancient world is not my area of expertise. Nevertheless, Schweitzer’s portrayal of Pliny’s world of the first century AD rings true. This is a world in which all of the characters have a profoundly pre-modern – but logically internally consistent – mindset that affects all their actions. That’s one of Schweitzer’s strengths here: all too often, authors of historical fiction portray their characters as products of the modern era, with the ahistorical mindset that that entails. No so here. Next are two Shakespearean mysteries, one involving King Henry V as an investigator and the other based on The Two Noble Kinsmen, a play that seems to be currently attributed to co-authors William Shakespeare and John Fletcher. I must confess that my knowledge and interest in Shakespeare’s work are minimal, so these didn’t resonate with me. Other readers with a greater interest in all things Shakespeare than mine would undoubtedly enjoy these two tales more than I. Schweitzer’s final three stories are all previously unknown cases involving Sherlock Holmes (as well as some appropriately low-key brushes with the supernatural). Pastiches like these can be done well or poorly; those of us who read non-Doyle Holmes stories have encountered many of each. I am pleased to report that these three Holmes stories are all very well done. Schweitzer has found a way to portray Holmes and Watson with respect and consistency without mindlessly aping Doyle’s canonical stories. Plus, they are fine stories of Victorian detection in their own right, even though some of the cases presented here remain unresolved.
THE JUDGMENT OF THE GODS AND OTHER VERDICTS OF HISTORY by Robert Reginald: Reginald presents us with four historical murder mysteries: one stand-alone – the eponymous “The Judgment of the Gods” concerning the murder of the Assyrian King Sennacherib – and three involving the medieval philosopher William of Occam (you will be familiar with his “Occam’s Razor” principle). I enjoyed all four stories, though the three involving William of Occam especially appealed to me because of my greater familiarity with and interest in the Middle Ages. Since these involve the commission of the Franciscan William of Occam and his young acolyte and chronicler to serve as detectives and troubleshooters by Pope John XXII, comparisons with Umberto Eco’s excellent THE NAME OF THE ROSE are inevitable. Significantly more approachable than Eco’s postmodern work, Reginald’s stories depict William’s use of reason and insight to solve the murders of a king, a pope, clergymen, and nuns. John XXII’s disputes with the Franciscans and various other power brokers provide a great sense of verisimilitude. That sense of place and time are the real strengths of these stories, which makes them very good historical mysteries indeed.
This double collection of historical mysteries is highly recommended. All are enjoyable, quick reads, and if you’re a fan of historical whodunnits, there’s undoubtedly something here for everyone, whether you are interested in the ancient world, the Middle Ages, or Victorian England.
Review copyright © 2013 J. Andrew Byers