Ellen Moody’s blog has recently carried an entry on a book by Winston Graham entitled Poldark’s Cornwall (see http://ellenandjim.wordpress.com/2010/09/19/graham-winstons-poldarks-cornwall/).

In the book Graham writes about three types of historical novel: Ellen summarises….

He divides the kind into three types: those which use actual historical personages as chief characters (I Claudius); second where historical personages are substantial figures but main characters are fictional (Scott); third where the characters are “entirely, or almost entirely fictitious” (Stevenson, and of course his own; so too Margaret Mitchell I’d say). He says in the literature there is a tendency to rate the first and second types much higher than the third and this is “pretentious rubbish.” Fine novels, works of art, and truths about history occur in all three.

It occurs to me that exactly the same division can be applied to historical mysteries. However I am not at all sure that the ‘rating’ proceeds along the same lines where mysteries are concerned. It would also be my impression that the growth of type one in historical mysteries has been something of a recent development. Now it may be that I quite wrong about this as my reading of historical mysteries has only really developed over the past two or three years (since I started reviewing for rte in fact). Previously I was limited to one or two series – Cadfael or Lindsay Davis’s Falco for instance. My general impression would be that type 2 predominates in the historical mystery world. Although this is fact a large category because the amount of space occupied by ‘real’ characters caries considerably. Indeed in the two series mentioned they play a small part in Cadfael but a much larger one in Falco.

A fourth category would be the use of fictional characters; the considerable number of Sherlock Holmes continuations, pastiches, parodies, speculations etc.  probably making up the vast bulk of these.

I have read example of all three kinds in 2010. To me the most surprising success is that in category 1 where I think Carol McCleary’s use of Nellie Bly has been a revelation to me.

But it is as another way of thinking about historical mysteries that I find Graham’s categorisation helpful. I would welcome thoughts from those more widely read than myself in the sub-genre however, in particular on whether there is any connection between the categories and the type of mystery which results.

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