I must confess I am not particularly fond of historical mysteries, which puts me (once again) in the minority camp. My objections are twofold:
- Plot and characters all too often take a backseat to "production values"; the author has done his homework and wants it to show. Alas, it does.
- Because it's popular fiction and readers are meant to bound with the main protagonists, the latter tend to display attitudes and ideas which are quite mainstream in this day and age but were considerably less so back then. While I can see the commercial logic behind this, it's still cheating to me; when you set out to write a book set in the past, you must go all the way: no presentism, no statiscally-implausible beacon of enlightened values in a time of obscurity, no "oh-look-how-weird-they-were" condescension, no preachiness about how things are better nowadays.
Jean Stubbs avoids all of those trappings in this remarkable 1973 novel, the first of a trilogy featuring rather than starring Inspector John Joseph Lintott.
1890. Theodore and Laura Crozier have been married for fifteen years. On the surface they are a happy couple by contemporary standards of wealth and respectability. If you look beneath however, things are different. A cold, repressed and authoritarian man, Theodore treats his wife and children well - nothing more; his only soft spot is for his ever-broke younger brother Titus, a charming parasite with no interest in life but game and women. Entering marriage with bovary-like expectations of everlasting and passionate love, Laura was sorely disappointed with that anything but passionate husband who, as a final touch to an already unflattering portrait, happens to be also a hypocondriac always seeking for a new illness to suffer of. As time went by, however, they've found a modus vivendi - helped by Titus's comforting and sometimes troubling presence. And then Theodore dies. A natural death at first sight, but only at first sight. Murder? Suicide? It's Inspector Lintott's job to sort that out - or try to.
What makes Dear Laura such a wonderful work is that it makes no compromise; from first page it's total immersion into a different society - some would say a different world. Characters act victorian, talk victorian, think victorian; even their occasional rebellions against social codes stay within victorian boundaries. Lintott for instance is a likeable character, a skilled investigator and shows more empathy and compassion than most, but his values and opinions are those of his day - few modern female readers will agree with him that a woman "has no [sexual] need". None of the characters will have a Damascus experience; Laura Crozier repeatedly complains about her status and enjoys the freedom she finally finds as a widow but nothing suggests any intention of hers to go further and engage the establishment, though she fancies assisting a Fabian Society meeting - probably more out of the thrill of doing something forbidden than any serious commitment or intellectual curiosity.
The plot is typically victorian as well, revolving around a hidden secret, a major theme of sensation fiction and logical outcome of a society obsessed with respectability. Lintott's gentle yet firm manners as well as his ability to get along with the domestics makes him a cousin of Wilkie Collins' Sgt. Cuff. Even the ending, while cynical to the last degree, actually conforms in an admittedly twisted way to victorian values. The object of the secret and Stubbs' use of misdirection, however, are distinctively modern, as well as the rampant nihilism permeating it all.
For Dear Laura is a bleak book, though nothing shocking is ever shown or openly said, understatement being another distinctive trait of victorian literature. The society it portrays is an open-air jail where everyone is both a prisoner and a jailer. Even those holding power or seeming to are subjected to the same self-enforcing, never questioned codes, no matter how suffering they bring; the next century is only a decade away, but it might as well be one million years. No sign of change, no sign of a desire for change, is in sight. Jean Stubbs, unlike some of her later followers, passes no judgement; she just observes and provides the reader with the evidence she collected. The result may not be exotic, picturesque, it's certainly not a feel-gooder and doesn't give any easy answer, but it rings true without burying the reader with useless erudition and straight-from-the-textbook "atmospheric" touches. This is, in short, the kind of historical mystery that I like.