Dismissing an entire genre or subgenre out of hand is, to say the least, unfair. One never knows what literary miracle lurks on the next shelf. Still, I suspect that all of us feel consistently dissatisfied with at least one genre--and, in my case, it happens to be the historical mystery. Quite frankly, as someone who specializes in historical fiction, I wish that I liked historical mysteries rather more than I do. But still, there they are, and here I am. While there are well-established formal links between historiography and detective fiction--something made explicit in the title of Robin Winks' famous manual, The Historian as Detective, and explored from a literary angle in Suzanne Keen's Romances of the Archive in Contemporary British Fiction--something about the historical mystery per se fails to click for me.
Part of my dissatisfaction may derive from the historical limitations on mysteries as a genre. In their introduction to The Detective as Historian: History and Art in Historical Crime Fiction, Ray Browne and Lawrence Kaiser argue that the crimes in mystery novels are, in effect, transhistorical. A murder is a murder is a murder, after all. The problem, though, is that while murder may spring eternal, the motives for same may not (just as other actions or natures may become or cease to be criminal). It's not very likely, for example, that a twenty-first century man would kill a blackmailer who had threatened to reveal that--horrors!--he had cheated at cards. (All things are possible, but still.) Most of the historical mysteries I've read do a much better job delineating historically accurate background than they do delineating historically accurate motives--and therein, I suspect, lies the rub. It's not just that the criminals tend to feel modern, but that the detectives often feel that way as well. (Sister Fidelma comes to mind.) As a result, historical mysteries often strike me as "narrower" than their more straightforward generic companions, for lack of a better word.
Anachronism has always haunted the historical novel; one of Sir Walter Scott's reviewers argued that his female characters would be repulsive if they were really true to their times. In other words, nineteenth-century writers and readers always fetched up against certain pockets of resistance when it came to historical accuracy, and things haven't changed. Patricia Finney's Gloriana's Torch is an interesting example of this point, especially because Finney includes a disclaimer at the end: "Lastly, please remember that the religious opinions of my characters are not necessarily my opinions and nor are their various prejudices" (452). My dissatisfaction-with-the-historical-mystery rule usually finds its exception in Finney, whose Gloriana's Torch is the third in a series of Elizabethan spy thrillers (and, from internal evidence, perhaps the last, although one never knows). To begin with, Finney's prose has real flair. Beyond that, her work takes more formal risks than is usual in this subgenre. Gloriana's Torch, for example, incorporates a moderate degree of metafiction, throws out linear narrative in favor of a "stacked" storyline that constantly doubles back on itself, and switches back-and-forth between "real" and "alternative" historical plots. While the cliffhangers are sometimes a bit too, well, obviously cliffhanger-y, the narrative moves along at an entertaining clip. And her characters are engaging.
Ergo, I'm not panning the novel, which I enjoyed a great deal. But the disclaimer was a bit puzzling, because Gloriana's Torch has some quite noticeable "pockets of resistance" in and around its religious themes. Although Finney shifts POV from one focal character to another, only one speaks in the first person--an African slave/servant and witch ("upside-down woman") named Merula. The most culturally and politically marginal of the novel's marginal characters, in terms of her relationship to the dominant Protestant and Catholic figures, Merula is also the least subject to either distancing or irony. Moreover, since she speaks retrospectively, her narrative voice comes equipped with a self-awareness missing from the POVs of the others. While there's certainly plenty of room to interpret Merula's hallucinatory moments of insight in purely rationalist terms, her polytheistic, universalist worldview stands out in bold and positive relief against that of the novel's sundry monotheists. Moreover, her theology threatens the Christians (and Jews, for that matter), but not vice-versa; one of her encounters, with the Catholic Edward Dormer, actually draws on a standard trope of fictional religious critique--what one might call "the laughing servant":
And she opened her onyx eyes very wide and started to laugh very heartily, slapped her thigh like a man. At last she said, "How can the Almighty be a man? You say He--does God have privates?"
It was evidently heresy, and yet it was difficult to argue against. And embarrassing. (391)
As is usually the case in such encounters, the "simple" servant's laughter reduces the theologically "sophisticated" speaker to silence; there is never an effective answer. (Such servants are standard issue in anti-Catholic fiction, but you can find two of them in James Hogg's The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner.) None of the overtly Christian characters come off particularly well: Dormer, besides flunking Theological Debate 101 and suffering from lust, is also a bit of a fool, while the inquisitor Josef Pasquale has an ironic taste for light bondage. And so on. (The Muslim character doesn't exactly do much better, but that's getting us into plot spoiler territory.)
Along the same lines, the novel consistently puts sixteenth-century Catholic antisemitism in the equivalent of scare quotes. Either the characters are "anxious," to use a worn-out turn of phrase, or they're so over-the-top as to be blatantly in the wrong according to the novel's own established criteria for moral behavior. As a result, the antisemitism is not so much disturbing--except in the most superficial of ways--as it is a clear marker of historical difference: this is how people in the sixteenth century thought, but we don't agree with them. (You could write a novel in which the reader was forced to confront the antisemitism without the figurative scare quotes, in which case you'd have something far more demanding and, indeed, frightening--but also, I suspect, far less marketable.) Whatever the characters think about religion, the narrator makes it clear which are to be blamed and which praised. Given the degree of textual insulation, as it were, why bother apologizing? (I suppose one could apologize for everybody's attitude to sex outside the missionary position...)