The Allure of Historicals (by David Krugler)

A professor of history and the author of several nonfiction books, David Krugler has also written two World War II spy thrillers (Pegasus Crime 2016 and 2018): The Dead Don’t Bleed and Rip the Angels from Heaven. Both received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly. The Illinois author’s first short story for EQMM, “Kit’s Pad,” appears in our current issue (November/December 2023), but he has had a number of other stories published, including “Two Sharks Walk Into a Bar,” chosen for Best American Mystery Stories of the Year 2023. In this post, he gives us a historian’s view of how history lends itself to mystery.  —Janet Hutchings

September 1995. I was hours into a long day of research in the reading room at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland. I was writing a dissertation about U.S. radio propaganda during the Cold War and parked next to my desk was a metal cart loaded with grey boxes crammed with historical documents. I needed to get through a few more boxes before I took a break, but my mind was wandering. Instead of finding documents that supported my dissertation’s argument, I was thinking about the memorably named individuals mentioned in memoranda from these State Department files from the late 1940s. Foy Kohler. Haldore Hanson. Howland Sargeant. They sounded like characters from a novel. Although Wikipedia didn’t yet exist, I’d somehow learned Howland Sargeant was married to actress Myrna Loy, star of the Thin Man movies based on the novels of Dashiell Hammett (another fabulous name). What was it like to be married to a movie star? I wondered. What was it like to be in Europe right after World War II, as many of these men were for their work? I was certain they had stories to tell. But I wasn’t there to write their biographies or relate their personal experiences. Their “roles” in my dissertation had to be limited to explaining, well, U.S. radio propaganda during the Cold War. I banished my idle musings and dragged my attention back to the documents.

Eventually, I finished the dissertation and got a job as a history professor, but that curiosity about the personal lives of figures from the past didn’t ebb. If anything, it grew stronger. I thought the curiosity might lead me to write a biography or two, but I just couldn’t get inspired or interested, despite picking some fascinating, real-life subjects in need of full-length biographies. The hesitancy both puzzled and unsettled me. I’m a historian, I reminded myself. Why was I reluctant to get started?

A decade or so ago, I figured out the problem. I didn’t want to write historical biography—I wanted to write historical fiction. Rather than make a return trip to the National Archives to page through dusty old documents, I wanted to create a past that didn’t require citations and populate it with characters from my own imagination. And I wanted my fiction to be mysteries.

Apostasy? I thought so at first. (For a long time I didn’t tell colleagues or professional peers I was writing fiction for fear of ridicule, or worse, bemused indifference.) But the more I wrote fiction, the more I realized history and the mystery genre have a lot more in common than I originally believed.

The past is a rich field for mystery, thrillers, and suspense writers. Just about any subgenre—procedural, noir, cozy, caper—can be transplanted to a historical time and place. For me, writing historicals also means I get to start with a background I already know, which is why a lot of my fiction is set in World War II or the 1970s. I’m familiar with the lay of the land, so to speak, and also many of the elements that make any story, whether set in the past, present, or future, engrossing and believable. How characters talk, what they do for a living, the fads and fashions of the day.

But the allure of writing historicals is much greater than already knowing some facts about a particular era. I find the people of the past more interesting than those of us who call the current times our own. Don’t get me wrong—we live in interesting times, to put it mildly, chockful of colorful characters and plenty of drama. But unlike we the living, the people of the past don’t get second chances, except through what we write about them. The historical writer, in both nonfiction and fiction, gives voice to the dead, just like the homicide detective does. As the character Harry Bosch said to his creator Michael Connelly in a 2002 “interview”: “You speak for the dead, man, because nobody else does.”

For the historian, speaking for the dead must follow strict rules. The facts must be accurate, the claims backed by evidence, the evidence recorded through citations. That means spending countless hours in archives and libraries, paging through reams of records or poring over books. (Or, as is becoming more common, reading scans of said documents on the screen of your choice.) Even after completing their research, historians can rarely tell readers what their subjects were thinking unless they happened to leave behind a diary or some written proof of their interior lives.

Writers of historicals may gleefully discard most of these rules. Maintaining a semblance of factual accuracy is still a good idea (no M-16s for Civil War infantry, please), but imagination, not the documentary record, is the limit of what characters can say, think, and do. An author also doesn’t need an archive or a library to get started. Inspiration for a recent story I wrote came from a single photograph from the 1970s. It depicts an elderly man standing proudly outside his tiny television and radio repair shop located beneath a Chicago elevated rail station. I often walk down this block—there’s a parking lot there now. What happened to that shop and to that nameless man? What were his days like, bent over his workbench, tools in hand, the guts of a television or radio spread out before him, trains rattling overhead every ten minutes? That musing led to a scenario. What if business wasn’t so good? What if he needed to borrow money from a loan shark? What might happen next? Spinning a story from these What-ifs is no attempt to explain what actually happened to that man. Rather, it’s an effort to describe what could have happened and to use a snippet of the past to handle a durable trope in the mystery genre: What happens to decent people when they’re forced to cut deals with the bad guys? Historicals offer writers and readers a way to see anew the familiar.

Another reason I find historicals alluring is because they challenge us to appreciate that the people of the past were complex and conflicted, struggling to live in a world of promise and peril, just as we do today. From the perch of the present, it’s easy to survey the past, especially its abundant instances of wars, exploitation, and violence, and ask, What were they thinking? How could they do these things to other people, and themselves? Philosophers pose a similar question: Why do good people do bad things? The obvious answer to all three questions is that, like us, the people of the past were contradictory human beings, capable of kindness and cruelty, of order and mayhem. It’s a cliché to say those who fail to learn from the past are doomed to repeat it. But how often do we pause to consider how the people of the past learned from their mistakes—and their accomplishments—as they progressed through their lives? Historicals offer authors and readers a vantage to observe characters from another era evolving and wrestling with the consequences of their actions as well as the hazards of their environment. Take Bernie Gunther, Philip Kerr’s indefatigable detective and the ultimate survivor. (Across numerous novels, Gunther outlasts the trench warfare of World War I, the Nazis, and a prisoner-of-war camp in the Soviet Union.) It’s a testament to the late Kerr’s talent as a novelist that he was able to create such a compelling protagonist in the figure of Gunther, who continually compromises with evil without surrendering his morals.

Now I have a confession. Having enthused about the allure of historicals, I must admit my story appearing in EQMM was not written as a historical. The plot of “Kit’s Pad” intertwines two contemporary issues we don’t often, if ever, think about at the same time: homelessness and bitcoin. After years of writing historicals, the challenge of immersing myself in the present was a welcome change. Putting myself in today’s world, plot-wise, was like coming out of a dim archive into a bright summer day. After submitting the story, I wondered if I should take a break from historicals.

Then we went to press. In the time between the story’s acceptance and the publication date, the “present” had changed, as it always will. Janet Hutchings, EQMM’s editor, caught a problem: the value of bitcoin had dropped substantially since I wrote the story. To keep the plot intact, she recommended I revise the value of the bitcoin downward or . . . set the story in the near past.

My choice? All I’ll say is, I don’t think you’ll be surprised.  


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