Book Recipes: How to Write a Historical Murder Mystery

I’m back and what better way to celebrate the new year than by going back to an old one. Make sure you’ve had your jabs, we’re going time travelling!

 

Ingredients:

  • One suspiciously ahead-of-their-time detective
  • A team of loyal assistants who can be shuffled into the following categories:
    • Dependable muscle
    • Slightly shady rogue
    • Science one
  • A noble patron who is kind of the boss but can’t say ‘turn in your badge’ because badges haven’t been invented yet
  • Urchins
  • A sinister yet attractive lady
  • Someone who will describe things as ‘most irregular’
  • About a dozen people who are there to show how backwards history can be
  • A couple of well-known historical figures for our detective to chat to
  • One historical backdrop, complete with smells
  • MURRRDERRRR

 

Method:

  1. Unroll your historical backdrop behind our detective. Allow the reader to experience the sights and many, many smells of The Past.
  2. But oh no, what’s this? A crime?
giphy chipmunk
Dun dun DUUUNNNNN. (image: giphy.com)
  1. Our noble patron tells the detective to solve the murder. We don’t know why they’re in charge of murder-solving, but they are, and they have a special office for it.
  2. Our detective assembles his trusty crew. Time to investigate!
  3. Go to the crime scene and look around, but y’know, historically. This basically means you will have to bribe everyone to tell you stuff and that the crime scene will be in an absolute state.
  4. A sinister yet attractive lady turns up. She almost certainly has a Secret, but it’s okay because secrets are hot.
  5. Introduce your detective to some historical figures. One of them will have an original character attached to them in some way but they definitely won’t become important at around step eighteen, why do you ask?
  6. Find a Clue and celebrate in the manner most appropriate to the time period.
  7. Our detective has seen a suspicious character. Better follow them past a bunch of super-famous historical landmarks.
  8. The Clue has led our detective to another important place! Go there and investigate.
  9. Have a chat with another historical figure to pass the time. The sinister yet attractive lady is there, so make sure you look cool.
  10. Oh look, another Clue! But this one links with the first Clue in a way that’s really weird, what could it meeeaaannnn?
  11. Receive a talking-to from the patron. Drop hints that the king is displeased.
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Hopefully it’s not this one. (image: theguardian.com)
  1. Examine the Clues. Get the science friend to basically recreate a procedure from modern forensics and at last, a break in the case!
  2. But wait! The sinister yet attractive lady has been attacked by ruffians! We must save her, as this completely proves her innocence and was definitely not staged.
  3. Start feeling all tender and squishy. Perhaps our detective could give up this detective business that he’s only just invented and settle –
  4. HAHA IT WAS A TRAP YOU’VE BEEN BETRAYED
  5. Turns out the sinister yet attractive lady has been in cahoots with the original character from step seven all along. It was them who DONE THE MURDER. Now the detective has been locked up or something while they carry out the final stage of their plan. How will you ever cope with the betrayal?
  6. Escape and foil their dastardly plan, that’s how.
  7. Gather everyone including your patron into one room so you can explain how you solved the murder. Receive a tip from your patron, mope a little about what might have been, but then go back home with your detective pals for some period-accurate snacks.

THE END. Serve with torn edges and stained with a used teabag.

 

Tips:

  • Choose your time period carefully. You want a nice big window between the invention of cities and the invention of a modern police force.
  • Make sure your background is really, really gross. Bonus points for every passing character with syphilis.
  • Spend at least the first fifty pages just pootling round, showing your readers the sights. They definitely won’t get bored!
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GET TO THE MURDER DAMMIT (image: giphy.com)
  • Have at least one character addressed as ‘my liege’.
  • Not sure how to solve a mystery without modern methods? That’s fine! Just make your character use modern methods, but y’know, historically. Have all the other characters describe their methods as ‘unconventional’ and all your bases are covered.
  • Anyone who coughs is a goner.
  • Pay particular attention to language. Don’t say ‘hello’, say ‘good morrow’. Don’t wear ‘trousers’, wear ‘breeches’ or ‘hose’. Swear all you like, it’s authentic, but never, ever do it in front of a lady. You animal.

 

And here’s one I prepared earlier…

 

William Fleetwood strode through the workroom doors and threw his handkerchief down on the alchemist’s table. It landed with a clatter. “There,” he said. “Best I could do, I’m afraid.”

Mortimer Banks put on his magnifying spectacles and opened the handkerchief up with a pair of tweezers. Wrapped up in the lace-edged cotton were about a dozen nuggets of misshapen metal. Mortimer poked one, experimentally.

“And they’ve not been contaminated?”

Fleetwood sat down heavily and got out his pipe. “It’s a clean hanky, if that’s what you’re asking.”

Mortimer took off his spectacles and gave him a look. “You know perfectly well that is not what I meant.”

Fleetwood took a puff on his pipe and tried to keep his temper. He took off his long, curly wig, scratched his head and propped his feet up on the tea-chest. “They’re as clean as they can be, considering where I found them.”

Mortimer went pale at the memory. The misshapen metal had been found stuffed into the mouth of Colonel Victor Timothy Gonnairgh – or rather, into the mouth of his corpse. Fleetwood thought Mortimer was being unnecessarily squeamish. After all, he’d given them a wipe.

“I hope you at least wore gloves,” muttered Mortimer, turning back to the metal. “There are the prints of many fingers here…show me your hands.”

Fleetwood held out his hand. Mortimer peered at them and made a disparaging noise.

“Yes,” he said, “I can clearly see the prints of your fingers, but there are others…if only there were some sort of base in which to store all this data. With some sort of searchable engine, the task would take but a moment…”

“Have you such an engine?”

“Regrettably not. Perhaps if my first laboratory had not been burned by that ogre Cromwell and his men – ” They both paused to spit extravagantly. “ – then I might have been equal to the task. Alas, I shall have to make do with what Lord Fitzffortescue affords me.”

“Cheer up, old man,” said Fleetwood, puffing on his pipe again.

“Hmm.”

Mortimer turned back to his bench and started boiling something in a beaker. He started dropping the lumps of metal into the beaker one by one, and then taking them back out again. “Did the maidservant say anything useful?”

“Not a jot,” said Fleetwood. “Dreadfully upset, wonderful employer, the usual. I happened to mention Cromwell –” They spat. “ – and she turned quite pale, but I couldn’t get anything out of her. Nothing that would satisfy Lord Fitzffortescue, anyway.”

Fleetwood’s patron, Lord Fitzffortescue, was a demanding man who took orders only from the king, having helped him back to power after the fall of Cromwell (Fleetwood spat again, just to be sure). He had charged Fleetwood with solving Gonnairgh’s murder, quickly, quietly, and with minimal bribes.

“Of course she didn’t,” said Mortimer, “not if you blundered in there like you always do. You know, sometimes I think that approach might work well if you had a partner with you – someone who might be able to play some kind of ‘good’ role, while you assume the ‘bad’…”

“A partner, Master Fleetwood?” came a low, female voice.

Fleetwood scrambled to his feet, dropped his pipe and rammed his wig on his head. He turned around and saw Lady Evelyn Hyde smiling in the doorway. With her gown of gold brocade and her shiny auburn hair, she looked very out of place in the cramped, spit-splattered laboratory.

“Lady Hyde! How may I –”

Do call me Evelyn. I hear you’ve been attending to the late Colonel Gonnairgh.”

Fleetwood tried to look regretful and sombre, but also still tall and manly. “It is my sad duty.”

“You must be very brave to look upon such dreadful things.”

“Yes, well.”

Lady Evelyn smiled at him and came closer, brushing past Mortimer’s workbench. “I must say, I would feel very safe if I knew that you were my protector.”

Fleetwood coughed on purpose to make his voice sound deeper. “Would you?”

“Oh yes…”

Just then, Mortimer sprang to his feet, shouting. His beaker was fizzing frantically and giving off a strange, noxious gas. He pointed at Lady Evelyn. “She put something in my beaker!”

She stepped back. “How do you – I mean, what do you mean?”

Mortimer jabbed a finger at the beaker. “You’ve added acid to this! Look, the metal’s all dissolving!”

Lady Evelyn fluttered her eyelashes. “Dear Master Banks, I am sure that I, a mere woman, would never even carry such – what did you call it? Ah-sid?”

Fleetwood sprang to her defence. “See? Of course she didn’t do that, Mortimer, she’s a lady. Why would she even have any acid?”

Lady Evelyn frowned prettily. “Is it a kind of ribbon? I do so love ribbons.”

“She did!” Mortimer wailed, “I know she did!”

“Perhaps it is best if I leave you to your deductions,” said Lady Evelyn, swiftly pocketing a handful of papers. “You simply must tell me what you find out, dear Master Fleetwood. I should be very glad to hear it.”

She left. Fleetwood watched her go with a dreamy smile on his face while Mortimer muttered at his bench. When he started paying attention again he noticed that he was short fifty guineas and three pewter mugs.

“What I wouldn’t give for some surveillance in this place,” Mortimer muttered, “perhaps in some kind of circuitry that could be closed to the public…”

Fleetwood laughed. “Oh, Mortimer,” he said, “what will you think of next?”

 

My full book-cookbook can be found here. Let me know what you’d like me to look at next – and as always, take this recipe with a pinch of salt.

Alice-In-Wonderland-I-See-What-You-Did-There
Heh heh heh. (image: replycandy.com)
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