The Mammoth Book of Historical Whodunnits, edited by Mike Ashley

I like mysteries and I like short stories, yet I've been disappointed in the dozen or so mystery short stories I've read. Their fine plotting, characterization and setting draw me in, but their abrupt endings always take me by surprise, without the twists and false trails and doublings-back that I expect from a mystery. The fault was clearly with me and not with the stories themselves, so I decided to adjust my expectations by reading this collection of 26 mystery short stories.

I further handicapped myself by choosing historical mysteries, which I tend to be wary of. Writing stories set in the distant past requires considerable research and scholarship in order to include period-appropriate details and avoid anachronisms.

However, I'm pleased to report that the stories in this collection are very good and have persuaded me to become a fan of mystery short stories. All of the authors represented here are adept at sketching a character with very few words and drawing the reader into the story quickly, often through our sympathy with the main character. The cast of characters in each is necessarily limited, so sometimes the solution is not so much who did it, but how or why.

Another of my quirks is that I dislike stories that use real people as characters. It seems like a failure of imagination to me, a case of the author taking a shortcut by using some historical personage instead of dreaming up his or her own characters. It also seems to me unfair to the people themselves, making up tales about them when they are no longer around to defend themselves, as Milan Kundera argues so eloquenty in Immortality. Unfortunately, several of these stories fall into this trap, featuring Heroditus, Hildegarde of Bingen, Chaucer, and Ben Franklin.

However, reading a very good story featuring Leonardo Fibonacci, the great mathematician, made me reconsider. Perhaps including such relatively unknown figures may encourage readers to learn more about the real person and thus help keep their names alive, just as—I confess—reading Classics Illustrated comics as a child predisposed me to enjoy these books when I came to read the originals.

Perhaps this is as good a time as any to confront more of my entrenched likes and dislikes, before I harden completely into an old curmudgeon. I will certainly be looking for other books by the authors I've enjoyed here.

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