Why Historians Love Comparing Themselves with the Great DetectivesRoundup
tags: fiction, Detectives
Carolyn Eastman is a historian at Virginia Commonwealth University. Her book, The Strange Genius of Mr. O: The World of the United States’ First Forgotten Celebrity, received the Library of Virginia Literary Prize for Nonfiction and the James Bradford Best Biography Prize from the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic in 2022.
Historians love to tout an association with detectives and mysteries. From the television shows History Detectives and History’s Greatest Mysteries to the podcast Mystery History, characterizing historians as detectives has held such strong appeal that popular history textbooks and classes use the association as a selling point. My own department offers a series of courses under the umbrella heading The Art of Historical Detection. Nor is the association between historian and detective a recent phenomenon. When the historian and philosopher R.G. Collingwood published The Idea of History in 1946, he told readers that “the hero of a detective novel is thinking exactly like an historian when, from indications of the most varied kinds, he constructs an imaginary picture of how a crime was committed, and by whom.”
If there’s a bit of appropriated glamour in the comparison—making our research seem more exciting than it often is—the association is nevertheless well earned. Like detectives, historians need to ask good questions, seek help from experts in a wide range of fields, solve problems creatively, and search out unexpected resources. We wrestle with difficult and slippery characters from the past who left us documents that offer only varnished, contingent views. We learn to read all our original sources with a grain of salt, and develop innovative ways of analyzing and contextualizing them. We question earlier interpretations, wondering whether a previous scholar jumped too quickly to make assumptions. Educators suggest that urging students to see themselves as historical detectives leads them to understand history better and become more critical thinkers.
But if it’s aspirational to think of ourselves as detectives, historians also have something to gain from that genre. “All historians read mysteries,” the renowned historian Mary Beth Norton told me matter-of-factly. I think I know why: Historians—like detectives—spend a lot of their time floundering as they try to understand the past.
Reading about detectives who flounder can be cathartic. Years ago I discovered Henning Mankell’s novels, especially those featuring the dour detective Kurt Wallander. To a degree I find unmatched in other mysteries (and uncaptured in the TV adaptations of the books), Mankell portrayed Wallander as utterly baffled by the crime for drawn-out portions of each book, clueless as to a perpetrator or a motive. During these periods, Wallander frets that the seemingly nonsensical brutality of the crime is indicative of larger, existential concerns—signs that his country had become unrecognizable to him.
Historians are familiar with this kind of chaos and confusion—and the work it takes, day after day, to make sense of our research. As a friend used to say, with mock precision: When writing anything, historians spend the first 65 percent of their time struggling to figure out what the evidence means, and how to analyze and contextualize it. (Then there’s the self-doubt as you wonder why you aren’t doing something meaningful, like seeking a cure for cancer.)
Wallander’s process of dealing with the mess of a case is an object lesson. Wallander moves slowly and blindly through the first 65 percent of each investigation, and Mankell underlines the tiny, mundane steps he takes along the way. I dare you to find another author who showcases such seemingly pointless busywork. “He picked up the phone and dialed Martinsson’s number. No answer. He tried again, still no answer,” a passage might read (that one’s from The Man Who Smiled, published in 1994). At another point, Wallander might simply sit at his desk and rearrange his pencils. Nevertheless, he painstakingly pieces together the answers to the mystery. As I read these books before falling asleep after long days of struggling with my manuscript, I found Wallander’s pencil-rearranging eminently recognizable.