While many may contemptuously flick history as tales of the dead and gone, it has in recent times emerged as the proverbial cow that thriller writers are milking away. The art of combining fascinating history with delectable mystery has been around for some years now and will continue to do so for a while. The recipe is not exactly a guarded secret. Take a historical event or an esoteric legend, preferably lesser known to keep the surprise element intact. Add a tablespoon of mystery. Throw in a pinch of murder, a dash of characters racing against time and a generous lump of twists and turns. Sprinkle conspiracies or riddles or a treasure hunt and finally garnish with an earth-shattering climax. Your bestseller’s ready, a potential one at least. Bon Appétit!
Most Indian readers believe that it was Dan Brown and his damned codes that spoiled us all but the blame must also be shared by our own home-grown riddler Ashok Banker. Banker’s retelling of our mythological and historical legends along with his crime thrillers paved the way for much that was about to come. Tales of Atlantis and Lemuria have thrilled many. And so have mysteries like Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco that fused the Knights Templar with lost treasure or The Seventh Secret by Irving Wallace, that left many wondering about Hitler’s infamous suicide. Today an Ashwin Sanghi or an Andy McDermott stands on the shoulders of these giants. So what gives a history meets mystery novel such seductive prowess?
Fundamentally we humans are suckers for tales of kings and princesses and knights and fairies. Larger than life stories replete with sights and sounds of a bygone era have charmed generations for decades and our fascination for them may well be imprinted in our DNA now. So when a mystery novel employs historical figures, it turns all the more thrilling. History becomes the plot and its legendary personalities become characters. And somewhere in this amazing transformation, we become a part of history, witnessing it unfold through the pages.
If history raises a mystery notches above commonplace, then a mystery can lend boring history excitement and animation. Drop an intense, intriguing thriller and even the biggest history hater will find it hard to resist the book. Like Mary Poppins would sing, ‘a spoonful of mystery makes the history go down.’ And in doing so, a well-researched mystery fiction perhaps educates and enlightens a lot more than a pile of history books. For example more people might have learned about Jesus and Mary Magdalene through Da Vinci Code then they would have through a historical treatise. How reliable that information is can be debated upon but it at least familiarizes one with the past while vastly entertaining.
Novels where the mystery is placed in a contemporary setting, offer a plot structure where past and present run parallel. It’s an interesting dialectic where one time zone acts upon the other and the action constantly shifts to and fro. Indeed caught in this vortex of flashback and flash-forward, the reader experiences virtual time travel from one era to another. It creates layers within the narrative that collide to give the novel depth and excitement. Parallel tracks also serve as an interesting comparison to measure how far we have evolved. Or are we evolving at all? Sanghi’s Chanakya’s Chant is a fine example.
Finally when past history leads to a present day mystery, it tells you that some stories never end. You see a continuum that has remained alive for centuries. The tale may keep going on forever. Or time may have come after all these decades to right a wrong. Seal the ancient crack. History becomes a context, a cause leading to action. Such a cycle of events, offer an interesting sense of fulfilment to the reader.
In an interview Ashwin Sanghi predicted that the trend of history meets mystery will soon die its natural death. Critics of this genre also point out that such fictional retelling forces one to draw unnecessary comparisons with what you already know. So if you are planning to write a history meets mystery tale here are a few pointers. Make sure the mystery you create is not simply for the sake of doing so, but a natural extension of the history you are exploring. There’s nothing uglier than yoking history and mystery by mere illogical force. Treat historical characters with care. Artistic license is fine but keep in mind that these are real life legends and you can’t tamper beyond a point. Research the period well. This will not only give you great perspective but also help you recreate the era as perfectly as possible. And have loads of fun. You can’t thrill others unless you are thrilled yourself, can you?
Author’s bio –
Satyarth Nayak is an author, script-writer & journalist. Former SAARC award-winning Correspondent with CNN-IBN, he did Masters in English Literature from St. Stephen’s. His debut history meets mystery novel ‘The Emperor’s Riddles’ is out. Acclaimed by Amish Tripathi & Ashwin Sanghi, the mystery thriller is already hitting several bestseller charts.