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A Criminal Past – Writing Historical Crime Fiction

The Raven's Head by Karen Maitland

At the Harrogate Crime Festival, novelists discussed how rapid developments in forensics and crime-fighting were influencing modern crime fiction. With DNA tests carried out at the crime scene and the ability to track suspects through their mobile phones, most modern murders could be solved before the author reaches Chapter Two. It’s becoming ever harder to devise a credible modern crime plot where ‘whodunit’ remains a mystery until the end.

So you might think that writing historical crime and thrillers is easier. The novel won’t become outdated before it’s even published and you don’t have to explain why, when an axe-murderer is outside, the hero doesn’t simply summon help via the dozen phones and internet devices he owns. But historical crime writers face their own challenges, not least because those who read that genre know their history.


Was a crime committed?

It’s easy to assume that because something was illegal in one period, it must always have been a crime. Some people think that witches were tried and executed right through the Middle Ages, but the death penalty for witchcraft in England was not introduced until 1563, and even then the crime had to involve serious injury. But people suspected of witchcraft in the Middle Ages could find themselves accused of the capital crime of heresy and no matter what rights you thought you had under Magna Carta, pleading innocent to that crime proved you were guilty. 

Wills and inheritance have always been a good motive for murder, but laws have constantly changed about who could inherit land or wealth and when a child legally ‘came of age’ to take control of their own money. So it’s vital to check.


How did the victim die?

Although they didn’t have forensic scientists in the Middle Ages, ordinary people saw death and rigor mortis many times in the animals they slaughtered, accidents at work and in battles. They went to executions and watched bodies rotting in gibbet cages in the market place. They were far more familiar with corpses in all stages of decomposition than a modern policeman.  So they could probably tell fairly accurately how long a man had been dead and whether he’d been struck with a hammer or an iron crow.

But it is important to ensure your historical sleuth does not have information that wasn’t known in that period. The symptoms of slow arsenic poisoning were not recognised until the 19th century, so if your killer administered small amounts of arsenic over several months, it’s unlikely even Brother Cadfael would have spotted it. 

As historical novelist you constantly have to ask yourself – how would my characters have interpreted these signs? A 16th century physician, however skilled, is unlikely make the link between the meat a woman ate which tasted fine and the woman suddenly dying a week later, because no one knew about microscopic anthrax spores. 


Who will catch the killer?

Critics of modern crime novels say that amateurs, like Miss Marple, and even expert pathologists would not be allowed to meddle in police investigations. With novels set before the mid-1800’s, you don’t have that problem. But to create a credible sleuth of the past, you need to ask three questions –

  • What kind of person would have the skills to enable them to solve crime better than most in their community? Who might have a good knowledge of plants and poisons, or an expert knowledge of weapons or espionage?
  • What kind of person would have access to people at all levels of society in your chosen period? Who might have a plausible reason to talk to both a farmhand and the lady of the manor?
  • What kind of person would need to travel? If you’re planning to write a series, you’ll quickly run of plots if your sleuth doesn’t have good reasons to travel out of the village, abbey or coal-mine where they work.

Arrest that man!

Who had the right to arrest and detain someone in your period? What kind of court would the accused be tried in – a church court, a manorial court, before a travelling judge or in a high court? Where someone was tried often depended not just on the type of crime, but also on the social status of the victim and of the perpetrator. 

In medieval and Tudor times, it could take years to bring someone to trial depending on the type of court, but if the death penalty was imposed, it could be carried out within minutes of the sentence. 


Halt! Who goes there?

You need to consider the wider historical events that could affect your story. Special laws were often invoked for a few months if there was a threat of civil unrest or war, meaning people could be arrested or even killed on the spot for activities that were not normally illegal. 

On occasions, when there was an outbreak of plague or fever, the law about victims of sudden death not being moved until inspected by the coroner could be temporarily suspended and all corpses buried immediately. 

But the historical crime writer is writing a crime novel, not a history textbook. The goal is to create an enthralling story, regardless of when it’s set. Add just enough historical detail to enable the reader to picture the scene, but not so much it slows the action.


Means, motive and opportunity

In the end, the most interesting question in any crime or thriller novel has always been not who did it or how they did it, but why. And the one thing historical novelists can safely rely on is that human nature never changes, nor do the motives for murder.


Karen Maitland has written six medieval thrillers for Penguin and Headline Review –‘Company of Liars’, ‘The Owl Killers’, ‘The Gallows Curse’, ‘Falcons of Fire & Ice’, ‘The Vanishing Witch’ and ‘The Raven’s Head’, as well as two shorts, ‘Liars and Thieves’ and ‘The Dangerous Art of Alchemy’. Karen is also one of the Medieval Murderers, six authors who write joint historical crime novels including The Sacred Stone, Hill of Bones, The First Murder, The False Virgin and The Deadliest Sin. You can find out more on her website.