Imposters in Crime

By Velvet Belle Tree


There is a sub-genre of cozy (amateur sleuth) mysteries which feature a famous historical person.  What should one expect to find in such a book, besides a well-written mystery?  It should, of course, be true to its time, that is it should be historically accurate and have the feel of the time in speech and action.  But even more than that, it should be true to the character featured in the book.

I was browsing in the new book section of the library and picked up a book called The Villa of Death by Joanna Challis and labeled A Mystery featuring Daphne du Maurier.  Having read and enjoyed many of du MaurierÕs books, and knowing that she had an interesting background, I decided to read it.  Unfortunately, it did not meet any of the above criteria.

The story takes place in 1927 (when Daphne is 20 years old) but some of the expressions used by the characters where anachronistic by many decades.  But the most egregious anachronism was when a character said he was going to be staying in WEST BERLIN!  It is hard to believe that any adult with any education doesnÕt know that West / East Berlin was created after WWII.

One character is Major Browning who becomes engaged to Daphne.  Daphne du Maurier did indeed marry a professional soldier named Frederick Browning, who became head of the airborne corps in WWII.  But in reality, they met in 1932, had a short romance and married the same year.  In the book, Daphne has had one short story published and is just beginning to work on  her first novel.  But besides her desire to write, she acts quite conventionally, eager to become engaged and being careful not to be alone with Browning and cause a scandal.  But in reality, when he proposed in 1932 she rejected him because she didnÕt believe in marriage and only decided to marry him when she was told that living together would ruin his career.  In the book, Browning, although in the army, is working for Scotland Yard.  This, of course, is fiction, and not believable fiction.

Then thereÕs DaphneÕs family.  Her father, Sir Gerald, was a famous actor and manager.  Her mother, Muriel, was also a famous actor.  Her grandfather George du Maurier, was a famous cartoonist for Punch and wrote Trilby, creating the character of Svengali.  And a many-great grandmother was the mistress of the Duke of York in the early 19th century (du Maurier based her novel Mary Anne on this ancestor).  But in the book her parents are portrayed as very conventional, her mother concerned with parties and society and getting her daughters married.  The scene where Browning asks her father for her hand in marriage is certainly opposite to reality.

Of course, it would still be a decent book if it was well written with a good plot, but IÕm afraid thatÕs not the case.  The plot is really full of holes with things that just donÕt make sense. 

But whatÕs the point of writing a book with a central character purporting to be a famous person whoÕs nothing like the real character?  One reason might be the authorÕs laziness in creating a character: she just uses some of the facts of du MaurierÕs background without really researching the character and her family.  Another reason is that it sells books.  This book is the third in the series and I only picked it up because of du MaurierÕs name.  But when compared with du MaurierÕs life, it can be seen to be a fraud.  And how did I find out these details of her life?  I simply looked her and her husband up on Wikipedia.  Something the author should have done as a first step if she really wanted to write a book featuring the real Daphne du Maurier.

But the sub-genre can be done correctly.  Two examples of this are a series featuring Benjamin Franklin by Robert Lee Hall and a series featuring Eleanor Roosevelt by Elliot Roosevelt.

The Franklin mysteries take place while he is living on Craven Street in London and representing the American colonies.  He solves crimes while carrying on the business that Franklin was known to be doing and heÕs portrayed as Franklin was known to be.

The Roosevelt mysteries were written by the son of Eleanor and Franklin and take place while FDR was president.  They have a feeling of great authenticity.  He depicts life in the White House as he knew it to be.  EleanorÕs character is as it was known to be.  We are shown are views, which are liberal for the times and we see her writing her newspaper column.

So the genre can be done right, even if the author wasnÕt there.  All it needs is the desire to portray the character and times correctly and the willingness to do the necessary research.