Sunday, August 24, 2008
The Professor is In
First published in Mystery Readers Journal
By Sarah R. Shaber
My sleuth, young history professor Simon Shaw, fell into his detective avocation quite by accident. During a dig at a historic house on the Southern college campus where Simon teaches, archaeologists uncover the skeleton of a young woman with a bullet hole in the back of her skull. Unsure how to investigate a murder that appears to be at least fifty years old, the police ask Simon for help. He needs distraction from a personal problem—a woman, of course, it always is with Simon—so he agrees. By digging into old newspapers and police files, and interviewing elderly people who were alive when the victim disappeared, Simon deduces the young woman's identity. Then he becomes obsessed with finding her murderer. Since the past is never really over, there are people living today who've benefited from the victim's death, who want Simon to fail in his search for her killer, and who want him to fail badly enough to try to murder Simon himself.
After solving his first case Professor Simon Shaw becomes famous as a "forensic historian." He travels all over to consult on cold cases, using a perceptive historian's tool box of research skills and intuitive understanding of the past. And always he finds that the present is so influenced by the past that his investigations have repercussions, some of them dangerous, on the very people who have asked him for help.
Some time after beginning this series I discovered Robin Wink's erudite book The Historian As Detective: Essays on Evidence. Many of you may remember Winks, the late Yale history professor and connoisseur of mysteries who wrote countless book reviews for the Boston Globe. Winks' book is heavy going, but for those of us who love history and mystery he explains why historians make such good detectives. Historians, like police and private detectives, assess evidence of all kinds. They collect clues, evaluate documents, interpret scientific data, and interview witnesses, then assemble the bits into a whole that explains what happened, whether yesterday or many years ago.
Since the only possible reason for an amateur getting involved in a murder case is that the amateur must have skills or knowledge the authorities don't, and since a college campus is chock full of curious people investigating everything from commas in Shakespeare to string theory, the college campus is a great source of amateur sleuths. I chose history as my sleuth's academic subject because I love history myself, and I'm delighted to have an excuse to prowl around the South in the nineteen-twenties or the North Carolina coast during World War II. And I enjoy making history interesting. It's possible today for a high school graduate to get a diploma after taking only one real history course, U. S. History. Don't get me started on the way American history is taught in our school system. It's been so whitewashed, politically corrected, and scrubbed of controversy it's a wonder anyone can get through a standard U. S. History textbook chapter without falling asleep. I get dozens of letters and emails from fans who tell me they never knew learning a little about the past could be so much fun.
Most of the action in my books takes place off campus, but Simon Shaw is an academic in the best sense of the world, a professional who's had the rigorous training needed to solve complex problems and the persistence to keep searching for truth.
There's a character in each of the Simon Shaw books that asks why anyone should care about a murder that happened years ago, so long ago that even the murderer must be dead. Well, Simon does care, because he believes justice is timeless. I want my readers come away from my books caring, too.