What’s so great about the past?
It’s true that historical mysteries are rarely the most popular crime fiction sub-genre, but I’m a dreamer—I’d like to change all that.
There are amazing mysteries to be plumbed; stories already pre-assembled and ready to be told. When you read a historical mystery, you’re not just looking into the mind and life of a person who’s very different from you (assuming, of course, that you don’t happen to be a murderer), you’re also taking your own personal Tardis to a time and culture that can be foreign to you as well.
And there are some seriously great historical mysteries out there. Here are 10 of my favorites, in no particular order:
Ghostwalk by Rebecca Stott
Okay, so I lied about the order—this is absolutely my favorite. A Cambridge historian, Elizabeth Vogelsang, drowns, clutching a glass prism in her hand. She was writing a book about Isaac Newton’s involvement with alchemy, the culmination of her obsession with the seventeenth century.
When her son, Cameron, asks his former lover Lydia Brooke to ghostwrite the missing final chapters of his mother’s book, Lydia agrees and moves into Elizabeth’s house. She discovers that a series of murders in present-day Cambridge may have its origins in the troubling evidence that Elizabeth’s research has unearthed.
The seventeenth century slowly seeps into the twenty-first, with the city of Cambridge the bridge between them. Ghostwalk centers around a real historical mystery that Rebecca Stott uncovered involving Newton’s alchemy, and time and relationships soon become entangled. This is a brilliant book that will engage you completely: your intellect, your reaction to the unknown, the momentum building to the very end.
The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
While the author makes sure to inform you that if you don’t know Latin, you won’t get the good jokes, The Name of the Rose is a wonderfully atmospheric and compelling mystery.
The year is 1327, and Franciscan brothers in a wealthy abbey are suspected of heresy. William of Baskerville, himself a monk, is sent to look into it—but his investigation is derailed because of seven strange deaths. So, William turns his investigative skills towards finding out what happened.
He collects evidence, deciphers secret symbols and coded manuscripts, and digs into the eerie labyrinth of the abbey where “the most interesting things happen at night.”
No Graves As Yet by Anne Perry
After starring in her own real-life murder mystery (check out the movie Heavenly Creatures), Perry has gone on to write a slew of great historical mysteries; I’m citing one here, but feel free to read more.
In No Graves As Yet, it’s the summer of 1914—the last golden weeks of privilege for a certain stratum of English society. Cambridge professor Joseph Reavley learns that his parents have died in an automobile crash. His brother Matthew (an officer in the Intelligence Service) reveals that their father had been en route to London to turn over a mysterious secret document—allegedly with the power to disgrace England forever and destroy the civilized world. Now, it has vanished. There is a lot of interplay between the beginning of the war and the reluctance of English people to let go.
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Susskind
Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is born in the slums of eighteenth-century France, and he has one gift that sets him apart: a sense of smell. He becomes the apprentice of a prominent perfumer that teaches him the ancient art of mixing precious oils and herbs.
One day, Grenouille catches the scent of a beautiful young virgin and wants to create from it the “ultimate perfume.” Of course, murder and mayhem ensue.
The Beekeeper’s Apprentice by Laurie R. King
In 1915, Sherlock Holmes is retired and quietly engaged in the study of honeybees in Sussex, when he meets a young Mary Russell that displays an intellect to impress even the master of deduction. They are soon called to Wales to help Scotland Yard find the kidnapped daughter of an American senator—a case of international significance with clues that dip deep into Holmes's past. This will become a Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes series.
My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk
The Sultan has commissioned a cadre of the most acclaimed artists in the land to create a great book celebrating the glories of his realm. But because figurative art can be deemed an affront to Islam, this commission is a dangerous proposition indeed.
The ruling elite therefore mustn’t know the full scope or nature of the project, and panic erupts when one of the chosen miniaturists disappears. This is a complex book that will take you into the heart of a different time and different culture.
Miss Dimple Disappears by Mignon Ballard
It's 1942, almost a year since the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and the residents of the small town of Elderberry, Georgia are dealing with the privations of war.
Young teacher Charlie is troubled by the disappearance of beloved schoolmistress, Miss Dimple Kilpatrick, one morning before Thanksgiving. Miss Dimple, who has taught the town's first graders—including Charlie—for almost forty years, would never just skip town in the middle of the school year, and Charlie is determined to prove it.
The Damascened Blade by Barbara Cleverly
Cleverly brilliantly captures a fascinating collision of cultures against a backdrop of jasmine-scented nights and neatly trimmed English gardens. She transports readers to India’s remote and exotic northwest frontier where a group of travelers is swept into a spellbinding drama of kidnapping, vengeance, and murder.
Scotland Yard Detective Joe Sandilands has been given the unenviable mission of guarding a spirited young American woman with far more wealth than sense. But when the son of a Pathan tribal leader is discovered dead, Sandilands knows that his mission to protect Lily has suddenly taken a startling new turn that may bring them all to the brink of war.
The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith
The popularity of this series speaks for itself—this book tells the story of the delightfully cunning and enormously engaging Precious Ramotswe, drawn to her profession to “help people with problems in their lives.” Immediately upon setting up shop in a small storefront in Gaborone, she is hired to track down a missing husband, uncover a con man, and follow a wayward daughter.
But the case that tugs at her heart, and lands her in danger, is a missing eleven-year-old boy who may have been snatched by witchdoctors. Exotic and exciting.
A Morbid Taste for Bones by Ellis Peters
While Peters didn’t originate the historical mystery genre, she was certainly one of the first modern writers to make it popular. Read all the Brother Cadfael books you can!
It is 1137, and the ambitious head of Shrewsbury Abbey wishes to acquire the remains of Saint Winifred for the glory of his Benedictine order. Brother Cadfael is part of the expedition sent to the saint’s final resting place in Wales, where he finds the villagers divided over the Benedictines’ quest.
When the leading opponent to moving the grave is shot dead with a mysterious arrow, some believe Winifred herself delivered the blow. Brother Cadfael knows that an earthly hand did the killing, but he doesn’t know that his plan to root out a murderer may dig up a case of love and justice, where the waves of sin may be scandal—or his own ruin.
So there’s a collection of great reading, spanning continents and centuries, and all with one thing in common: a riveting, compelling story.
Okay, you’ve got a lot of books to read and a lot of mysteries to explore. Historical mysteries rock my world, and I hope I’ve convinced you to let them rock yours. And while you’re at it, check out my two historical mysteries, Asylum and Deadly Jewels.
And make sure to check back tomorrow for a bonus list of historical mysteries that have never been solved for the would-be writer to begin crafting the next bestseller from.
Jeannette de Beauvoir is an award-winning novelist and poet whose work has been translated into 12 languages and has appeared in 15 countries. She finds that the past always has some hold on the present, and writes mysteries and historical fiction that reflect that resonance. More information at www.jeannetteauthor.com.