03 November 2019

History and Mystery

Leigh Lundin
Perhaps I've always enjoyed historicals without fully realizing it. To pose a question, are Agatha Christie novels historical? What about the novels of Arthur Conan Doyle?

Generally, we don’t call fiction written in and about the author’s own time as historical novels. Yet modern readers can consider them a slice of history. Who better to fill us in on fine details of the day than someone living then and there?

I don’t find the tales of Edward Marston as smoothly written as, say, Ellis Peters or the wonderful Lindsey Davis. But that lack of ‘smoothinity’ (I’m aware of ‘smoothness’ but this suits my purpose) lends additional verisimilitude. The reader can feel the dirt in roadside food, the pinch of the cobbler’s shoes, the stench of an outhouse.

We live in a politically correct ‘woke’ atmosphere. We foster a supercilious attitude where we think we’re some way superior to those who’ve come before. Novels set in ancient Egypt or Imperial Rome remind us we’re not so different, not different at all.

Many of us, R.T. Lawton and Janice Law, David Edgerley Gates and Eve Fisher, to name a few colleagues, love the research as much as the writing… and reading.

For your pleasure, following are a dozen historical novels, new and old, you might want to nab.

The Alienist first appeared in 1994, the first in a short series. Who can resist New York City Police Commissioner Teddy Roosevelt?

The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco’s first novel published in 1980, is one of my all time favorites. Monesteries aren’t all peace and quiet.

I loved the virtually vanished Jewish Alps, the Borscht Belt Catskills in upstate New York. Think The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel entertains The Hotel Neversink.

Thanks to Tirzah Price at Book Riot for many of these suggestions and further details.

What are your favorite historical novels or series?


  1. Massey's novels set in the 1920's seem much superior to her contemporary mysteries. Maybe we all have a favorite time period?

  2. I've only read two of these books, Leigh, so thank you for the recommendations.

    My favorite historical isn't strictly a crime novel although there are crimes in it (don't most books have a misdemeanor somewhere?):

    Storming Heaven by Denise Giardina is about the coal strike in the early 20th century, told through many POV. Her voice(s) are wide-ranging and astonishing. She wrote a sequel a few years later that didn't impress me as much, and she has a few other novels, all historicals.

  3. Good point, Janice. I particularly enjoyed a couple of novels set in one of the Egyptian dynasties. I also like the two main mystery series set in Roman times by Lindsey Davis and Steven Saylor. I know romance readers have favorite periods– Regency comes to mind.

    Steve, I've heard of Storming Heaven, but I haven't read it. Thanks for the suggestion.

  4. Favorite historical novels: written by Bernard Cornwell, Ken Follett, Adriana Trigiani
    Favorite nautical historical novels: written by Alexander Kent, Dewey Lambdin and James L. Nelson

  5. My wife just reminded me how terrific Lyndsay Faye's Gotham trilogy is,set in 1840s New York as the Police Department is inventing itself. Amazing reading.

  6. Ah Ken Follet, O'Neil. That's a great choice. Your mention of nautical historical novels reminded me of my mother's love of Horatio Hornblower. Dana's Two Years Before the Mast wasn't a novel, but it read like one. Childer's The Riddle of the Sands was set in its own time, but it's even more important in influencing the course of history, making Britons aware of Germany's preparations for war.

    Steve, that's another I'm unfamiliar with. There was a short television series set in New York in the early days of the police. The name escapes me, but one of the threads in the series dealt with an assassination plot against Lincoln. You've probably seen it, but I apologize for not coming up with the series title.

  7. Yes, Leigh, I am crazy about Steven Saylor's short stories set in Ancient Rome. A re-reading of his story "The Lemures" is an annual Halloween season tradition with me!

  8. Jeff, how did that Halloween tradition come about? Both authors do great research and I discover fine details I hadn't learned about in classes. For example, Steven Saylor pointed out torture of slaves was mandatory when delving into crimes. Torture then accomplished about as much as torture today– not much at all.

    Steve, I believe the television series was called Copper.

  9. Robert Van Gulik's Judge Dee series still holds up. I loved "The Alienist". Also Margaret Frazier's Dame Frevisse novels.
    Also, two for the combining of mystery (in their present) and historical research, Josephine Tey's "The Daughter of Time" (Richard III), and Colin Dexter's "The Wench is Dead".

  10. Eve, I enjoyed those Judge Dee stories too. I think I've read something else of Tey's but I need to check.

  11. Well, Leigh, when I moved into my own place in Fall 1999 I spent Halloween handing out candy and reading through some of my favorite spooky stories. I was going to read that same bunch every Halloween, but I usually get down to only one or two and "The Lemures" and Arthur Grey's "The Everlasting Club" usually get a read-through!

  12. That's a cool idea, Jeff. Poe would come to mind for me, plus Oliver Onions and Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper.

    Fran Rizer wrote a wonderful ghost story that measures up alongside the classics. I don't know who published it, but it's truly outstanding.


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