Historical Mystery Roundup

Kaitlyn Dunnett in my Kathy Lynn Emerson persona here to report that historical mysteries are thriving. Since I went on hiatus from my Face Down series back in 2008 (after writing a book on how to write historical mysteries) a number of new names have appeared in the ranks of historical mystery writers. At the same time, although some long-standing historical mystery series have faded away, others continue to sell well and garner awards. As I start work on the second book in my new historical mystery series (after next year’s Murder in the Queen’s Wardrobe,) spun off from the Face Down novels to feature Lady Appleton’s late husband’s illegitimate daughter Rosamond as the sleuth, I thought I’d take this opportunity, as a reader of historical mysteries, to share some of my current favorites.

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First up, a couple of my new discoveries. Mary Miley’s The Impersonator, the first in a new series, was one of my favorites of 2013. Set in the last days of Vaudeville, it features an ambitious young woman who takes on a questionable assignment to (you guessed it) impersonate a girl who went missing years before. I’m looking forward to the next installment, Silent Murders, out in September, in which our heroine tackles crime in the early days of Hollywood.  

MacNeal (195x300)Back in January, I read the first three books in Susan Elia MacNeal’s World War II series in two days. They’re that good. Mr. Churchill’s Secretary, Princess Elizabeth’s Spy, and His Majesty’s Hope feature Maggie Hope, a secretary turned spy. Although the third book went a little darker than I’m usually comfortable with as a reader, I’m eagerly looking forward to the next installment, The Prime Minister’s Secret Agent, due in stores in June.

The ninth installment in C. S. Harris’s series about Sebastian St. Cyr, Why Kings Confess, is on my keeper shelf, along with the previous eight novels. Set in Regency England, they feature a complex cast of characters and twisty mysteries.

Will Thomas, whose series about enquiry agent Cyrus Baker and his assistant, Thomas Llewelyn, set in the 1880s, has been on hiatus, has a sixth entry, Fatal Enquiry, in stores now. This one is action packed. The characters are engaging and there are mysteries in the backstory as well as in the current case. Plus a surprise twist at the end.

Lindsay Davis, best known for her Marcus Didius Falco series, has started a new one featuring Falco’s foster daughter, Flavia Albia as the detective. I enjoyed the first in the series last year and am looking forward to Enemies at Home, out in July.

A Question of Honor (203x300)Charles Todd (actually Charles and his mother, Caroline, writing as a team) won this year’s Agatha award for best historical novel of 2013 for A Question of Honor and will be guests of honor at next year’s Malice Domestic. A Question of Honor is the fifth novel in the Bess Crawford series, set during World War I. Bess is on the front lines as a nurse. The Todds also write a series featuring police detective, Ian Rutledge, who survived that war but is having difficulty returning his civilian life. I have to say I have a preference for the Bess Crawford novels, but they are all wonderfully written.

For another wartime series, this one set during World War II, you can’t do better than James R. Benn’s Billy Boyle mysteries. A new one, The Rest is Silence, will be out in September. Warning: Benn tackles difficult subject matter, such as racial discrimination in the military in A Blind Goddess

thompson (192x300)Victoria Thompson is a favorite in our house. Her Gaslight series set in New York City and featuring midwife Sarah Brandt and policeman Frank Malloy has been around for quite some time. The sixteenth entry, Murder in Murray Hill is just out and another terrific read. Earlier books in the series have been nominated for both the Agatha and the Edgar.

For lighter fare, two favorite historical mystery authors keep producing great reads. The latest in Carola Dunn’s Daisy Dalrymple series, set in 1920s England, is Heirs of the Body. It revolves around the same problem faced by characters in Downton Abbey: what to do about an entailed estate when you can’t figure out who the next heir is. Rhys Bowen keeps two series going. One features Molly Murphy, a young Irish woman in early twentieth century New York. In a previous book, Molly married Daniel, a policeman. Now that they have a young son, he doesn’t want her investigating crimes. The latest adventure, City of Darkness and Light, takes mother and son to Paris, where Molly promptly becomes involved in solving a murder. The other Rhys Bown series is set in England between the two world wars and the sleuth is a distant connection of the royal family. The new one, Queen of Hearts, will be out in August.

Now to a few choices that are a little different. Lauren Willig writes what’s called a past/present series, with two storylines alternating, one historical and one in the present day. The historical stories involve spies using flower names to disguise their identities and from book to book readers learn more fascinating tidbits about their organization. I’ve loved this series from the first (The Secret History of the Pink Carnation) and am looking forward to the next (The Mark of the Midnight Manzanilla) in August.

harkness (206x300)Deborah Harkness, historian by profession, has written a trilogy that mixes the paranormal, history, and mystery. The first book (A Discovery of Witches) takes place entirely in the present, the second (Shadow of Night) entirely in the sixteenth century. The Book of Life, due in stores in July, returns to the present day and (I hope) ties up all the loose ends.

And, stretching the definition of historical mystery even more, I have to mention another trilogy I’ve just finished reading. This one, by Emma Jane Holloway, comes from the subgenre known as steampunk. The novels (A Study in Silks, A Study in Darkness, and A Study in Ashes) are a mix of historical novel, mystery, romance, paranormal, and alternate history. The protagonist is Evalina Cooper, who just happens to be Sherlock Holmes’s niece. She also has “the blood” from the other side of her family, giving her a talent for magic, which is outlawed in a Victorian England controlled by the “steam barons,” the unscrupulous men who control the country’s power supplies. Each book is lengthy (over 1000 pages at the size print I use to read on my iPad) but the story is gripping and I ended up reading all three in the course of a month. I stayed up until after midnight finishing the last one, something I rarely do. 

All in all, lots to choose from, and there are many more, set in all eras, that I didn’t have room to mention here. How about you, readers? Any recent historical mystery titles you’d like to recommend? Just comment below to share.   

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8 Responses to Historical Mystery Roundup

  1. Gram says:

    I too enjoy C.S. Harris and am reading the latest. Thanks for this article and some authors I wondered about.

  2. Eve says:

    I am currently reading an Amelia Peabody mystery by Elizabeth Peters. If you like Egyptian history, Peters does a fascinating job of incorporating her own knowledge of Egypt and archaeology into these adventurous historical mysteries. I also love Anne Perry’s Monk series and Thomas and Charlotte Pitt series!!

    Thanks for the list above! I am always looking for a good historical mystery series!!

  3. Aubrey Hamilton says:

    I too love Mary Miley’s The Impersonator. I am looking forward to the next book. I recently discovered C.S. Harris and the St. Cyr series; I’ve read the first one and have the next two high on the TBR stack. Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series is a serious look at British life after World War I. I have to be in a certain frame of mind to read these books. Carola Dunn’s Daisy Dalrymple books are set in the same timeframe but are not as heavy and always give me great reading pleasure. Donis Casey writes of an Oklahoma family in the early 1900s with a strong matriarch who serves as the investigator. Alafair Tucker doesn’t seem to be mentioned a lot in historical mystery discussions which is unfortunate.

  4. Linda Meadows says:

    I just finished Death at Gallow’s Green by Robin Paige, who is the team of Susan Wittig Albert and her husband. The first one, Death at Bishop’s Keep was also very good. They are Victorian era mysteries and I love the way she blends real authors into her stories, as well. For instance, in Gallows Green, Beatrix Potter has quite an adventure with the protagonist, Kathryn Ardleigh. I will say, thought, I guessed the culprit quite early in the book, but the journey was still very satisfying.

  5. Lynn/MI says:

    I have read maybe three of the authors you mentioned and they’re all GREAT reads, thanks ever so much for writing this article for you. And, for giving me some new History authors to check out!

  6. Jane Finnis says:

    Thanks for a fascinating list, Kathy…as if my TBR list isn’t long enough already! May I add a recommendation for anyone who likes English-setting traditional mysteries: try Dolores Gordon-Smith’s Jack Haldean series, where the promise of the Roaring Twenties is still shadowed by the turmoil of WW1. Her latest, AFTER THE EXHIBITION, is just out.

  7. Thanks to everyone for comments and suggestions. My TBR pile runneth over, even without counting all the great contemporary novels and non-fiction books sharing space with the historical mysteries! And then there are the re-reads of old favorites like the Amelia Peabody series. As the sweatshirt logo says, Too Many Books/Too Little Time.


  8. Thanks for these suggestions. I recently found Susan McDuffie, who’s written three books so far in a series set in 1373 Scotland and featuring a young man who’s the Lord’s scribe charged with finding murderers. My new fav!

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