Historical Mysteries: Elyse’s Recommendations

I’ve always loved reading mysteries and thrillers, but I’ve found lately that I’m really enjoying historical mysteries. I think a lot of the contemporary mysteries I’ve been reading have been relying heavily on the “shock” factor to hook readers. The problem is, you can only read so many books about serial killers eviscerating people before you start to get desensitized to the gore and horror.

Also, I’m finding fewer mysteries that rely on good old fashioned sleuthing–the kind where the reader can try and solve the mystery along with the protagonist–than I am mysteries that rely on some device or conceit to keep the story going. I don’t mind a heroine who can speak to the dead, I’d just prefer one who has especially sharp deductive reasoning skills.

Here’s a list of some of the historical mysteries currently gracing my e-reader:

Cocaine Blues
A | BN | K | ARe | iB
The Phryne Fisher series by Kerry Greenwood

Phryne is a detective in 1920’s Melbourne. I reviewed book one, and we’ve been squeeing for weeks about the television series, too.

She’s a fabulous heroine with fabulous clothes. She’s unapologetic about her sexuality and her independence, and the series is tremendous fun.

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A Test of Wills
A | BN | K | ARe | iB
The Inspector Ian Rutledge series by Charles Todd

The first book in the series, A Test of Wills, introduces us to Inspector Ian Rutledge of Scotland Yard.

Rutledge is suffering from PTSD or shell shock from his experiences in WWI which causes him to periodically hallucinate visits from a fallen comrade. The series also has a romance subplot over time.

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A Duty to the Dead
A | BN | K | ARe | iB
The Bess Crawford series by Charles Todd

Charles Todd (actually a mother-son writing team) also writes this series starring a WWI nurse, Bess Crawford.

The first book, A Duty to the Dead, involves a sunken ship and a dying solider.

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In the Shadow of Gotham
A | BN | K | ARe | iB
The Detective Simon Ziele series by Stefanie Pintoff

This series is set in New York in the early 1900’s. Ziele is a detective who leaves New York  for a small town north of the city after the tragic death of his fiancee.

Instead of getting away from grisly crimes, Ziele finds himself solving a brutal murder in In the Shadow of Gotham. Ziele also employs the “novel” forensic techniques of the time, like fingerprinting.

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Silent in the Grave
A | BN | K | ARe | iB
The Lady Julia Grey series by Deanna Raybourn

Set in the late 1880’s, the series follows the amateur sleuth Lady Julia Grey.

When Lady Julia’s husband is killed in the first book, Silent in the Grave, she takes it upon herself to solve his murder. This series is much loved by mystery readers and romance fans, too, and Raybourn has recently published a stand alone historical mystery, Night of a Thousand Stars as well.

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Lady of Ashes
A | BN | K | ARe | iB
 The Lady of Ashes series by Christine Trent

This series follows a female Victorian undertaker named Violet Morgan.

The mystery is slow to build up in the first book, but the details about Victorian life and especially funerary rituals are fascinating (jewelry made of the deceased’s hair? ew). Also Violet is terribly good at her job–competence porn ahoy!

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Murphy’s Law
A | BN | K | ARe | iB
  The Molly Murphy series by Rhys Bowen

Molly Murphy is a plucky, Irish immigrant heroine and sleuth. Her first mystery, in Murphy’s Law, involves a murder on Ellis Island and gives the reader a tour of New York at the turn of the century.

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Her Royal Spyness
A | BN | K | ARe | iB
  Her Royal Spyness series by Rhys Bowen

Bowen also writes a series about Lady Victoria Georgianna Charlotte Eugenie, thirty-fourth in line to the throne.  Georgie isn’t living the high life though–she’s broke– and this series follows her through a series of jobs and murders.

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Those are just a few of the historical mysteries that I enjoy, and there are plenty more out there tempting my debit card.

Do you enjoy thrills and chills from the past? What are your favorite historical mysteries?

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  1. 1
    JaniceG says:

    A woman after my own heart – I read a lot of historical mysteries as well, many of which you have mentioned here. I’m not big on police procedurals or lots of gore either. First I’ve heard of the Trent series so I’ll definitely give that a try.

    I keep a list on my web site of my favorite mysteries (divided into historical and contemporary) with the author, the first book in the series, and a short description. Hope people find it helpful.

  2. 2
    MirandaB says:

    The Dandy Gilver series by Catriona McPherson. Book 1: After the Armistice Ball. Set soon after WWI, a wealthy-ish woman solves mysteries. Lots of understated humor, and Dandy’s life and attitude significantly changes over the course of the series.

    The Benjamin January series by Barbara Hambly. Book 1: A Free Man of Color. Set in late 1830’s New Orleans. Very well researched.

    The Abigail Adams series by Barbara Hamilton. Book 1: The Ninth Daughter. Abigail solves crimes in the years immediately before the Revolution. Hamilton is also Hambly, and these books are very well done. Only 3 in the series (sob).

    The Jane Austen series by Stephanie Barron. Book 1: Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargave Manor. Jane as detective. I LOVE these books. There’s a lot of Austenesque humor (Jane’s mother is awesome) and it’s a very period feel.

  3. 3
    Vasha says:

    If you’re looking for a particularly uncommon historical setting, “Talus and the Frozen King” by Graham Edwards is set in the Stone Age!

  4. 4
    Jo says:

    Two more to add to your TBR list:
    The Sebastian St. Cyr series by C S Harris and the Lady Emily series by Tasha Alexander.

  5. 5
    JaniceG says:

    Jo – Those are both on my list as well. I can’t recommend the CS Harris series highly enough. (There is also a romance tie-in, as these are actually written by historical romance author Candice Proctor under a pseudonym.)

  6. 6
    sandy l says:

    Anna Lee Huber has excellent mystery series about Lady Darby. Jennifer Ashley writes a regency series under Ashley Gardner. I see more and more historical mysteries being published. The Ellis Peter Brother Cadfael series is the best. Although about one monk solving a crime, each story also has a romance…and the writing is excellent. They just recently came out on the Kindle.

    Also, if you are into used book stores, there are a lot of historical mysteries out of print.

  7. 7
    Sandra says:

    Some of my longtime favorite period mystery series with a side of romance: Sayers’ Peter Wimsey; Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael; Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody, and Vickie Bliss and Jacqueline Kirby (though they’re contemporary); Davis’ Falco.

    Other good ones I’ve read: PB Ryan’s Nell Sweeney; Bledsoe’s Eddie LaCrosse, which is more of a fantasy-noir PI; Meg Cabot’s Heather Wells, contemporary but fun. I also like Finch’s Charles Lenox series, but they’re expensive, so it’s going slow.

  8. 8
    susan says:

    I recommend Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series, set between WWI and WWII. Another good one is Rebecca Cantrell’s Hannah Vogel series, set in Nazi Germany.

  9. 9
    tealadytoo says:

    I just loved the Charles Todd series, particularly the Bess Crawford series. Sorry, but I was very unimpressed with Phryne Fisher when I read “Cocaine Blues”. To me, she seemed like a cartoon character. Spiffy clothes, and spiffy talents, but no depth.

    Other historical series I’ve admired:
    PB Ryan’s Nell Sweeney Series. Set in Post Civil War Boston, it features an Irish governess who has made her way up from the streets and a son of the family she works for who is a surgeon who developed a drug habit during the war. I’ve only read book 1, “Still Life With Murder”, but was very impressed.

    Ashley Gardiner’s (aka Jennifer Ashley) Captain Lacey Regency mysteries, starting with “The Hanover Square Affair”. It has a really complex set of recurring characters and some intriguing long running story arcs besides the immediate mystery wrapped up in each book. Fairly angsty in parts. I’ve sucked up all of these.

    Martin Jensen’s “The King’s Hounds” series, starting with the novel of the same name. Mystery and political intrigue during the uneasy reign of Danish King Canute over England. The hero is an ex-monastic novice and expert manuscript illuminator. The narrator is his sidekick, a displaced minor noble and wandering soldier for hire, half Saxon, half Danish. And there are occasional Vikings in the mix!

  10. 10
    Pamala says:

    Yay, recommendations! I too, love the Ashley Gardner Captain Lacey mysteries. I’d like to add Caleb Carr’s historical mysteries THE ALIENIST and the sequel THE ANGEL OF DARKNESS. Both are set in turn of the century New York and if you like television shows like the BBC drama Copper or Cinemax’s The Knick, then you would probably enjoy these books. I also like Simone St. James’ books–THE HAUNTING OF MADDY CLARE (RITA winner)and AN INQUIRY INTO LOVE AND DEATH.

  11. 11
    Joanna says:

    Love the Ashley Gardner series already mentioned. Another one to check out is the Daisy Dalrymple series by Carola Dunn, an upper class girl in the 1920’s who becomes a magazine writer and amateur sleuth. Her aristocratic connections often give her access to people and crime scenes that the police can’t easily get. There is also a romance that develops over the series.

  12. 12
    Lynnd says:

    I am so far behind on so many of my historical mystery series (Harris, Alexander, Raybourn, Bowen). Another author I would recommend are Susanna Gregory. She writes several historical mystery series including Matthew Bartholemew (set in medieval Cambridge) and Thomas Chaloner (1600s). I would also recommend Lindsay Davis’ Falco series set in ancient Rome. She has a new series whose detective is Flavia Albia, Falco’s adopted daughter, but I haven’t gotten around to reading any of those yet. So many books, so little time…

  13. 13
    Algae says:

    So many I love here. I also second Charles Finch’s mysteries; I always get swept up in his stories.

    I’m listening to The Crown by Nancy Bilyeau right now and I’m really enjoying that – set at the time of Henry VIII and the dissolution of the monasteries and the mystery very much revolves around what happens to the nuns and friars.

    I loved Kate Ross’ mysteries with Julian Kestrel (Regency period). I devoured all four of them so quickly and was saddened when I found out there wouldn’t be any more.

    Sharon Kay Penman has several medieval stories, but her Justin de Quincy stories are perhaps the best suited for this topic. A knight ends up in service to an elderly Eleanor of Aquitaine to help her imprisoned son, Richard the Lionheart.

  14. 14
    Barb in Maryland says:

    Well, I am a bit late to this party–I see that most of my favorites have already been listed. Except that no one has mentioned Victoria Thompson’s Gaslight mysteries, set in 1890s NY City. Heroine (Sarah Brandt) is a midwife whose doctor husband was murdered. Her family (from whom she is estranged at the start of the series) is from the upper crust of NY society. Hero Frank mallooy is a widowed Irish cop with a deaf son. First in series is ‘Murder on Astor Place’. (#17 in the series is due out this summer.) The romance takes a while to develop, then seems to stall, but is now progressing nicely.
    FYI, Victoria Thompson wrote a ton of historical romances in the 1980s and ’90s–most were set in Texas.

  15. 15
    sandy l says:

    I can’t believe that I forgot the Laurie R. King series with Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes. Very very good! If you enjoy fantasy noir, check out Daniel Polansky’s Low Town.

  16. 16
    Rebecca Pawel says:

    Margaret Frazer’s Sister Frevisse mysteries, set in early fifteenth century England. Heavily reminiscent of the great Cadfael books by Ellis Peters (mentioned above) but with a female protagonist, and some interesting insights on women.

    Elizabeth Eyre’s Sigismundo series, set in the Italian Renaissance (with a bravo for hire and outrageous Shakespeare nods).

    If anyone reads Spanish, Alfonso Mateo-Sagasta’s books, especially “Ladrones de Tinta” (“Ink Thieves”) about seventeenth century Madrid. (Also with outrageous nods to the theater of the time, if you know it.)

    Jason Goodwin’s “The Janissary Tree” and following, about a eunuch in nineteenth century Istanbul.

    And finally, for people who like twentieth century stuff (coughs and blushes) it’s a bit BSP, but there are the Carlos Tejada mysteries (starting with “Death of a Nationalist”) set between 1939 and 1945 in Spain, which do have sort of a romance arc as a secondary plot. Written by yours truly.

  17. 17
    RevMelinda says:

    Haven’t seen anyone mention Imogen Robertson yet. She writes a wonderful series set in the 18th century which features Harriet Westerman, “the unconventional mistress of a Sussex manor” (to quote Amazon) and her neighbor Gabriel Crowther, “a reclusive anatomist” (Amazon again). The first book is “Instruments of Darkness,” and I think there are five books now. I just ordered the latest one from Book Depository and can’t wait for it to arrive.

  18. 18
    Paula says:

    As a Brit, I find some historical mysteries set in England more entertaining than they probably mean to be, particularly when it comes to things like how the peerage works and more mundane practicalities.

    I’d like to add a couple more suggestions, one of which I’m absolutely stunned hasn’t been mentioned so far – CJ Sandom’s series, set in Tudor England, featuring Matthew Shardlake. The series starts with Dissolution.

    I’d also recommend the series by Pat McIntosh featuring Gil Cunningham, which starts with The Harper’s Quine – it’s set in the newly-founded (medieval) university at Glasgow.

    I’ve also really enjoyed the 3 books I’ve read in Eleanor Updale’s Montmorency series, which is probably Young Adult and set in Victorian London. It’s about a burglar who decides to reinvent himself as a gentleman after a theft gone wrong.

    Meanwhile, outside the UK and also closer to our own times – Colin Cotterill has written a series of books set in Laos during the 1970’s. The monarchy has been overthrown by the Communist Party and our hero, Dr Siri Paiboun, finds himself landed with the job of coroner, and then detective. The series starts with The Coroner’s Lunch.

  19. 19

    Love all the recommendations! I love historical mysteries and like Elyse prefer traditional crime solving to the shock/twist approach of thrillers. One new author to check out is Ashley Weaver. I quite enjoyed her Murder at the Brightwell — 1930s era Britain with a not-so-happy husband and wife duo — very Agatha Christie-ish.

    If you like more medieval/Tudor mysteries, I can suggest a few authors. Candace Robb’s Owen Archer series set in 14th century England. For Elizabethan theater, there’s Edward Marston’s Nicholas Bracewell series and at Elizabeth’s court, there’s Fiona Buckley’s Ursula Blanchard series. Some are on Kindle, some sadly you’ll have to track down in the used bookstores.

  20. 20
    Karin says:

    Most of my favorites have already been listed, but the Lady Arianna Regency mysteries by Andrea Penrose(aka Cara Elliott) are lightweight and fun. Patricia Wentworth wrote a lot of cozy British mysteries which are over 50 years old now, so I guess that qualifies as historical. They are delightful and there is always a romantic subplot. Over at Paperbackswap there is a very comprehensive booklist including just about every historical mystery mentioned here, plus a lot more. http://www.paperbackswap.com/Historical-Mystery-Series/list/420/

  21. 21
    Helen Rudd says:

    I LOVED that series by Andrea Penrose! I can’t believe the series ended after only three. I kept looking for more but the last one came out 2012 so I am assuming there will be no more.

  22. 22
    DianeN says:

    I don’t think I’ve seen Sharan Newman’s Catherine LeVendeur series mentioned. It’s set in 12th century France, and the first book is Death Comes as Epiphany. Great characters, provocative story lines, and a lovely romance that spans the earlier books and doesn’t really end after the pair gets married!

  23. 23
    Liz says:

    I’m on a severely truncated lunch but I adore the Lady Julia series. It’s a slower build but her eccentric family, snarky maid, pet raven named Grim always make smile. That’s before you get to the hero.

  24. 24
    Hillary says:

    You mentioned several of my favorites, and I see someone beat me to Maisie Dobbs. I also love Laurie King’s Mary Russell books. oh, and Victoria Thompson’s mysteries set in NYC around the turn of the century.

  25. 25
    AmyL says:

    I second the Victoria Thompson Gaslight series rec, though I’m only on book 4. The characters are really strong — they elevate the books even when the mystery is a little predictable. I’m working my way through the series now, plus Elizabeth Peters’s Amelia Peabody books.

    I really enjoyed Lady Emily series by Tasha Alexander up to book 6, but found the last two releases somewhat “meh”. I also enjoyed the first few books in Her Royal Spyness, Daisy Dalrymple and Captain Lacey series but didn’t love them enough to continue past books 3 or 4. I would still recommend the ones I did read, though. It’s quite a challenge to keep going with a series while continuing to develop the characters and relationships, and without getting repetitive.

  26. 26
    JaniceG says:

    Many of these I already had in the list on my web site but I am really glad to get some new recommendations! Have to especially second the recommendation of the Sansom series set in the Reformation, which is really well written (and which I found much more compelling than the more lauded Wolf Hall set in the same period) and the often-neglected post-WWII Patricia Wentworth series, which is both well written and has great psychological insights into character.

  27. 27
    April says:

    I don’t think I saw Lyndsay Faye’s Timothy Wilde series listed. The first one is Gods of Gotham and the third one is coming out in May. I second Barbara Hambly’s Benjamin January series. I just love that series and have reread it many times.

  28. 28

    For the m/m readers, there’s a wonderful series by Charlie Cochrane called the Cambridge Fellows mysteries. The setting is early 20th century (some are set before WW1, some shortly after). The first several books were with…Samhain, I think? But now the series has been revived over at Riptide (full disclosure: I edit this series).

    It’s charming, not violent at all, and really relies on a lot of feet-on-the-ground, talking-to-the-vicar, thinking-it-through style sleuthing in the great British tradition. Despite my job, I don’t actually read that much m/m, but this is mostly post-gay in how it treats the relationship (at least the later books are). I love the way this series balances an overall lighthearted tone with some of the more serious implications of being gay at that time and place in history. Mostly it’s just plain good fun and lots of banter, though.

    I still want to read the Phryne Fisher books!

  29. 29
    Ellie says:

    FLAVIA DE LUCE. I love her almost as much as I love Mrs. Pollifax. At the start of the series, she is a precocious 11 year old with a bike named Gladys, two spiteful big sisters, a decaying manor house, and a savant like talent for the chemistry of poisons. The books occur in early 1950s-era Great Britain. Also like the victoria thompson, though I agree with whomever said that the characters elevate the predictability. And they have improved over the course of the series. Glad to here that Maisy Yates and Daisy Dalrymple are good; have been considering starting those series. I thought the Rhys Bowens good but not great; i will continue to borrow from library rather than buy.

  30. 30
    ULTRAGOTHA says:

    I like Josephine Tey, which are historical now and also Jo Walton’s Small Change books (Farthing, Ha’penny, Half a Crown) set in an alternate history of WWII.

    I didn’t realize until just now that Brat Farrar inspired Walton to write her Small Change books.

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