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Historical mystery or historical thriller? The two genres have much in common, and sometimes the distinction is just too fine to draw. Whether it’s a locked-room mystery with an unlikely investigator, or a serial killer evading a hard-boiled police detective, there’s a real page-turning thrill as we follow the clues and move ever closer to the final ‘whodunnit’ revelation. Historical mystery and thriller books offer all that and more: rich period detail, social conventions that are often very different to our own, and even the occasional cameo appearance from a ‘real life’ historical figure.

Whether you’re a fan of a gentle amateur sleuth or a tough-talking, no-holds-barred city slicker, of an unconventional character on the edge of what’s acceptable or a government agent at the heart of power, there’s sure to be the perfect read for you on this list. And the good news once you’ve found one you enjoy? Chances are, there’s a whole series of books featuring your new favourite. 

1) The King’s Justice (Stanton and Barling series) by E. M. Powell

In The King’s Justice, Irish writer E. M. Powell takes Aelred Barling, clerk to Henry II, and his assistant, Hugo Stanton, to Yorkshire to investigate a brutal murder. Powell’s reputation for writing historical thriller books builds on her hugely popular ‘Fifth Knight’ series, also based during the 12th century, which features Sir Benedict Palmer, the king’s right-hand man. In fact, Stanton also makes an appearance in the second of the ‘Fifth Knight’ books, in a neat interweaving of the two series.

2) Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin

Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortess Aguilar, the gloriously-named protagonist, is the ‘mistress’ of the title. She learned forensic medicine (‘the art of death’) in Adorno and is in England at the request of Henry II to investigate the murder of a Christian boy that has the Jewish community under suspicion. She discovers a string of killings from the Middle East to the bustling town of Cambridge, with serial killer Rakshasa committing gruesome murders against a backdrop of anti-Semitism. By all accounts, this is a gripping, surprising thriller which sets Adelia’s rationalism against medieval dogma and superstition.

3) A Plague on Both Your Houses (Matthew Bartholomew series) by Susanna Gregory 

This mammoth series of historical mystery books centres around Matthew Bartholomew, a physician who teaches in 14th-century Cambridge. The series begins during the Black Death in the aptly-titled A Plague on Both Your Houses, with Bartholomew facing the new challenges of the devastation that it brings with it as well as the murder of the Master of his college. Beside him is his friend Brother Michael, who is based on a real Benedictine friar. The series carries on into the world after the plague, with its new social and religious uncertainties and the lingering fear of a second wave.

4) Dissolution (Shardlake mysteries) by C. J. Sansom

Set in the dark days of Tudor England, Dr Matthew Shardlake, lawyer and reformer, is sent out to investigate strange goings-on across the country, with the politics and intrigue of Cromwell and the court always at his heels. Starting with Sansom’s first Shardlake mystery in Dissolution, the thoughtful character of the sometimes reluctant investigator engages with a series of carefully-constructed mysteries. The seventh and latest novel, Tombland, sees Shardlake working for the Lady Elizabeth as the young Edward VI sits on the throne, and sadly may well be the last in the series.

5) Martyr (John Shakespeare series) by Rory Clements

Starting with Martyr, the John Shakespeare historical spy thrillers navigate the turbulent waters of Elizabethan England. Against a backdrop of naval battles, threats from the Spanish Armada, Catholic plots to overthrow the Queen, and more, the novels bring together themes of deception, war, violence, love and loss. John Shakespeare is Sir Francis Walsingham’s top intelligencer, so the mysteries come with a healthy dose of espionage and intrigue, taking readers through the twists and turns of Tudor international diplomacy as well as exploring relationships closer to home.

6) Heresy (Giordano Bruno series) by S. J. Parris

S. J. Parris based this much-admired series of historical thriller books on a real-life figure: Giordano Bruno fled his life as a Dominican friar to escape the Inquisition, and ended up as personal tutor to the French king, having spent some years in England, and writing books of philosophy. The first novel, Heresy, sees him trying to uncover a Catholic plot to overthrow the queen while debating Copernican theories at Oxford, and the novels offer an intriguing blend of fact and fiction.

7) Shinjū (Sano Ichirō series) by Laura Joh Rowland

Laura Joh Rowland has written mysteries set in Victorian London and mysteries featuring Charlotte Brontë, but her popular Sano Ichirō series sees her samurai protagonist, educated in martial arts and history, working his way up from ‘Most Honourable Investigator of Events, People and Situations’ for the Shogun to, finally, ‘Grand Chamberlain’. Set in 17th-century Edo, Japan, the novels frequently focus on the tension between traditional codes of honour and allegiances owed both to justice and to the Shogun, often leaving Sano risking his family’s honour and even his own life.

8) The City of Silver by Annamaria Alfieri

Set in 17th-century Peru, this novel combines the broad sweep of a political thriller with the detail and suspense of a good historical mystery book. The Spanish king sends his investigators to Potosí, the largest city in the western hemisphere, when rumours of counterfeit coins are threatening the nation’s imperial power. At the same time, the apparent suicide of an official’s daughter behind locked doors in the convent places abbess Mother Maria Santa Hilda at odds with the Spanish inquisitors. The sisters must prove the death to be a murder, rather than suicide, saving the abbess from charges of heresy.

9) The King’s Spy (Thomas Hill trilogy) by Andrew Swanston

This trilogy covers the turbulent time of the English Civil War, following Thomas Hill through almost 20 years of the 1600s. A bookshop owner with a talent for codes and ciphers, Hill is summoned to King Charles I, who has fled London, following the death of the king’s own cryptographer. In the second novel, Hill finds himself enslaved in Barbados and caught up in the brutality of the civil war, even though he is miles from home. The third novel sees the restoration of the monarchy and Hill back in London, once again assisting the king, this time Charles II, in decoding threats against him.

10) The Coffee Trader by David Liss

David Liss’s historical thriller is set in 1659 among the tight-knit community of Portuguese Jews in Amsterdam. Migeul Lienzo, a trader, has lost everything trading in the sugar markets. In an effort to restore his fortunes, he enters into a partnership aimed at cornering the market in the latest hot commodity: coffee. With so much at stake, there’s betrayal and intrigue at every turn, with enemies who will stop at nothing to ensure Miguel’s ruin. Liss’s bestselling earlier novels, A Conspiracy of Paper and A Spectacle of Corruption, were set in the Jewish community of 18th-century London.

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11) The Ashes of London (Marwood and Lovett series) by Andrew Taylor

Set quite literally in the ashes of London following the Great Fire, the first novel in Andrew Taylor’s series introduces readers to James Marwood, who is working, somewhat reluctantly, for Whitehall. As he investigates the discovery of a mutilated body in the ruins of St Paul’s, he meets Cat Lovett, a fugitive with a keen interest in architecture yet constrained by the restrictions of the time on what a woman could do. The geography of London as it rebuilds is key to the novels, with a wealth of period detail against which the intensely thrilling plots unfold. You can almost smell the smoke.

12) Instruments of Darkness (Crowther and Westerman series) by Imogen Robertson

Set in Georgian England, this series centres around an unlikely partnership between the impulsive and determined lady of the manor Harriet Westerman and reclusive anatomist Gabriel Crowther. Compelling and complex, the novels follow the pair across the country as they grapple with murder and mystery in forensic detail. As well as more domestic crimes and confrontations with their own histories, the most recent novel explores the transatlantic alliances of the international slave trade and the consequences even for those who live a world away from the plantations of the Caribbean.

13) Blood & Sugar by Laura Shepherd-Robinson

The Zong massacre of 1781 forms the horrifying backdrop to this intense and gripping novel. Set in Deptford, a slaving port filled with vice and crime, the novel’s protagonist Captain Harry Corsham attempts to help an old friend’s sister find her missing brother. The politics and vested interests of the slave traders, threatened by the campaigns of the abolitionists, threaten Corsham’s career and family, and he is forced to confront his own past in the American war. Hailed by critics as a stunning debut novel, Blood & Sugar doesn’t shy away from the horrors of the slave trade.

14) The Alienist by Caleb Carr

Caleb Carr’s novel, which promises to be the start of a series, is set in 1890s New York City. In 1919, the narrator, a crime reporter, is reminiscing with Dr Laszlo Kreizler, the ‘alienist’ of the title and early criminal profiler, about working with police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt to solve a number of grisly murders on the Lower East Side. The novel weaves together a diverse cast of characters with recognisable historical figures. The sequel, The Angel of Darkness, features the same team investigating the kidnap of the infant daughter of a visiting Spanish dignitary.

15) A Curious Beginning (Veronica Speedwell series) by Deanna Rayburn

Deanna Rayburn’s series of historical mystery books focuses on the Victorian lepidopterist Veronica Speedwell, an unconventional, educated, well-travelled young woman. A Curious Beginning opens with Veronica leaving the village where she grew up after the death of the second of the two aunts who raised her. She teams up with Stoker, a taxidermist, and together they seek to uncover the dark secrets that haunt her own past, as well as deaths, disappearances and betrayals. There’s also just enough ‘will they, won’t they’ romantic frisson underlying their investigations to add another intriguing layer.

16) The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal

Elizabeth Macneal’s debut novel is set in 1850s London against the background of the Great Exhibition and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood of artists and writers. Aspiring painter Iris Whittle finds herself embroiled in an increasingly sinister series of events, caught between artist Louis Frost, who wants to paint her, and the strange and obsessive taxidermist Silas Rood. Real-life figures from Victorian London mingle with fictional characters in a dark and Gothic tale of suspense and mystery, with literary echoes of Charles Dickens, who even makes an appearance himself, and Edgar Allen Poe.

17) The Face of a Stranger (Monk series) by Anne Perry

Anne Perry’s much-loved series of novels featuring William Monk explore the richly-described streets and alleys of Victorian London, populated with intriguing and engaging characters. In the first of the series, The Face of a Stranger, William Monk must rediscover his own identity after losing his memory after an accident, at the same as solving a murder in his role as a police detective. This amnesia remains a thread through the following novels, as Monk investigates brutal murders among the elite of London’s glittering, yet deadly, social scene.

18) The Axeman’s Jazz by Ray Celestin

The Axeman’s Jazz is set in jazz-filled, mob-ruled New Orleans in 1919 and is inspired by a true story. The Axeman is a serial killer, terrorising the city. Three different people are closing in on the killer: head of the official investigation, Detective Lieutenant Michael Talbot; disgraced former detective Luca d’Andrea, newly released from the state penitentiary and now working for the Mafia; and Ida, secretary at the Pinkerton Detective Agency, Sherlock Holmes fan and friend of Louis Armstrong. As each draws closer to the killer, the Axeman issues a dramatic challenge to the city.

19) A Rising Man (Sam Wyndham series) by Abir Mukherjee

Set in the 1920s in British-ruled India, Abir Mukherjee’s series features Sam Wyndham, a former Scotland Yard detective looking for a new start and a chance to leave behind the ghosts of the First World War. Along with the arrogant Inspector Digby and British-educated Sergeant Banerjee, Wyndham’s investigations take him deep into the heart of Calcutta, with its luxurious British ruling class and its seedy opium dens. All, however, is never as simple as it seems. This series aims to portray life under the British Raj as dissent is growing and the imperial structure is threatened.

20) A Gentleman’s Murder by Christopher Huang

Set in 1924, Christopher Huang’s novel offers a locked-room mystery, a cast of upper-class characters, an element of the psychological and more, but also addresses issues of race, addiction and the after-effects of the First World War. Mixed-race protagonist Lieutenant Eric Peterkin joins The Britannia, London’s finest and most prestigious club, but finds himself investigating the mystery of a man found dead in the club’s vault. The mystery takes him well beyond the club to the heroin dens of Limehouse, yet all the clues point towards the officers of the club and of Scotland Yard.

21) The Strivers’ Row Spy by Jason Overstreet

Jason Overstreet’s first novel is set in the 1920s Harlem renaissance, where a young college graduate from a black bourgeois family is recruited into the FBI as its first African-American agent. He sees a chance to secure real justice and change, but as he and his wife rise in the glittering social scene of Harlem, his double life threatens to break apart everything he’s working for and his relationship with his wife, an artist. A thriller with real-life politics at its heart, the protagonist is forced to choose between the law and loyalty as he uses his talents to thwart the Bureau’s own biases.

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22) The Beekeeper’s Apprentice (Russell and Holmes series) by Laurie R. King

This extensive collection of mysteries focuses on Sherlock Holmes, following his retirement, and his chance encounter in 1915 with the recently orphaned Mary Russell, who at just fifteen years old has more than enough intelligence to catch the eye of the great detective himself. As well as mysteries that Conan Doyle would be proud for his sleuth to solve, King weaves the stories through the changing times of the 20th century, as well as charting the developing relationship between the young Russell and the older Holmes.

23) The Widows of Malabar Hill (Perveen Mistry series) by Sujata Massey

Perveen Mistry made her first appearance in a short story, “Outnumbered at Oxford,” but has gone on to star in two novels: The Widows of Malabar Hill and The Sutapur Moonstone. Inspired by Cornelia Sorabji, who was the only woman practising law in 1920s Bombay, the novels follow Perveen Mistry as she joins her father’s law firm and champions the rights of women, drawing on her own tragic history for the courage to do so. The novels create a vivid picture of the British-ruled multicultural city of Bombay with its complex social codes and restrictions.

24) The Last Kashmiri Rose (Joe Sandilands series) by Barbara Cleverly

Making his debut in The Last Kashmiri Rose, Barbara Cleverly’s protagonist Joe Sandilands is a World War I veteran and detective. The first seven thrillers in the series see Joe investigating murderers in the tight-knit communities of 1920s British India; in the remaining stories, Joe returns to Europe, working his way up in Scotland Yard. Cleverly also writes a series of mysteries set in 1920s Crete, where Laetitia Talbot, an archaeologist with a keen eye for a mystery, solves murders and mysteries against an ancient backdrop.

25) Cocaine Blues, or Miss Phryne Fisher Investigates (Phryne Fisher series) by Kerry Greenwood

Historical mystery readers may well be acquainted with the glamorous Phryne Fisher and her bohemian adventures through the television series based on the novels and the movie. The first of the twenty novels features a heady mix of cocaine and communism, and the others weave their way through the bars and seedier hotels of 1920s Melbourne. The aristocratic socialite Phryne (pronounced ‘fry-nee’) can fly a plane, mix a cocktail and is fond of wearing trousers and handy with a pistol, all of which give a clue or two to her adventurous past.

26) A Fly Has a Hundred Eyes by Aileen G. Baron

Aileen G. Baron’s novel sits at the heart of a number of intersecting historical and political tensions – British, American, Zionist, Palestinian, Nazi, Arab and Jewish – as well as the pressures and tensions of academic rivalry. Lily Sampson, an American student of archaeology, is working in British-mandated Palestine in 1938 when a member of the team is murdered and valuable artefacts go missing. Her attempts to locate the missing amphoriskos lead her into mystery, intrigue and danger in a place where few can be trusted.

27) Web of Deceit (Dewey Webb series) by Renee Pawlish

If you like your detectives old-school and hard-boiled, Dewey Webb might well be the one for you. Hardened by his experiences in World War Two, the private eye is asked to investigate the sort of cases familiar to fans of classic mystery, with a healthy helping of film noir for good measure: cheating wives and missing persons and the like. Set against the backdrop of 1940s Denver, the shadow of the war is always present. Dewey Webb first made an appearance in one of Pawlish’s Reed Ferguson series of mysteries, Back Story, but is now making his way through a series of his own.

28) The Witch Doctor’s Wife by Tamar Myers

In this novel, Tamar Myers draws on her own experience as the daughter of Christian missionaries to create a rich and evocative picture of Belgian Congo in the 1950s. A young woman travels from her South Carolina home to work as a missionary, where her commitment comes up against her culture shock. This novel has been compared to Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, as well as Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, bringing together western incursions into Africa to both preach and profit with the lives and families of the Congolese themselves.

29) The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

This debut novel won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and could slot into any number of different genres, including mystery and thriller, as well as exploring a key point in recent American history from a Vietnamese point of view. The anonymous narrator, the ‘sympathizer’ of the title, is a North Vietnamese mole embedded in the South Vietnamese army. Moving from the horrors of war to post-war espionage and intrigue, the novel opens with the fall of Saigon, then shifts to California. Loved by critics, this complex thriller offers a different, and very necessary, shift in perspective.

30) The Debba by Avner Mandleman

Engaging with the very recent history of Israel and Palestine, Avner Mandleman draws on his own experiences growing up in Israel and during the Six-Day War in this novel. The central character, David Starkman, is a trained killer who must return to Tel Aviv from Canada after the murder of his father, a hero from Israel’s War of Independence. Amidst violent political tensions and in order to receive his inheritance, Starkman has to produce a play, ‘The Debba’ of the title, that his father wrote years earlier, at the same time as trying to assist the police in the investigation of his father’s murder. Set in 1977, the novel looks back to the events that have led to the creation of the state of Israel.

We hope you’ve enjoyed this list of 30 of the best historical mystery and thriller books, compiled by The History Quill’s expert editor, Pippa Brush Chappell. Happy reading!

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