Top Ten Historical Mysteries
The granddaddy of them all. For me, Carr changed the game with The Alienist. A gruesome, suspenseful trip through late 19th-century New York City, full of historical detail and characters such as the young police commissioner, Theodore Roosevelt. I reread it every few years to remind myself what historical mysteries can do.
In The Dante Club, Matthew Pearl deftly negotiates the tension between history and fiction and, like Carr, he uses historical figures as characters: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Oliver Wendell Holmes. I love the boldness of the conceit: a serial killer who uses The Inferno as inspiration, and a group of scholars who use the same literature to help catch him.
Anne Perry relies on historical contexts to build her Victorian novels—in Blood on the Water, the Suez Canal is in play—and her protagonist, William Monk, because he is fictional, can be put into any scenario. Her novels are tight and deceptively simple, and though I’ve cited Blood on the Water specifically, I’m including the entire Monk series here.
In addition to the conceit, the writer Josephine Tey as protagonist, what I admire most about Nicola Upson’s work is the prose. It’s evocative and beautiful and, at the same time, moves the plot forward as it must in a mystery. Upson uses gaps in history to create her stories, and in the first book of the series, Josephine Tey has to solve the murder of a young woman she meets on the train from Scotland to London.
I’m biased toward historical mysteries set in the 19th century and later, but I can’t leave this 14th-century mystery off the list. Brother William’s heresy investigation at a monastery turns into a murder investigation when monks start dropping dead. Eco’s book is a complicated labyrinth in which the search for the murderer presses hard on the search for truth.
Waters’s novel is a mystery and a ghost story that is old-fashioned in the best sense of the word. The story unfolds slowly over the backdrop of post-WWII England, following Dr. Faraday to the Ayres family estate, Hundreds Hall. The novel is as much about the passing away of an antiquated system as it is about the ghosts and mysterious deaths.
Set in the 1940s, Mosley’s novel follows Easy Rawlins, a black veteran, who takes a job from a white man to find Daphne Monet because he needs the money. The search takes him (and us) into the nooks and crannies of Los Angeles and, of course, plenty goes wrong. Like the best genre fiction, Devil in a Blue Dress feels like a whole lot more in the way it documents something both vital and subtle about Rawlins by using the genre’s broad dramatic strokes.
In Victorian London, Thomas De Quincy has become the suspect in a spate of murders because the killer is using his essay, “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts,” as inspiration. De Quincy must clear his own name while being in the throes of opium addiction. A killer premise and an even better novel.
The Open Curtain, Brian Evenson
The Open Curtain opens when Rudd Theurer discovers a box containing letters and books that belonged to his dead father. In the letters, Rudd learns of his father’s affair and a possible child from that affair. Soon after he meets his half-brother, Lael, things go odd and Rudd finds himself involved in grisly campsite murders, struggling to negotiate the past and the present, and losing himself in the process. I’m cheating a little here—the split narrative takes place both in the past and the present—but The Open Curtain may be the best novel you haven’t read yet.
Silence of the Grave is a dual narrative, past and present, in which Inspector Erlendur tries to solve the murder of a skeleton found during a child’s birthday party. As he uncovers evidence, Indridason switches between a historical narrative, when Iceland had a large international military presence during WWII, and the present murder case until the two narratives come together. I love all the Erlendur books so I’m glad I could sneak this one in.
J. Aaron Sanders’ debut novel SPEAKERS OF THE DEAD: A Walt Whitman Mystery, just out from Plume Books. Sanders is an associate professor of English at Columbus State University, where he teaches literature and creative writing. He holds a PhD in American Literature from the University of Connecticut and an MFA in Fiction from the University of Utah. His stories have appeared in The Carolina Quarterly, Gulf Coast, Quarterly West, and Beloit Fiction Journal, among others.