Swords, Daggers and Pistols: My Favourite Historical Mysteries

Good historical mysteries are hard to beat. You have the puzzle of figuring out whodunit, plus the bonus of being immersed in another time and place, and if they’re well researched, learning a little history along the way. I recently discovered Andrew Taylor’s stunning new series set during the reign of Charles II (see review for Ashes of London here) and it reminded me of what I enjoy so much about this genre. Here are some series I particularly recommend:

  • S J Parris’s Elizabethan series featuring philosopher and free-thinker Giordano Bruno is at the top of my list for a good reason.  When I was in Rome years ago, I wandered into the Campo de Fiore and was taken by the statue there of a monk, erected on the site of his execution. Bruno was condemned as a heretic by the Pope, escaping to France as a young man where he was taken up by King Henry III and brought to England with the French ambassador. Here he spied on Catholic plotters for Elizabeth I’s spymaster, Sir Frances Walsingham, and Parris has used this period to give Bruno a bunch of interesting mysteries, laced with thrilling exploits (Bruno is handy with a knife), and plenty of intrigue. His friendship with Sir Philip Sidney, poet and popular courtier, adds a touch of lightness in this sometimes grim era. The first book in the series is Heresy.
  • Andrew Martin’s series featuring railway detective Jim Stringer takes you back to the steam age, early last century. Jim is just a teenager from Yorkshire at the start of the series, working as a fireman on London’s train system when he finds himself caught up in murder on The Necropolis Railway. Through the series, there’s always plenty of action, while trains chuff along, each book is laced with North of England humour. You also learn a lot about steam trains. My favourite books in the series are probably the later ones: The Baghdad Railway Club is thoroughly brilliant for depicting the British campaign in the Middle East during WWI, with some stunningly quirky characters, a well-turned plot and a wonderful finale. Martin is also a dab hand at non-fiction and his book Flight by Elephant, about ex-pats and natives fleeing Burma during WW2 reads like a well-plotted novel.
  • Abir Mukherjee is fairly new on the scene but now has three books out in his series featuring Captain Sam Wyndham and his side-kick, Sergeant Banerjee. Set from 1919 in Calcutta, it’s a terrific look at the British Raj in India at a time of simmering political foment. There’s enough action to keep things moving along, and the characterisation is superb with Sam a moody, sometimes opium addict with a backstory relating to WWI and the loss of his wife to the Spanish flu. Banerjee has to deal with being a colonial police officer in a force that is discriminatory towards native staff, while his family despair that he has chosen to work for the Brits. The novels appear regularly in the CWA Dagger awards – the first book in the series is A Rising Man.
  • Lynn Shepherd has a more literary take on the historical mystery, basing her books on the works of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Romantic poets and even Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Murder at Mansfield Park has Austen’s heroine Fanny Price as a truly unpleasant character, with her rival for the affections of Edmund, Mary Crawford, the amateur detective when somebody ends up dead. We meet her recurring sleuth, ‘thief-taker’ Charles Maddox, while it’s his nephew who takes up the reins in Tom-All-Alone’s (aka The Solitary House), in Dickensian London with Dickensian characters. The tragic events around the relationship of Percy Bysshe Shelley and his wife, Mary (author of Frankenstein), are the basis for A Fatal Likeness – a thirty-year-old case that involves both Maddoxes – nephew and uncle. Science and superstition battle it out in the fourth Charles Madox novel, The Pierced Heart, in which a killer known as the Vampire stalks London’s streets. All four novels are engaging, well-researched and cleverly plotted.


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