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22 of the best historical mysteries

Historical mysteries give readers the gift of time-travel. An invitation to experience the sights, sounds, people, landscapes and atmosphere of another era altogether, and murder makes for the perfect crime by which to explore such rich history.

From the twelfth century, right up to the twentieth, both home and aboard, we’ve selected some of the most thrilling mysteries set in the past, with twists and turns to keep even the most crime-obsessed reader on their toes.

Read on for our pick of the best historical crime novels around!

22 of the best historical mysteries and thrillers:

A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee

A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee

Calcutta, 1919. Former Scotland Yard Detective Captain Sam Wyndham, along with Sergeant Surendranath Banerjee, is tasked with solving the murder of a senior British official, but instead finds himself embroiled in the politics of a colony under British rule.

A well-researched and vivid portrayal of an Empire under threat, with strong resonance to the present day and a detective duo you’ll want to return to again and again.

The Silver Pigs by Lindsay Davis

The Silver Pigs by Lindsay Davis

In Rome in AD 70, laid-back informer and imperial agent Marcus Didius Falco is on the hunt for the killer. Travelling to Britain, he catapults himself into a dangerous game involving stolen imperial ingots, a dark political plot and a senator’s daughter connected to the traitors Falco has sworn to uncover.

Exposing the criminal underbelly of ancient Rome, this first novel in the Falco detective series is a witty and endearing mystery from a very original voice.

The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey

The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey

Inspector Alan Grant becomes fascinated with a portrait of Richard III that bears no resemblance to the Wicked Uncle of history. Could such a sensitive, noble face actually belong to one of the world’s most heinous villains? Or could Richard have been the victim, turned into a monster by the the Tudors?

Fans of Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham and Daphne du Maurier will love this classic tale that was voted the best mystery novel of all time by the Crime Writers’ Association.

Imperium by Robert Harris

Imperium by Robert Harris

When a victim of Sicily’s corrupt Roman governor presents himself at the house of renowned senator Marcus Cicero, he sets in motion a chain of events that propels Cicero into one of the most suspense-filled courtroom dramas in history.

Narrated by Cicero’s secretary and slave Tiro, this is a re-creation of his vanished masterpiece that charts Cicero’s pursuit of imperium – supreme power in the state. A juggernaut of the historical thriller genre and the first in Robert Harris’s iconic trilogy.

Mortal Mischief by Frank Tallis

Mortal Mischief by Frank Tallis

Transport yourself to 1900s Vienna with this historical crime novel that follows Dr Max Liebermann, a young psychoanalyst studying under Sigmund Freud, as he uses his forensic eye and understanding of human behaviour to help Detective Inspector Oskar Rheinhardt solve a mysterious murder case.

The basis for BBC Two’s Vienna Blood starring Matthew Beard and Juergen Maurer, this clever, addictive murder mystery is packed with intrigue.

Dissolution by C J Sansom

Dissolution by C J Sansom

Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell are dissolving a strong network of monasteries country-wide. But things take a turn for the sinister when Cromwell’s Commissioner is found dead in a horrific murder and Dr Matthew Shardlake, lawyer and supporter of Reform, is sent to investigate.

Hailed as a ‘Tudor Morse’, fans of unlikely detectives will be in their element with plenty more books in the series to enjoy.

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

At an Italian Abbey in 1327, Brother William of Baskerville arrives to investigate Franciscans accused of heresy, before seven deaths force him to turn detective.

Umberto Eco’s novel is a perfect mixture of murder, metaphysical philosophy and medieval history, and a masterclass in crime writing. Inundated with international awards and plaudits and selling over 50 million copies worldwide, it is one of the most popular books ever published.

The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown

The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown

Matthew Hopkins, the infamous ‘witchfinder’ of the seventeenth century, is held to account by his fictional sister in this chilling exploration of the Essex witch hunts.

Set in 1645, with England in its fourth year of civil war, it combines fact and fiction to stay eerily faithful to the period and delivers a chilling twist at the end. A truly haunting read.

The Yard by Alex Grecian

The Yard by Alex Grecian

In the wake of Jack the Ripper, Scotland Yard collects twelve super-sleuths – known as the ‘Murder Squad’ – to investigate a multitude of murders. But when one of the twelve is brutally killed, newest recruit Walter Day has to step up and take on the case. Can he find the killer before more people die?

Expect a thickly-plotted police procedural packed with gory detail.

The Anatomy of Ghosts by Andrew Taylor

The Anatomy of Ghosts by Andrew Taylor

Set in the fictional Cambridge college of ‘Jerusalem’ in 1765, the ghost of murdered Sylvia Whichcote is seen roaming the college grounds and rationalist John Holdsworth is employed to investigate.

What unfolds is a story of mistreatment and helplessness, of self-exploration and grief. Grab yourself a cozy armchair and settle in for a haunting read.

The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins

The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins

Crowds gather at the gates of the Old Bailey to watch as Frannie Langton, maid to Mr and Mrs Benham, goes on trial for their murder. For the first time Frannie must tell her story. But through her fevered confessions, one question haunts her: could she have murdered the only person she ever loved?

Well-written and beautifully-crafted, this tale travels across the Atlantic, leading you through laudanum-laced dressing rooms and dark-as-night alleys, into the heart of Georgian London.

The Axeman’s Jazz by Ray Celestin

The Axeman’s Jazz by Ray Celestin

The Axeman is a twisted serial killer who stalks the city of New Orleans in 1919, providing the perfect challenge for three determined investigators – Detective Lieutenant Michael Talbot, former detective Luca D’Andrea and Sherlock Holmes-obsessive, Ida, secretary at the Pinkerton Detective Agency. But who will unmask the killer?

Inspired by a true story and perfectly evoking the jazz-fuelled Southern city, get ready to swing your way into noir-style suspense.

The Death Maze by Ariana Franklin

The Death Maze by Ariana Franklin

Adelia Aguilar is a twelfth-century anatomist, tasked with investigating the poisoning of Henry II’s favourite mistress, rumoured to be by the hand of his wife, Eleanor of Aquitane. But the ghastly truth of a gripping mystery is rarely simple and with the fate of England at stake, Aguilar has a race against time to solve the riddle of a medieval whodunit.

Absorbing and at times gruesome, this is an atmospheric re-imagining of a fascinating era.

Dangerous Crossing by Rachel Rhys

Dangerous Crossing by Rachel Rhys

When housemaid Lily Shepherd boards the Orontes ocean liner from England in 1939, little does she know that before the boat docks in Sydney two people will be dead.

Set against the outbreak of World War II, the claustrophobia and sense of impending doom underpins the story, and with the feel of a classic golden-age mystery, fans of gentle closed-room whodunits will be thoroughly entertained.

The Strings of Murder by Oscar de Muriel

The Strings of Murder by Oscar de Muriel

The first case for Inspector Ian Frey and Detective ‘Nine Nails’ McGray is a ghostly gothic mystery set in Victorian Scotland where the detective duo are tasked with investigating the ghastly death of an Edinburgh violin virtuoso.

If you have a penchant for the macabre then you’ll devour this delightfully brilliant mix of horror, history and humour right through to its devilish denouement.

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

This murder mystery, set in a 1920s English country house, is a bizarre and complex intellectual thriller like no other. A ‘groundhog-day’ style murder, where the hero, Aiden Bishop, will re-live the day through the eyes of a different character, again and again until the killer is caught.

Bold, genre-breaking and with a twist on nearly every page, this is a triumphant read that will blow your mind.

The Incendium Plot by A D Swanston

The Incendium Plot by A D Swanston

Elizabethan England is brought to life in this action-packed and pacey story where two brutal killings alert the Earl of Leicester’s chief intelligencer, Dr Christopher Radcliff, to the rumour of a plot against Queen Elizabeth I. Armed with only one word as a clue – incendium – Radcliff has to decipher its significance before it’s too late.

Fanaticism, treachery and dissent, this is a celebration of the Elizabethan age, gory details and all.

The Ways of the World by Robert Goddard

The Ways of the World by Robert Goddard

When Sir Henry Maxted falls from the roof of his mistress’s apartment building in unexplained circumstances, his son, ex Royal Flying Corps ace James ‘Max’ Maxted, resolves to find out how and why his father died.

Set in the aftermath of the Great War, this first thriller in the Wide World trilogy is packed full of Robert Goddard’s trademark double crosses and triple twists.

Two Storm Wood by Philip Gray

Two Storm Wood by Philip Gray

Set at the end of the Great War, Two Storm Wood follows Captain Mackenzie, a survivor of the war, as he uncovers a war crime of inhuman savagery and is drawn into the hunt for a psychopath.

Well-researched, and revealing a part of WW1 history that is little known about, it’s as fascinating as it is thrilling.

The Shadow District by Arnaldur Indridason

The Shadow District by Arnaldur Indridason

The first instalment in a thrilling series by one of the greats in modern crime fiction is set both in wartime and present day Reykjavik, where a retired detective investigates the murder of a young woman found strangled in the dangerous ‘shadow district’ of the city.

It’s a deeply compassionate story of historic crimes and their consequences, and a compelling read that offers compellling insights into Icelandic history.

Triflers Need Not Apply by Camilla Bruce

Triflers Need Not Apply by Camilla Bruce

Based on the true story of Belle Gunness, whose killing spree began in 1900, this fascinating reimagining of the life and times of America’s first female serial killer is a compulsively readable, addictive and tense bombshell of a book, blending fact and fiction to create a tale that readers of Lullaby and The Five will race through.

Smoke and Mirrors by Elly Griffiths

Smoke and Mirrors by Elly Griffiths

In 1950s Brighton, the bodies of two missing children are found buried under snow, surrounded by sweets, and dubbed ‘Hansel and Gretel’ by the media. DI Edgar Stephens takes on his most difficult case, with the help of ally Max Mephisto, as they hunts for the disturbed killer.

The second in a series of Stephens and Mephisto novels, which beautifully evokes post-war Britain and the darkness of the fabulous 50s.

Did we miss any of the best historical mysteries? Which crime novels and thrillers would make your list? Let us know in the comments below…

1 Comment

    Following a recommendation on here for The Rising Man, I have now read the evolution series so far, and to say I love them is an understatement – I am completely hooked.

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