Historical Musings #17: The historical mystery

Historical Musings I’ve been so badly organised recently that I had no idea what this month’s Historical Musings post would be about until yesterday, when I sat down to start reading Sovereign, the third book in CJ Sansom’s Shardlake mystery series, set in Tudor England. I enjoy reading historical mysteries for the same reasons that I enjoy reading historical fiction in general (escaping into the past, learning through fiction etc) but also because I like to see mysteries being solved through traditional methods – questioning witnesses, making observations, searching for clues – without the use of modern technology.

Sovereign I loved the first two Shardlake novels, yet it has taken me more than a year to get round to picking up this third one; the problem with historical mysteries is that they all seem to be part of a long series! I can’t think of many standalones that I’ve read; The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco is one, The Unburied by Charles Palliser is another, and then there are some of Andrew Taylor’s books (The Anatomy of Ghosts and The American Boy) – but historical mystery series are in abundance! Although I seem to be very good at starting them, I’m not so good at remembering to continue with them.

Here are a few that I have in progress at the moment:

Crocodile on the Sandbank Shardlake series by CJ Sansom (Tudor) – read the first two books and currently reading the third
Sebastian St Cyr series by CS Harris (Regency) – read the first book
Amelia Peabody series by Elizabeth Peters (19th/20th century, Egypt) – read the first two books
Mary Russell series by Laurie R King (early 20th century) – read the first two books
Justin de Quincy series by Sharon Penman (medieval) – read the first book
Charles Horton series by Lloyd Shepherd (19th century) – read the first two books
Adelia Aguilar series by Ariana Franklin (medieval) – read the first book
Thomas Hawkins series by Antonia Hodgson (18th century) – read the first two books and starting the third soon

As you can see, I’ve got a lot of reading to do!

This month, then, I’d like to hear your thoughts on historical mysteries. Do you enjoy reading them? Which are your favourites?

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27 thoughts on “Historical Musings #17: The historical mystery”

  1. I enjoy many historical mystery series, but I have an aversion to those which involve a well-known historical figure as the ‘detective’ – I’ve come across books featuring people as diverse as King Edward VII, Oscar Wilde, Jane Austen, Sigmund Freud, Christopher Marlow and Josephine Tey. I think what troubles me is the credibility gap! After all, anyone with even the slightest knowledge of real-life crime detection in past ages will be aware that modern methods, even those employed by Sherlock Holmes, are totally anachronistic.
    Having said that, I love the Shardlake books and always look out for them. I also like the Falco series, and its spin-off featuring his adopted daughter Albia, by Lindsey Davis. VM Whitworth has written two very good ones set in Anglo-Saxon England, The Bone Thief and The Traitors’ Pit. Sylvian Hamilton, who is sadly no longer with us, left behind three great books, starting with The Bone Pedlar (which has what I think is one of the best opening lines in literature – ‘In the crypt of the Abbey Church at Hallowdene, the monks were boiling their Bishop’). And there are some great authors working in Georgian England, notably Antonia Hodgson, whom you’ve mentioned above, Rose Melikan and Imogen Robertson. Kate Ross wrote some lovely mysteries, but she’s no longer with us either, sadly. Then there are the Victorian mysteries of Anne Granger, The Strangler Vine and The Infidel Stain by MJ Carter, and the incomparable Maisie Dobbs, by Jacqueline Winspear, set in the 20s and 30s. Lots to get your teeth into and add to your reading pile!

    1. Thank you – I knew I could count on you to provide lots of great recommendations. πŸ™‚ I’m particularly intrigued by The Bone Pedlar (I need to know why they were boiling the bishop) and I love the sound of the VM Whitworth books as well. I actually have a copy of The Strangler Vine which I haven’t read yet; I obviously need to move that one further up the pile!

    1. Yes, I should really finish one before I start another! I wondered if anyone would mention the Cadfael books. I haven’t read any of them, but I’m glad you enjoyed them, at least at first. πŸ™‚

  2. I enjoy historical mysteries but I haven’t read many of them because of what you point out: they seem to be part of series. I read a very good one years ago titled The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl. I don’t know how graphic you like your reading, but this one is a little too much; however, if you stick to it you’ll be in for a great treat. Matthew Pearl has other literary mysteries but they are not as good as TDC.

    1. I’ve read The Last Dickens by Matthew Pearl – I forgot about that one! I don’t think I was very impressed by it, but maybe The Dante Club is better. I’ll have to give Matthew Pearl another chance one day.

  3. I love historical mysteries but am seldom loyal to a whole series. They can go on for so very long!

    Right now I’m reading book 2 of a new series, Lady Cop Makes Trouble by Amy Stewart – Book 1 was called Girl Waits with Gun. Based on the true story of the first female deputy sheriff in Paterson, New Jersey, it’s charming and compulsively readable as well as a fascinating angle on the region’s history. (I used to live just over the NY/NJ border from Bergen county, so it’s fun to learn about the past of my old stomping grounds.)

  4. I have just been introduced to two series by Cora Harrison: one is set in Ireland’s Burren area and features a woman Judge in 16th Century Eire (many books in series – hurrah!), the other is currently a two book series about a nun in 1920s Cork.

    1. I haven’t heard of Cora Harrison, so thanks for letting me know about her books. I don’t think I’ve read any historical mysteries set in Ireland before!

  5. Historical mysteries bring together two of my favourite genres but sadly I don’t read as many as I would like. Earlier this year, I read the first Mary Russell book and have two more books from the series waiting for me on my bookshelf. I would also love to try the Shardlake series by CJ Sansom.

    1. I enjoyed the first two Mary Russell books and am looking forward to reading the rest eventually. I’m hoping there will be a RIP challenge this year as that will motivate me to read more mysteries. πŸ™‚

  6. I like historical mysteries but I usually get tired of the series. I have read some of the ones you mentioned, and I think the one of those I liked best was Adelia Aguilar, but there are only a half dozen or so books in it, if that many.

    BTW, not to be a pest, but I noticed you haven’t yet linked to my review of Sacred Hearts on your Walter Scott page. I also have The Glass Room coming up today. Have I missed any of yours? Please let me know if I have. I’ve been trying to pay attention.

    1. Yes, there are only a few Adelia Aguilar books, so I really have no excuse for not finishing the series! Sorry for missing your Sacred Hearts link – I’ll go and do it now, and The Glass Room too. You haven’t missed any of mine. πŸ™‚

    2. I read the first of the Ariana Franklin books, and really, really didn’t like it. I think it was the graphic descriptions of the murder that left a thoroughly unpleasant taste in my mouth. I also remember reading one of her other books (under her real name, Diana Norman) which featured a scene so horrible I can remember it in awful detail, many years later. A shame, because I much enjoyed her earlier books, like Fitzempress’s Law.
      And yes, I know that nasty things happen, and especially that even nastier things happened in the past, and I don’t like ‘cosy’ novels either, but for me at least she crossed a line with those scenes. Sorry!

      1. It’s been a long time since I read Mistress of the Art of Death but I do remember the descriptions being quite graphic, so I can definitely appreciate why you didn’t like the book. I haven’t read any of her novels under the Diana Norman name – the reviews seem to be generally positive, but for some reason none of them have ever sounded all that appealing to me. Fitzempress’ Law does sound good, but the prices being asked for used copies are ridiculous!

  7. The Shardlake series is my favourite historical mystery series and the good news is that I think each one is better than the last! Enjoy Sovereign, and then get stuck into the rest… πŸ˜‰

  8. Hi Helen,
    If you’re in it for the long read there is always Susanna Gregorys epic series of The Matthew Bartholomew Chronicles! The book count is now up to 21 and rising. Based in Cambridge in the 14th Century there are lots of medieval shennagins involving colleges, clergy and plenty of bodies in very dubious places. However Susanna Gregory did branch out and start another series set in Restoration London with her character Thomas Chaloner. This might be a bit easier as there is only 8 books so far!

    1. Thanks for reminding me about Susanna Gregory, Julie. I’ve thought about reading her books before, but have never got round to it. I like the sound of both series, although it would certainly be less overwhelming to start with the shorter one!

  9. Something had been niggling at me to suggest and I finally pinned it down: An actual historical story with real historical character who did the things in the story – Newton and the Counterfeiter by .. um.. Thomas Levenson. After accomplishing SCIENCE! Isaac Newton wanted a good position and was made Warden of the Mint. In that position he had the responsibility of stopping counterfeiters. One particularly successful and egotistic criminal gave him trouble, and this is their story. The author found a large collection of Newton’s own writings about it all.
    Actually, the look at Newton’s life, the economics of the problem, and what Newton did to get the Mint functional was more interesting to me – including possibly the first time & motion studies ever – but still, overall the book was fascinating.

    I tend to read one or two books of a mystery series and then lose interest, and also got bitten by trying several historical (Medieval or Renaissance) mystery series back when they were first new, not liking any much, and discovering they were all by the same guy under various pseudonyms. I did enjoy the first few Cadfaels but think the best was #2. Another series that I liked (stuck with past #2) that wasn’t by the multiply-pseudonymous guy, was the Benjamin January stories by Barbara Hambly, set in 1820-30s New Orleans. Did stop with them for a while, and picked up one recently when I saw she’d gotten him out of New Orleans and out West. It was good, and the mystery formula was changed up by the setting of the last Mountain Man Rendezvouz in the Rockies. That titles is Shirt on His Back .

    1. Sorry for the delay in replying, Elaine – I somehow missed seeing your comment until now. I’ve made a note of Newton and the Counterfeiter. I’ve read about Newton before, in Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver, but the book you mention sounds more interesting to me. The Benjamin January books sound intriguing too. I’m not at all familiar with 1820s-30s New Orleans as a setting. I should really continue with some of the series I’ve already started before beginning any more, though!

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