I love a good historical mystery. Any mystery, by definition, features a detective up against a constraint of some kind, whether it be time, or mobility, or a clever murderer. All three are factors in Stuart Turton's The Devil and the Dark Water, which is essentially a closed circuit mystery aboard a ship on the open seas, in which a detained prisoner—who happens to be celebrated detective, Samuel Pipps —boards a ship bound for Amsterdam, where he is to stand trial. But barely has the ship left port before devilry breaks out. And Phipps' attempts to investigate are stymied by the shackles which restrain him and the disappearance of his right hand man.
Naturally, I wondered what the author of an excellent historical mystery thought the key ingredients of such novels were, and Turton responded: "When I read a historical mystery, I want to feel like I’ve been stranded in that time period. I want to feel the grime on my face and hear the din. The past was a horror movie, filled with disease, dirt, and discomfort. It would have been as scary to us as a fantasy world, and I want that sense of alienation. I want my skin to prickle with danger, and to feel slightly uneasy as I read.”
Without modern technology—specifically forensics—to help, detectives in historical mysteries have to have superior powers of observation and deduction, and criminals have far less concern about being caught, which ups the ante, and the suspense.
And often detectives must also find a way to transcend class and gender if they are to follow where the evidence leads. For instance, women detectives are hardly “respectable” by the standards of the day (read: any day before about 1970). And the attitudes towards those who had “ideas above their station” was often a constraint on a detective’s ability to do his/her job, in British mysteries in particular. But again, a constraint that ratchets up the suspense. Stuart adds, “I think the mystery should speak to the period. I don’t want a historical crime to be indistinguishable from a contemporary crime, just in more modern clothes. I want the motive to be grounded in the thinking of the time.”
But the best historical mysteries don’t read like a history lesson with a detective story tacked on. As Turton says, “Most importantly, I want to learn about the period organically through my character’s actions and attitudes towards things, not through endless paragraphs of exposition.”
Of course, I wondered which historical detective stories met Stuart's bar, and couldn't resist adding a few of my own. Here are a few of our favorite historical mysteries.
A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee
Stuart Turton: A Rising Man does all of the above brilliantly. He drops you into Calcutta in 1919, and makes the experience just as disorientating for you as for his protagonist Sam Wyndham—who’s just arrived there himself. Each reveal is rooted in this world and this period, as are the character’s attitudes to it all.
Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear
Maisie Dobbs is a teenager employed as a maid in an aristocratic London household when her employer, a suffragette, sees her potential and pays for her education. But then WWI breaks out, Maisie serves as a nurse at the front, and returns as battle-hardened as her male counterparts. Hanging out her shingle as a private investigator, Maisie Dobbs delivers an excellent mystery as well as a bird's eye view into the seismic postwar societal shifts which color even the crimes Maisie investigates.
An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears
Stuart Turton: An Instance of the Fingerpost is as confounding as the title would suggest. It begins with the murder of Robert Grove in 1663, but quickly escalates to take in the conspiracies of the day. The best part of the story are the narrators. Each one's a famous historical figure with knowledge of the murder, but they're all telling different stories. Aside from being very clever, it's a magical piece of writing.
Opium and Absinthe by Lydia Kang
A young Gilded Age heiress must defy the expectations of her class, and a clever killer, when she finds the body of her murdered sister. Bram Stoker’s new novel, Dracula, has just been published, her sister's body bears two puncture marks, and Tillie's first, laudanum-addled impression is that a vampire may have been the murderer. A fascinating look at fine society, and its excesses, in 1899 New York, as well as a detective story told through a proto-feminist lens.
Things in Jars by Jess Kidd
Things in Jars depicts a Victorian world in which wealthy men of science compete with circus owners to purchase and collect all manner of oddities. “Lady detective” Bridie Devine is called in to find the kidnapped daughter of a collector, and her search will lead her to London's underbelly, “awash with the freshly murdered,” where every life carries a price. Mind-bogglingly inventive, darkly funny, with language that just pops off the page as it describes the exotic and the base with equal brio.
Murder as a Fine Art by David Morrell
When writer Thomas De Quincey's essay On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts is identified as the template for a series of mass murders, identical to murders that terrorized London 43 years earlier, he finds himself accused of being both the architect and the perpetrator of the latest murders. Morrell captures the filth, the fog, and the perilous nature of life in Victorian London in this gripping and atmospheric thriller.
Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley
Set in the late 1940s, in the Watts section of Los Angeles, Devil in a Blue Dress introduces Ezekiel "Easy" Rawlins, an unemployed war veteran, who becomes an unlicensed private eye when a white man asks him to locate Miss Daphne Monet, who is known to hang out at Black jazz clubs. Easy's take on the divide between white and Black worlds, made keener by his experience serving a country that doesn't value him, will stay with you long after the last page.
A Single Spy by William Christie
Alexsi Ivanovich Smirnov has been orphaned, abused, and left to make a living on the streets, as a thief. But he's 16 when his luck really runs out, and he's picked up by the NKVD, transported to Moscow, and given two choices: he can either go deep undercover as a spy in the home of a high ranking Nazi official, or he can die. Caught between the NKVD and the Gestapo, Alexsi spends the next seven years living on a knife edge. Keying off two real-life, minor events in WWII, the action is on a par with a Bourne book, the sense of place in cities as varied as Moscow and Berlin reads eerily authentic, and the perils of espionage read utterly real and terrifying. This is one of those one-sitting reads.
We spoke with the author of one of our picks for Best Mystery, Thriller & Suspense of the Month, Stuart Turton, about the key ingredients in a superb historical thriller.