8 Unsettling Historical Thrillers That Will Haunt You Until the Last Page

August 11 2020

History is filled with terrors, both real and imagined, that create the tantalizing genre of historical thrillers. While I love modern thrillers, there is something about a historical one, grounded in a bit of both truth and myth, that makes it reads all the more bone-chilling. Here are nine edge-of-your-seat historical thrillers that will keep you turning the pages until the very end. 

The Poison Bed
by Elizabeth Fremantle

A historical true-crime story from one of the most tumultuous times in British history? Sign me up. Elizabeth Fremantle presents an incredible, well-researched look into a strange murder amongst the court of King James Ia real unsolved murder case of one of James’s prodigies. Frances Howard and Robert Carr attempt to prove their loyalties to the suspicious king. Who really committed the crime? And who has the most to lose? This book is truly marvelous as it captures the time period so well with the furious page-turning of an epic thriller. 

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The Poison Bed
Elizabeth Fremantle

A spellbinding thriller set in the Jacobean Court of 1615 surrounding a famed couple imprisoned on suspicion of murder—but was it Lord Robert or Lady Frances who committed the crime?

A marriage. A murder. One of them did it. Which of them will die for it?

In the autumn of 1615, scandal rocks the Jacobean court, when a celebrated couple, Robert and Frances Carr, are imprisoned on suspicion of murder. Frances is young, captivating, and from a notorious family. She has been rescued from an abusive marriage by Robert, and is determined to make a new life for herself. Whatever the price.

Robert is one of the richest and most famous men in the kingdom. He has risen from nothing to become one of the country’s most powerful men. But to get to the top, you cannot help making enemies.

Some believe she is innocent; others think her wicked or insane. He claims no knowledge of the murder. The king suspects them both, though it is his secret at stake. Now a man is dead. And someone must pay with their life.

Who is telling the truth? Who has the most to lose? And who is willing to commit murder?

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The Doll Factory
by Elizabeth Macneal

I have always been obsessed with Victorian London and the ghosts that grew out of that era. While not a ghost story, THE DOLL FACTORY dives deep into obsession and possession of the Victorian art world. THE DOLL FACTORY follows Iris, an aspiring artist who has a chance encounter with a man named Silas. Iris forgets about him when she is given the opportunity to model and learn to paint with Louis Frosta dream come true. But of course, Silas has not forgotten about Iris, and his obsession with her turns dark. 

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The Doll Factory
Elizabeth Macneal

The #1 international bestseller and The New York Times Editor’s Choice

“As lush as the novels of Kate Morton and Diane Setterfield, as exciting as The Alienist and Iain Pears’ An Instance of the Fingerpost, this exquisite literary thriller will intrigue book clubs and rivet fans of historical fiction.” —A.J. Finn, #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Woman in the Window

“A lush, evocative Gothic.” —The New York Times Book Review

This terrifically exciting novel will jolt, thrill, and bewitch readers.” —Booklist, starred review

Obsession is an art.

In this “sharp, scary, gorgeously evocative tale of love, art, and obsession” (Paula Hawkins, bestselling author of The Girl on the Train), a beautiful young woman aspires to be an artist, while a man’s dark obsession may destroy her world forever.

Obsession is an art.

In 1850s London, the Great Exhibition is being erected in Hyde Park and, among the crowd watching the dazzling spectacle, two people meet by happenstance. For Iris, an arrestingly attractive aspiring artist, it is a brief and forgettable moment. But for Silas, a curiosity collector enchanted by all things strange and beautiful, the meeting marks a new beginning.

When Iris is asked to model for Pre-Raphaelite artist Louis Frost, she agrees on the condition that he will also teach her to paint. Suddenly, her world begins to expand beyond her wildest dreams—but she has no idea that evil is waiting in the shadows. Silas has only thought of one thing since that chance meeting, and his obsession is darkening by the day.

“A lush, evocative Gothic” (The New York Times Book Review) that is “a perfect blend of froth and substance” (The Washington Post), The Doll Factory will haunt you long after you finish it and is perfect for fans of The Alienist, Drood, and Fingersmith.

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The Dead Can Wait
by Robert Ryan

Dr. John Watson has always been a fascinating literary charactera capable soldier and intelligent crime solver. In THE DEAD CAN WAIT, Robert Ryan excellently brings this famous character into WWI to solve a deadly mystery without the help of his friend Sherlock Holmes. After returning from Flanders Fields, Watson is tasked with helping to rehabilitate shell-shocked soldiers, but the government is keeping a secret. In a hidden corner of England, they’re building landships that could win the war for Britain. But after a disastrous training exercise that leaves seven men dead and eight who won’t talk, John Watson is brought on to solve this military mystery. 

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The Dead Can Wait
Robert Ryan

From the author of Dead Man’s Land comes a gripping thriller featuring beloved Dr. John Watson who must solve another case. Deep within England’s green and lush countryside, something evil lurks…

Dr. John Watson is back home, recovering from his time in the trenches of Flanders Fields. The horrors of war weigh heavy on his mind, and now his task is to help rehabilitate soldiers suffering from the crippling effects of shellshock.

But the war is not yet over and in one corner of England lies a secret, one that the establishment is determined to keep under wraps. For in the woodlands of the lush countryside, the government is building the secret weapon which will win the war for Britain. Here, they are developing the never-before-seen tanks which the army is convinced will end the stalemate on the Western Front.

But then disaster strikes. After a training exercise in one of the tanks, eight men are mysteriously struck down, seven of them dead. There is just the one survivor, and he’s not talking. It is clear something is horribly wrong, and the army calls in the only man who will know how to solve the mystery: Dr John Watson.

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The Wolf and the Watchman
by Niklas Natt och Dag

This book is dark, twisting, and, honestly, unputdownable. Set in 1793 Stockholm, where violence crackles in the air, several unlikely characters become entwined. After an ex-soldier and former night watchman finds a mutilated body in a lake, he feels compelled to provide a proper burial for it. He teams up with a brilliant lawyer and consulting detective in order to figure out the man’s identity. Meanwhile, a young woman forced into the workhouse by her priest has been marked by a sadistic guard as his next victim. Natt och Dag expertly weaves these characters together into a bone-chilling experience that you won’t be able to stop reading. 

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The Wolf and the Watchman
Niklas Natt och Dag

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The Alienist
by Caleb Carr

Easily considered a touchstone of historical suspense, this is a must for all historical thriller fans. Set in 1896 New York City, Dr. Laszlo Kreizler is a psychologist, known as an “alienist,” who enlists the help of newspaper reporter John Schuyler Moore to find out who mutilated and murdered a young boy on the Williamsburg bridge. THE ALIENIST is a deep dive into historical criminology and the creation of a psychological profile of a twisted murderer. Carr captures the suspense and intrigue against the backdrop of the Gilded Age perfectly. This is truly an atmospheric thriller. 

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The Alienist
Caleb Carr

Fast-paced and gripping, infused with a historian's exactitude, The Alienist conjures up the Gilded Age and its untarnished underside: verminous tenements and opulent mansions, corrupt cops and flamboyant gangsters, shining opera houses and seamy gin mills. Here is a New York during an age when questioning society's belief that all killers are born, not made, could have unexpected and mortal consequences.

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American Spy
by Lauren Wilkinson

This historical tale of espionage and love is more modern than some of the other historical novels on this list. This 1986 cold warera novel plunges you into the life of Marie Mitchell, an officer with the FBI. As a young black woman intelligence officer she feels that her career has stalled, leaving her to deal with paperwork instead of saving people. That is until she’s given the opportunity to join a shadowy task force to undermine the communist president of Burkina Faso. Mitchell says yes, despite the fact that she admires what Sankara is doing for Burkina Faso and despite the fact that she suspects she was offered the job for her appearance and not her skill. Mitchell is suddenly plunged into a world that will have her question everything it means to be a spy, a lover, and a good American. Grounded in true events, AMERICAN SPY felt like such a unique twist on the spy narrative. 

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American Spy
Lauren Wilkinson

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11/22/63
by Stephen King

Stephen King has mastered so many genres, that it should be no surprise that his own historical thriller made this list. King turns the late 50s into a bright yet creepy nightmare. 11/22/63 follows Jake as he stumbles upon a secret portal to 1958. There he takes up his friend Al’s obsessive quest to stop the Kennedy assassination. But Jake is bending the rules of time, and this supernatural thriller is so well researched you’ll feel as if you stepped through the portal with Jake. 

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11/22/63
Stephen King

One of the Ten Best Books of The New York Times Book Review
Winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize
Now a miniseries from Hulu starring James Franco

ON NOVEMBER 22, 1963, THREE SHOTS RANG OUT IN DALLAS, PRESIDENT KENNEDY DIED, AND THE WORLD CHANGED. WHAT IF YOU COULD CHANGE IT BACK?

In this brilliantly conceived tour de force, Stephen King—who has absorbed the social, political, and popular culture of his generation more imaginatively and thoroughly than any other writer—takes readers on an incredible journey into the past and the possibility of altering it.

It begins with Jake Epping, a thirty-five-year-old English teacher in Lisbon Falls, Maine, who makes extra money teaching GED classes. He asks his students to write about an event that changed their lives, and one essay blows him away—a gruesome, harrowing story about the night more than fifty years ago when Harry Dunning’s father came home and killed his mother, his sister, and his brother with a sledgehammer. Reading the essay is a watershed moment for Jake, his life—like Harry’s, like America’s in 1963—turning on a dime. Not much later his friend Al, who owns the local diner, divulges a secret: his storeroom is a portal to the past, a particular day in 1958. And Al enlists Jake to take over the mission that has become his obsession—to prevent the Kennedy assassination.

So begins Jake’s new life as George Amberson, in a different world of Ike and JFK and Elvis, of big American cars and sock hops and cigarette smoke everywhere. From the dank little city of Derry, Maine (where there’s Dunning business to conduct), to the warmhearted small town of Jodie, Texas, where Jake falls dangerously in love, every turn is leading eventually, of course, to a troubled loner named Lee Harvey Oswald and to Dallas, where the past becomes heart-stoppingly suspenseful, and where history might not be history anymore. Time-travel has never been so believable. Or so terrifying.

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The Confessions of Frannie Langton
by Sara Collins

A good old-fashion murder mystery that examines race, class, and what happens when people are treated like property. While it is true that Frannie’s relationship with Marguerite was passionate and complicated, she does not believe she committed the crime despite being found next to Marguerite’s body covered in blood. Frannie doesn’t know what happened to her employers, nor she does have a story to tell. THE CONFESSIONS OF FRANNIE LANGTON is a gothic masterpiece told from the perspective of a former slave as she reveals that there are other crimes that have been committed beyond murder. 

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The Confessions of Frannie Langton
Sara Collins

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Tangerine
by Christine Mangan

Also set in the 50s, but taking place in Tangier, Mangan weaves a deep and extraordinary suspense story. After moving to Tangier with her new husband, Alice never expected to see her former best friend, Lucy. They haven’t spoken since an accident, and although Lucy has come to make things right, Alice is hesitant. Despite this, Lucy is able to coax Alice out of her flat and explore Morocco. But suddenly old feelings return, and Alice feels controlled and smothered by Lucy’s presence. When her husband goes missing, Alice begins to question everything around her, especially her relationship with Lucy. The sweltering heat of the Moroccon backdrop mixed with the obsessive friendship is sure to leave you breathless. 

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Tangerine
Christine Mangan

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Photo Credit: Nando Castoldi/iStock

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