5 Historical Murder Mystery Novels That’ll Consume You

April 19 2022
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Mixing genres can be a dicey proposition. In the wrong hands, what should be a work of innovative stylings, with plotlines and settings capable of bringing together two distinct audiences, can turn into a hot mess. But when done correctly, you get a novel that’s purely unputdownable—not to mention one you may revisit time and time again.

One such genre melding that just seems to hit different is that of historical fiction and mystery, specifically of the murderous variety. There’s something special about an author’s ability to deftly insert a mystery of the highest stakes within the frame of an intricately constructed historical setting that triggers all the senses for an unforgettable, thrilling tale.

Conveniently enough, we just so happen to have a list of novels that stand out as some of the most exceptional historical fiction murder mysteries for you to sink your teeth into . . .

A Small Death in the Great Glen
by A. D. Scott

Set in Scotland in the 1950s, A. D. Scott’s story begins with a young boy’s shocking murder and the many possible suspects in the Sottish Highlands, where the author was born and raised. When a local youth, Jamie, is discovered dead in the canal locks, two young girls provide a wild tale of his disappearance, including visions of a malicious folkloric figure, that seems too outlandish to be true. The typist at the town’s newspaper, Joanna Ross, and her respected journalist boss take it upon themselves to investigate the crime. A Polish immigrant, in the harbor on the night of Jamie’s disappearance, quickly becomes the prime suspect, but the newspaper staff has other ideas. After following several leads, including following up with a town priest and owners of a nearby Italian cafe, it seems the young girls may have been telling the truth—or part of it. A delightful mystery that is equally as satisfying to unravel, A SMALL DEATH IN THE GREAT GLEN offers an entertaining mystery in a rich historical setting.

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A Small Death in the Great Glen
A. D. Scott

In the Highlands of 1950s Scotland, a boy is found dead and two young girls have an unbelievably fanciful explanation for his disappearance. When the local newspaper staff set out to find the truth, the townspeople’s dark pasts threaten to prevent the crime from ever being solved.

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Clark and Division
by Naomi Hirahara

A New York Times Best Mystery Novel of 2021, Naomi’s Hirahara’s CLARK AND DIVISION tells the tale of a Japanese American family’s life in the wake of their tragic internment by the US government following the attacks on Pearl Harbor. Aki Ito’s family was slowly making progress in the United States before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, when they’re then sent to Manzanar internment camp in 1942. Within a year, the Ito family’s eldest, Rose, the “star child,” is designated to serve as a “pro-American” of Japanese heritage and is relocated to Chicago—where her boyfriend follows her months later. When Aki and the Ito family are released from the camp, anticipating a loving reunion, they are stunned to find out Rose has died in a subway train “accident” deemed to be a suicide. Aki, refusing to believe her sister could have done such a thing, sets out to uncover the truth, battling prejudice and racism along the way. Set against the backdrop of one of America’s most shameful chapters, Hirahara’s novel weaves an intricate mystery plot with an effective coming-of-age story. It’s genre-blending at its finest from a proven Edgar Award–winning author.

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Clark and Division
Naomi Hirahara

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The Daughter of Time
by Josephine Tey

Published in 1951, Josephine Tey’s last book in her life, THE DAUGHTER OF TIME, is widely considered one of the best mysteries ever written. In this story of royal intrigue and myth making, Scotland Yard inspector Alan Grant is in a hospital recovering from a broken leg. Looking to occupy his time, Grant becomes fixated on the image of King Richard III. As a detective, he believes to be an expert at reading a person’s character simply by studying images of that individual. Obsessing over Richard’s portrait, Grant, along with his research assistant Brent Carradine, an American working in the British Museum, are skeptical of Richard’s heinous legacy. Poring over historical documents and exploring the country’s history at large, Grant slowly uncovers a plot to portray Richard as the devil he wasn’t. Who’s behind this propaganda push? Find out in one of the greatest crime novels ever constructed—one you can’t keep putting off.

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The Daughter of Time
Josephine Tey

"One of the best mysteries of all time" (The New York Times)—Josephine Tey recreates one of history’s most famous—and vicious—crimes in her classic bestselling novel, a must read for connoisseurs of fiction, now with a new introduction by Robert Barnard.

Inspector Alan Grant of Scotland Yard, recuperating from a broken leg, becomes fascinated with a contemporary 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—a venomous hunchback who may have killed his brother’s children to make his crown secure? Or could Richard have been the victim, turned into a monster by the usurpers of England’s throne? Grant determines to find out once and for all, with the help of the British Museum and an American scholar, what kind of man Richard Plantagenet really was and who killed the Little Princes in the Tower.

The Daughter of Time is an ingeniously plotted, beautifully written, and suspenseful tale, a supreme achievement from one of mystery writing’s most gifted masters.

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Dead Dead Girls
by Nekesa Afia

Speaking of crime, Nekesa Afia’s novel DEAD DEAD GIRLS set in the Harlem Renaissance tracks a murderous mastermind killing young women in the 1920s. Louise Lloyd didn’t always live a quiet, seemingly normal life. Before balancing her time working at Maggie’s Café and Zodiac, a Harlem speakeasy, she was the target of a kidnapping. One which she only narrowly escaped. But she’s unable to run away this time when another dead girl is found in front of the café. Especially not after an incident with the cops when she’s given a choice: help solve the case of the missing, murdered girls or spend her days behind bars. Taking it upon herself, leveraging her many Harlem connections, Louise investigates the killings as best she can until she finds herself in direct opposition to the murderer. Terrific, terrifying, and altogether thrilling, DEAD DEAD GIRLS is an accomplished addition to the historical fiction murder mystery genre from a promising debut author.

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Dead Dead Girls
Nekesa Afia

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Oscar Wilde and a Death of No Importance
by Gyles Brandreth

Here’s a concept: create pulse-pounding plots centered on historical murders and make the leading “detective” one of British literature’s most intriguing figures. Well, that’s what Gyles Brandreth has undertaken in this series, the first of which being OSCAR WILDE AND A DEATH OF NO IMPORTANCE, featuring (you guessed it) Oscar Wilde. In Victorian England, a “boy of the streets” is murdered. But with the local police slow to take on the case, Oscar Wilde, along with his friends Robert Sherard and Arthur Conan Doyle, visits the scene of the crime and try to follow the trail. With the body of Billy Wood now missing, Wilde is determined to pursue any lead he can find until the case goes cold. That is until Billy’s head arrives at Wilde’s door during a Christmas dinner. Richly plotted, compelling, and clever, OSCAR WILDE AND A DEATH OF NO IMPORTANCE is a unique twist on the historical murder genre that delivers in spades. Luckily there are two other books in the series to keep you occupied.

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Oscar Wilde and a Death of No Importance
Gyles Brandreth

Lovers of historical mysteries will relish this chilling Victorian tale based on real events and cloaked in authenticity. The first in a series of fiendishly clever historical murder mysteries, it casts British literature’s most fascinating and controversial figure as the lead sleuth.

A young artist’s model has been murdered, and legendary wit Oscar Wilde enlists his friends Arthur Conan Doyle and Robert Sherard to help him investigate. But when they arrive at the scene of the crime they find no sign of the gruesome killing—save one small spatter of blood, high on the wall. Set in London, Paris, Oxford, and Edinburgh at the height of Queen Victoria’s reign, here is a gripping eyewitness account of Wilde’s secret involvement in the curious case of Billy Wood, a young man whose brutal murder served as the inspiration for The Picture of Dorian Gray. Told by Wilde’s contemporary—poet Robert Sherard—this novel provides a fascinating and evocative portrait of the great playwright and his own “consulting detective,” Sherlock Holmes creator, Arthur Conan Doyle.

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Photo credit: iStock / bitenka

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