Historical mystery

The historical mystery or historical whodunit is a subgenre of two literary genres, historical fiction and mystery fiction. These works are set in a time period considered historical from the author's perspective, and the central plot involves the solving of a mystery or crime (usually murder). Though works combining these genres have existed since at least the early 20th century, many credit Ellis Peters's Cadfael Chronicles (1977–1994) for popularizing what would become known as the historical mystery.[1][2] The increasing popularity and prevalence of this type of fiction in subsequent decades has spawned a distinct subgenre recognized by the publishing industry and libraries.[2][3][4][5] Publishers Weekly noted in 2010 of the genre, "The past decade has seen an explosion in both quantity and quality. Never before have so many historical mysteries been published, by so many gifted writers, and covering such a wide range of times and places."[1] Editor Keith Kahla concurs, "From a small group of writers with a very specialized audience, the historical mystery has become a critically acclaimed, award-winning genre with a toehold on the New York Times bestseller list."[1]

Since 1999, the British Crime Writers' Association has awarded the CWA Historical Dagger award to novels in the genre.[6] The Left Coast Crime conference has presented its Bruce Alexander Memorial Historical Mystery award (for mysteries set prior to 1950) since 2004.[7]


Though the term "whodunit" was coined sometime in the early 1930s,[8][9][10] it has been argued that the detective story itself has its origins as early as the 429 BC Sophocles play Oedipus Rex[11] and the 10th century tale "The Three Apples" from One Thousand and One Nights (Arabian Nights).[12][13] During China's Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), gong'an ("crime-case") folk novels were written in which government magistrates—primarily the historical Di Renjie of the Tang Dynasty (618–907) and Bao Zheng of the Song Dynasty (960–1279)—investigate cases and then as judges determine guilt and punishment. The stories were set in the past but contained many anachronisms. Robert van Gulik came across the 18th century anonymously-written Chinese manuscript Di Gong An, in his view closer to the Western tradition of detective fiction than other gong'an tales and so more likely to appeal to non-Chinese readers, and in 1949 published it in English as Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee. He subsequently wrote his own Judge Dee stories (1951–1968) in the same style and time period.[2][14][15]

Perhaps the first modern English work that can be classified as both historical fiction and a mystery however is the 1911 Melville Davisson Post story "The Angel of the Lord", which features amateur detective Uncle Abner in pre-American Civil War West Virginia.[1][16] Barry Zeman of the Mystery Writers of America calls the Uncle Abner short stories "the starting point for true historical mysteries."[1] In the 22 Uncle Abner tales Post wrote between 1911 and 1928, the character puzzles out local mysteries with his keen observation and knowledge of the Bible.[16] It was not until 1943 that American mystery writer Lillian de la Torre did something similar in the story "The Great Seal of England", casting 18th century literary figures Samuel Johnson and James Boswell into Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson roles in what would become the first of her Dr. Sam: Johnson, Detector series of stories.[17][18][19] In 1944 Agatha Christie published Death Comes as the End, a mystery novel set in ancient Egypt and the first full-length historical whodunit.[1][19][20][21] In 1950, John Dickson Carr published the second full-length historical mystery novel called The Bride of Newgate, set at the close of the Napoleonic Wars.[19]


In 1970 Peter Lovesey began a series of novels featuring Sergeant Cribb, a Victorian-era police detective, and Elizabeth Peters's Amelia Peabody series (1975–2010) followed the adventures of the titular Victorian lady/archaeologist as she solved mysteries surrounding her excavations in early 20th century Egypt.[1] But historical mystery stories remained an oddity until the late 1970s, with the success of Ellis Peters and her Cadfael Chronicles (1977–1994), featuring Benedictine monk Brother Cadfael and set in 12th century Shrewsbury.[1][2][22] Umberto Eco's one-off The Name of the Rose (1980) also helped popularize the concept, and starting in 1979, author Anne Perry wrote two series of Victorian era mysteries featuring Thomas Pitt (1979–2013) and William Monk (1990–2013). However it was not until about 1990 that the genre's popularity expanded significantly with works such as Lindsey Davis's Falco novels (1989–2010), set in the Roman Empire of Vespasian;[1][2] John Maddox Roberts's SPQR series (1990–2010) and Steven Saylor's Roma Sub Rosa novels (1991–2010), both set in the Roman Republic in the 1st century BC;[1] and Paul Doherty's various series, including the Hugh Corbett medieval mysteries (1986–2010), the Sorrowful Mysteries of Brother Athelstan (1991–2012), and the Canterbury Tales of Mystery and Murder (1994–2012). For Mike Ashley'sThe Mammoth Book of Historical Detectives (1995), F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre wrote "Death in the Dawntime", a locked room mystery (or rather, sealed cave mystery) set in Australia around 35,000 BC, which Ashley suggests is the furthest in the past a historical mystery has been set to date.[23] Diana Gabaldon began the Lord John series in 1998, casting a recurring secondary character from her Outlander series, Lord John Grey, as a nobleman-military officer-amateur detective in 18th century England.[24][25][26] Using the pen name Ariana Franklin, Diana Norman wrote four Mistress of the Art of Death novels between 2007 and 2010, featuring 12th-century English medical examiner Adelia Aguilar.[27]

Publishers Weekly noted in 2010 of the genre, "The past decade has seen an explosion in both quantity and quality. Never before have so many historical mysteries been published, by so many gifted writers, and covering such a wide range of times and places."[1] Editor Keith Kahla concurs, "From a small group of writers with a very specialized audience, the historical mystery has become a critically acclaimed, award-winning genre with a toehold on the New York Times bestseller list."[1]


In 1999, the British Crime Writers' Association awarded the first CWA Historical Dagger award to a novel in the genre.[6] The award was called the Ellis Peters Historical Dagger through 2012. In 2014, Endeavour Press supported the award, which is called the Endeavour Historical Dagger for the 2014 and 2015 awards.[28] The Left Coast Crime conference has presented its Bruce Alexander Memorial Historical Mystery award (for mysteries set prior to 1950) since 2004.[7]


In an early twist of the genre, Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time (1951) features a modern police detective who alleviates an extended hospital stay by investigating the 15th century case of Richard III of England and the Princes in the Tower.[29] Georgette Heyer's The Talisman Ring (1936), set in 1793 England, is a Regency romance with elements of mystery that Jane Aiken Hodge called "very nearly a detective story in period costume".[30] Many of Heyer's other historical romances have thriller elements but to a much lesser extent.[30]

Other variations include mystery novels set in alternate history timelines or even fantasy worlds. These would include The Ultimate Solution (1973) by Eric Norden and Fatherland (1992) by Robert Harris, both being police procedurals set in alternate timelines where the Nazis won World War II; Randall Garrett's Lord Darcy series, taking place in a 20th-century in which magic is possible; and Phyllis Ann Karr's The Idylls of the Queen (1982), set in King Arthur's court as depicted in Arthurian myth and with no attempt at historical accuracy.

The genre would not include fiction which was contemporary at the time of writing, such as Arthur Conan Doyle's canonical Sherlock Holmes works set in Victorian England, or the Lord Peter Wimsey books by Dorothy L. Sayers set in the Interwar period. However, subsequent Holmes and Wimsey books written by other authors decades later could arguably be classified as historical mysteries.[31][32][33][34]

List of fictional historical detectives

The following list consists of fictional historical detectives in chronological order of their time period setting:

DetectiveSettingPeriodCreatorDebut TitleDebut Year
Lieutenant BakAncient Egypt15th century BCELauren HaneyThe Right Hand of Amon1997
AmerokteAncient Egypt15th century BCEPaul DohertyThe Mask of Ra1998
Lord Meren[2]Ancient Egypt14th century BCELynda S. RobinsonMurder in the Place of Anubis1994
Rahotep[1]Ancient Egypt14th century BCENick DrakeNefertiti: The Book of the Dead2006
Heracles PontorClassical AthensLate 5th century BCEJosé Carlos SomozaThe Athenian Murders2000
NicolaosClassical Athens5th century BCEGary CorbyThe Pericles Commission2010
Alexander the GreatAncient Greece4th century BCEPaul DohertyA Murder in Macedon1997
Senator Decius MetellusRoman Republic1st century BCEJohn Maddox RobertsSPQR1990[1]
Gordianus the FinderRoman Republic1st century BCESteven SaylorRoman Blood1991[1]
Marcus CorvinusRome1st century CEDavid WishartOvid1995
Marcus Didius FalcoRoman Empire70 to 77 CELindsey DavisThe Silver Pigs1989[1][2]
Flavia GeminaRoman Empire79 to 81 CECaroline LawrenceThe Thieves of Ostia2001
Libertus[1]Roman EmpireLate 2nd century CERosemary RoweThe Germanicus Mosaic1999
John, the Lord Chamberlain[1]Constantinople6th centuryMary Reed/Eric MayerOne for Sorrow1999[35]
Judge DeeChina7th centuryRobert van GulikDi Gong An1949[14][15]
Li KaoChina7th centuryBarry HughartBridge of Birds1984
Sister FidelmaIreland7th centuryPeter TremayneAbsolution by Murder1994
Father GeorgeByzantine Empire8th centuryHarry TurtledoveFarmers' Law2000
Sugawara Akitada[1]Japan11th centuryI. J. Parker"Instruments of Murder"1997
LassairEngland11th centuryAlys ClareOut of the Dawn Light2009
Brother CadfaelWales and England1120, 1137–1145Ellis PetersA Morbid Taste for Bones1977[1][2][22]
Justin de QuincyEngland12th centurySharon Kay PenmanThe Queen's Man1996
Josse d'Acquin/Abbess of HawkenlyeEngland12th centuryAlys ClareFortune Like the Moon1999
Magdalene la a BâtardeLondon12th centuryRoberta GellisA Mortal Bane1999
Adelia AguilarEngland12th centuryAriana FranklinMistress of the Art of Death2007[27]
Hugh CorbettEngland13th centuryPaul DohertySatan in St Mary's1986
Theophilos (Feste)Illyria, Constantinople,
Tyre, Denmark, etc.
13th centuryAlan GordonThirteenth Night1999
Edwin WeaverEngland13th centuryCatherine HanleyThe Sins of the Father2009
Oldřich of ChlumBohemia and Moravia13th centuryVlastimil VondruškaDýka s hadem (Dagger with a snake)2002
Brother William of BaskervilleItaly1327Umberto EcoThe Name of the Rose1980
Baldwin de FurnshillDevon14th centuryMichael JecksThe Last Templar1995
Matthew Bartholomew[1]England14th centurySusanna GregoryA Plague on Both Your Houses1996
Mathilde of WestminsterEngland14th centuryPaul DohertyThe Cup of Ghosts2005
Brother AthelstanLondonLate 14th centuryPaul DohertyThe Nightingale Gallery1991
Owen ArcherYorkLate 14th centuryCandace RobbThe Apothecary Rose 1993
Roger the ChapmanEngland15th centuryKate SedleyDeath and the Chapman1991
Dame Frevisse[1]Oxfordshire15th centuryMargaret FrazerThe Novice's Tale1992
Kathryn SwinbrookeEngland15th centuryPaul DohertyA Shrine of Murders1993
Acatl, High Priest of MictlantecuhtliTenochtitlan1480Aliette de Bodard"Obsidian Shards" (novella)2007
Sir Roger ShallotEngland16th centuryPaul DohertyThe White Rose Murders1991
Nicholas Segalla
  • 1558
  • 1567
  • 1793
  • 1889
Paul DohertyA Time for the Death of a King1994
Matthew ShardlakeLondon16th centuryC. J. SansomDissolution2003
Bianca GoddardLondon16th centuryMary LawrenceThe Alchemist's Daughter2015
Giordano BrunoLondon16th centuryS. J. ParrisHeresy2010
Sir Robert CareyCarlisle, then LondonLate 16th centuryPatricia Finney (writing as P F Chisholm)A Famine of Horses1994
Sano Ichirō[2]Genroku-era Japan17th centuryLaura Joh RowlandShinjū1994
Thomas ChalonerEngland17th centurySusanna GregoryA Conspiracy of Violence2006
Benjamin WeaverEngland1720David LissA Conspiracy of Paper2000
CanalettoEngland18th centuryJanet LaurenceCanaletto and the Case of Westminster Bridge1997
John FieldingEngland18th centuryBruce Alexander Cook Blind Justice1994
Lord John GreyEngland, Prussia,
Scotland and Jamaica
1756–1761Diana GabaldonLord John and the Hellfire Club1998[24][25][26]
Samuel Johnson/James BoswellEngland18th centuryLillian de la Torre"The Great Seal of England"1943[17][18]
Dick DarwentEngland1815John Dickson CarrThe Bride of Newgate1950[19]
Matthew HawkwoodEngland18th centuryJames McGeeTrigger Men1985
Sergeant CribbEngland19th centuryPeter LoveseyWobble to Death1970
Thomas Pitt[1]England19th centuryAnne PerryThe Cater Street Hangman1979
William Monk[1]England19th centuryAnne PerryThe Face of a Stranger1990
Mrs. JeffriesEngland19th centuryEmily BrightwellThe Inspector and Mrs. Jeffries1993
Edmund BlackstoneEngland1820sRichard FalkirkBlackstone1972
Benjamin JanuaryNew Orleans1833Barbara HamblyA Free Man of Color1997
Yashim the EunuchOttoman Empire1836Jason GoodwinThe Janissary Tree2006
Uncle AbnerWest VirginiaMid-19th centuryMelville Davisson Post"The Angel of the Lord"1911[16]
Erast FandorinRussia, Japan, etc.1876–1914Boris AkuninThe Winter Queen1998
Ambrose BierceSan FranciscoLate 19th centuryOakley HallAmbrose Bierce and the Queen of Spades1998
William MurdochToronto1890sMaureen JenningsExcept the Dying1997
Sister PelagiaRussia1890s or Early 20th centuryBoris AkuninPelagia and the White Bulldog2000 (Russian)
2006 (English)
Amelia Peabody[1]Egypt1884–1923Elizabeth PetersCrocodile on the Sandbank1975
Alexander von ReisdenBostonEarly 20th centurySarah SmithThe Vanished Child1992
Simon ZieleNew York CityEarly 20th centuryStefanie PintoffIn the Shadow of Gotham2009
Mary RussellWorldwideEarly 20th centuryLaurie R. KingThe Beekeeper's Apprentice1994
Joe SandilandsColonial India, Europe1920s/1930sBarbara CleverlyThe Last Kashmiri Rose2001
Bernie Günther[1]Berlin1934–1954Philip KerrMarch Violets1989
Laetitia TalbotCrete, Burgundy, Athens1920sBarbara CleverlyThe Tomb of Zeus2007
Phryne FisherMelbourne1920sKerry GreenwoodCocaine Blues1989
Professor John StablefordEngland1930sde:Rob ReefStableford on Golf2013
Lady GeorgianaEngland/Scotland1930sRhys BowenHer Royal Spyness2007
Alexei KorolevMoscow1936William RyanThe Holy Thief2010
Kasper MeierBerlin1946Ben FergussonThe Spring of Kasper Meier2014[36][37]


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