Historical mystery

Melville Davisson Post's Uncle Abner: Master of Mysteries collection (1918)

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:

Detective Setting Period Creator Debut Title Debut Year
Lieutenant Bak Ancient Egypt 15th century BCE Lauren Haney The Right Hand of Amon 1997
Amerokte Ancient Egypt 15th century BCE Paul Doherty The Mask of Ra 1998
Lord Meren[2] Ancient Egypt 14th century BCE Lynda S. Robinson Murder in the Place of Anubis 1994
Rahotep[1] Ancient Egypt 14th century BCE Nick Drake Nefertiti: The Book of the Dead 2006
Heracles Pontor Classical Athens Late 5th century BCE José Carlos Somoza The Athenian Murders 2000
Nicolaos Classical Athens 5th century BCE Gary Corby The Pericles Commission 2010
Alexander the Great Ancient Greece 4th century BCE Paul Doherty A Murder in Macedon 1997
Senator Decius Metellus Roman Republic 1st century BCE John Maddox Roberts SPQR 1990[1]
Gordianus the Finder Roman Republic 1st century BCE Steven Saylor Roman Blood 1991[1]
Marcus Corvinus Rome 1st century BCE
1st century CE
David Wishart Ovid 1995
Marcus Didius Falco Roman Empire 70 to 77 CE Lindsey Davis The Silver Pigs 1989[1][2]
Flavia Gemina Roman Empire 79 to 81 CE Caroline Lawrence The Thieves of Ostia 2001
Libertus[1] Roman Empire Late 2nd century CE Rosemary Rowe The Germanicus Mosaic 1999
John, the Lord Chamberlain[1] Constantinople 6th century Mary Reed/Eric Mayer One for Sorrow 1999[35]
Judge Dee China 7th century Robert van Gulik Di Gong An 1949[14][15]
Justin de Quincy England 12th century Sharon Kay Penman The Queen's Man 1996
Li Kao China 7th century Barry Hughart Bridge of Birds 1984
Sister Fidelma Ireland 7th century Peter Tremayne Absolution by Murder 1994
Father George Byzantine Empire 8th century Harry Turtledove Farmers' Law 2000
Sugawara Akitada[1] Japan 11th century I. J. Parker "Instruments of Murder" 1997
Lassair England 11th century Alys Clare Out of the Dawn Light 2009
Brother Cadfael Wales and England 1120, 1137-1145 Ellis Peters A Morbid Taste for Bones 1977[1][2][22]
Josse d'Acquin/Abbess of Hawkenlye England 12th century Alys Clare Fortune Like the Moon 1999
Magdalene la a Bâtarde London 12th century Roberta Gellis A Mortal Bane 1999
Adelia Aguilar England 12th century Ariana Franklin Mistress of the Art of Death 2007[27]
Hugh Corbett England 13th century Paul Doherty Satan in St Mary's 1986
Theophilos (Feste) Illyria, Constantinople,
Tyre, Denmark, etc.
13th century Alan Gordon Thirteenth Night 1999
Edwin Weaver England 13th century Catherine Hanley The Sins of the Father 2009
Oldřich of Chlum Bohemia and Moravia 13th century Vlastimil Vondruška Dýka s hadem (Dagger with a snake) 2002
Brother William of Baskerville Italy 1327 Umberto Eco The Name of the Rose 1980
Baldwin de Furnshill Devon 14th century Michael Jecks The Last Templar 1995
Matthew Bartholomew[1] England 14th century Susanna Gregory A Plague on Both Your Houses 1996
Mathilde of Westminster England 14th century Paul Doherty The Cup of Ghosts 2005
Brother Athelstan London Late 14th century Paul Doherty The Nightingale Gallery 1991
Owen Archer York Late 14th century Candace Robb The Apothecary Rose 1993
Roger the Chapman England 15th century Kate Sedley Death and the Chapman 1991
Dame Frevisse[1] Oxfordshire 15th century Margaret Frazer The Novice's Tale 1992
Kathryn Swinbrooke England 15th century Paul Doherty A Shrine of Murders 1993
Sir Roger Shallot England 16th century Paul Doherty The White Rose Murders 1991
Nicholas Segalla England
Paul Doherty A Time for the Death of a King 1994
Matthew Shardlake London 16th century C. J. Sansom Dissolution 2003
Giordano Bruno London 16th century S. J. Parris Heresy 2010
Sir Robert Carey Carlisle, then London Late 16th century Patricia Finney (writing as P F Chisholm) A Famine of Horses 1994
Sano Ichirō[2] Genroku-era Japan 17th century Laura Joh Rowland Shinjū 1994
Thomas Chaloner England 17th century Susanna Gregory A Conspiracy of Violence 2006
Samuel Johnson/James Boswell England 18th century Lillian de la Torre "The Great Seal of England" 1943[17][18]
Matthew Hawkwood England 18th century James McGee Trigger Men 1985
Lord John Grey England, Prussia,
Scotland and Jamaica
1756-1761 Diana Gabaldon Lord John and the Hellfire Club 1998[24][25][26]
Dick Darwent England 1815 John Dickson Carr The Bride of Newgate 1950[19]
Sergeant Cribb England 19th century Peter Lovesey Wobble to Death 1970
Thomas Pitt[1] England 19th century Anne Perry The Cater Street Hangman 1979
William Monk[1] England 19th century Anne Perry The Face of a Stranger 1990
Mrs. Jeffries England 19th century Emily Brightwell The Inspector and Mrs. Jeffries 1993
Edmund Blackstone England 1820s Richard Falkirk Blackstone 1972
Benjamin January New Orleans 1833 Barbara Hambly A Free Man of Color 1997
Yashim the Eunuch Ottoman Empire 1836 Jason Goodwin The Janissary Tree 2006
Uncle Abner West Virginia Mid-19th century Melville Davisson Post "The Angel of the Lord" 1911[16]
Erast Fandorin Russia 1876-1914 Boris Akunin The Winter Queen 1998
William Murdoch Toronto 1890s Maureen Jennings Except the Dying 1997
Sister Pelagia Russia 1890s or Early 20th century Boris Akunin Pelagia and the White Bulldog 2000 (Russian)
2006 (English)
Amelia Peabody[1] Egypt 1884-1923 Elizabeth Peters Crocodile on the Sandbank 1975
Alexander von Reisden Boston Early 20th century Sarah Smith The Vanished Child 1992
Simon Ziele New York City Early 20th century Stefanie Pintoff In the Shadow of Gotham 2009
Mary Russell Worldwide Early 20th century Laurie R. King The Beekeeper's Apprentice 1994
Joe Sandilands Colonial India, Europe 1920s/1930s Barbara Cleverly The Last Kashmiri Rose 2001
Bernie Günther[1] Berlin 1934-1954 Philip Kerr March Violets 1989
Laetitia Talbot Crete, Burgundy, Athens 1920s Barbara Cleverly The Tomb of Zeus 2007
Phryne Fisher Melbourne 1920s Kerry Greenwood Cocaine Blues 1989
Lady Georgiana England/Scotland 1930s Rhys Bowen Her Royal Spyness 2007
Kasper Meier Berlin 1946 Ben Fergusson The Spring of Kasper Meier 2014[36][37]


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