While my interest in historical crime fiction may have to do, in part, with the fact that history was a major focus of my education, and I’ve written half a dozen history books of my own, there’s more to it as well. It’s part of my search for novelty in a genre that too often serves up stories sounding very much like what we’ve read before.
Of course, simply setting a mystery yarn in some long-ago era, with characters who speak, behave and believe differently than we do today doesn’t ensure either originality or quality. There’s probably an equal percentage of poorly executed work among historical tales of lawbreaking and detection as among modern ones. But when done well, by an author in command of his or her facts and careful not to let the research overwhelm the storytelling, historical crime fiction can be entertaining and—dare I say it?—educational to boot.
There are numerous writers working in this field. Here are five of the best and most interesting:
Jonathan Rabb. Both the son and grandson of historians, Rabb has fashioned a trilogy of novels set between the two World Wars and featuring beleaguered Berlin Kriminal-Oberkommisar Nikolai Hoffner. The first book, Rosa (2005), found Hoffner probing the murder of real-life socialist revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg as part of a larger serial-killer case.
In Rabb’s most recent series entry, The Second Son (2011), Hoffner has retired and gone searching for his younger child, a photographer who’s missing in the Spanish Civil War. His middle book, though, Shadow and Light (2009), is the best. It introduces Hoffner into a case involving a dead film producer, a vanished starlet, a secret club for porno-film fans, and a criminal plot centered on technology allowing sound to be recorded synchronously with what had been silent pictures.
Anne Perry. Although some readers find the work of this convicted murderess turned novelist rather too quaint for their taste, I think Perry’s Victorian mysteries are commendable for their dramatic turns as well as their period characterizations. Her initial series spotlights Thomas Pitt (Long Spoon Lane), a London police inspector who’s later reassigned to Britain’s anti-anarchist Special Branch. However, I prefer her books centered on William Monk, a gentleman-sleuth who lost his policeman’s position after first losing his memory in a coach accident.
Monk has changed over the course of these books (he regained his memory, married and joined the Thames River Police), but the novels have retained their appeal. The series opened with The Face of a Stranger (1990), but a still more interesting entry is A Breach of Promise (1998), which builds around a legal suit leveled against a gifted young architect who supposedly led an heiress to believe he would marry her—but then backed out of the wedding. That was apparently an actionable offense in London high society during the 1800s.
Stuart M. Kaminsky. Prior to his death in 2009, Kaminsky produced four different detective series. The best of them starred Toby Peters (né Pevsner), a disheveled, divorced and taco-loving ex-security officer with Warner Bros. in Hollywood, who had been fired in 1936 (after “breaking the arm of a Western star who had made the mistake of thinking he was as tough in person as he was on the screen”) and subsequently re-created himself as the most low-rent of private eyes, working for a succession of early 1940s celebrities. In You Bet Your Life (1978), he’s hired to help the outrageously funny Marx Brothers out of a money jam with mobsters, while in A Few Minutes Past Midnight (2001) he tries to protect Charlie Chaplin from someone threatening to kill the Little Tramp over his latest film project.
Edward Marston. The prolific Marston (né Keith Miles) is probably best known for his lighthearted Elizabethan theater mysteries, all of which star Nicholas Bracewell, the (thankfully) levelheaded director of a troupe of eccentrics prone to stumbling into murders. Perhaps the finest of those tales is The Roaring Boy (1995), an Edgar Award nominee, in which the troupe invites imminent ruin by staging a new production from an unknown playwright, based on a scandalous recent homicide. More recently, Marston has launched a series about mid-19th-century London Inspector Robert Colbeck, “the Railway Detective,” whose investigations all involve the UK’s extensive train network. The Railway Viaduct (2006), about the discovery of a defaced corpse tossed from a train speeding across a canal overpass, represents this series well.
Michael Gregorio. Behind that byline hide husband-and-wife authors Daniela De Gregorio and Michael G. Jacob, residents of Italy who have now penned four historical mysteries featuring early 1800s Prussian magistrate-cum-detective Hanno Stiffeniis. It’s best to begin reading at the start of this series, with Critique of Criminal Reason (2006), in which Stiffeniis must determine who’s responsible for doing in four people, none of whom shows obvious signs of violence. Fortunately, Stiffeniis has help from his aging mentor, German philosopher Emmanuel Kant, who uses these slayings to test his hypotheses about criminal-probing methodologies.
A fuller list of historical crime-fictionists would include Rennie Airth (River of Darkness), David Liss (A Conspiracy of Paper), Kate Ross (The Devil in Music), Max Allan Collins (Flying Blind), Kelli Stanley (City of Dragons), Charles Todd (A Test of Wills), Frank Tallis (A Death in Vienna), Mary Reed and Eric Mayer (Six for Gold), Jason Goodwin (The Janissary Tree) and myriad others. This is a rapidly growing subgenre with tremendous appeal and conceivably as many possibilities as there have been years of human history.
Would anyone else like to suggest more historical crime novels worth reading?