Historical Mystery — Second Titles

BoneGardenTitle: The Bone Garden
Author: Tess Gerritsen
Main Appeal Factors: known author, time period, locale, characters
Mystery Subgenre:
Historical Mystery
Annotation/Thoughts: This book immediately came to mind as something that I would suggest as a historical mystery. It was written  by an author already well-known for her popular procedural mystery series, Rizzoli and Isles. And, even though it is a stand-alone book, there is a “cameo” by one of those characters. It takes place in both the present (where the mystery begins) and the past (the set-up for the mystery), but the reader will not be confused as to what time period they are reading, which can happen with some stories that go back and forth between time periods. The main characters are fictional, but the secondary characters were real people. The reader may like this touch of reality without it seeming too far-fetched. It is a quick and easy read and may lead the reader to want more by this author. It did for me.

cover imageTitle: An Experiment in Treason
Author: Bruce Alexander
Main Appeal Factors: intricate plot, descriptive with plenty of detail, actual historical characters
Mystery Subgenre: Historical Mystery
Annotation/Thoughts: The author has written an interesting story about a pre-Revolutionary War Massachusetts conspiracy about actual British colonial affairs. The action is set in London and written from the point of view of Sir John Fielding a blind magistrate and his young protege Jeremy Proctor. Benjamin Franklin acts as a colonial envoy who involves himself with secret letters concerning political activities and and agitation in Massachusetts. Benjamin Franklin is portrayed as quite the character who has interests aside from his diplomatic mission. Samuel Johnson plays a prominent role in the conspiracy investigation and is a lively character brought to life. The daily lives of the period are credible and keep the reader interested in the story. Pirates and love matches are also a plus. This mystery would make a great read from anyone interested in the American Revolution from the British point of view.

cover imageTitle: Her Royal Spyness
Author: Rhys Bowen
Main Appeal Factors:  location, time period
Mystery Subgenre:
Historical Mystery
Annotation/Thoughts: Her Royal Spyness by Rhys Bowen can be called a historical mystery but it most certainly should be called a cozy. It is a light, fast read with the popular time period of the 1930s in London. The main character, Lady Victoria Georgiana Charlotte Eugenie, is 34th in line to the throne but has also been financially cut off from her brother and his dwindling resources.  Georgie moves to the family’s London home but is forced to live alone without servants. She is summoned by the Queen to “spy” on the Queen’s son who has been spending a lot of time with a certain Mrs. Simpson.  Because Georgie has no income, she tries her hand at a couple of jobs but they don’t work out very well, probably because Georgie was never educated to support herself, not to mention the fact that it is below her station as a peer.  Georgie navigates her time in London between the Queen, old school friends, peers, and family including her commoner grandfather, as she works to solve the case of the murdered man in her bathroom. Lauren Robinson, another member of SE-RART, read the same book and pointed out that the dead body does not turn up until well into the storyline. Lauren also suggested that this book would be popular with Downton Abbey fans since it points to the changeable relationships between the “upstairs” and the “downstairs” in England after World War I.

cover imageTitle: Heresy
Author: S.J. Parris
Main Appeal Factors:  frame (16th-century England during the Copernican Revolution; search for missing heretical text)
Mystery Subgenre:
Historical Mystery
Annotation/Thoughts: Set mainly at Oxford University in 1583, where there is a string of gruesome murders set up to mimic the deaths of martyred saints, Heresy is a traditional historical mystery with philosophical and scientific themes. It has Giordano Bruno, an ex-communicated Dominican philosopher-monk, trying to figure out who committed these crimes while spying for the queen and keeping himself from being arrested and killed either by the Inquisition for believing Copernicus or by the soldiers of the Church of England for being Catholic. The character of Giordano Bruno is based on an actual historical figure, so – along with the murder mystery aspect of the story – the Oxford setting, Elizabethan time period, the clash of faiths, and the search for forbidden knowledge seem to be the main appeal factors. Although the subtitle of the book is “An Historical Thriller” the book seems too historically detailed and not fast-paced enough to be called a thriller. Grittier and more violent than A Morbid Taste for Bones by Ellis Peters.

cover imageTitle: The Light in the Ruins
Author: Chris Bohjalian
Main Appeal Factors:  Dramatic, compelling writing style
Mystery Subgenre:
Historical Mystery
Annotation/Thoughts: Best-selling author Chris Bohjalian returns to crime fiction in his fifteenth novel. The Light in the Ruins is an exploration of post-WWII Italy which doubles as a murder mystery. Hoping to safeguard themselves from the ravages of World War II within the walls of their ancient villa in Florence, the noble Rosatis family become prisoners in their home when eighteen year old Cristina’s courtship by a German lieutenant prompts the Nazis to take over the estate, a situation that leads to a serial murder investigation years later. In a series of short chapter the author moves from present day to war time. This book would be a great recommendation for anyone interested in reading about World War II, in particular the events surrounding Italy and its people. One thing to keep in mind when recommending this title is that while the author’s writing style is compelling and the book is very well written and researched it is very graphic and violent in terms of the war time events and the murder that is committed. For the avid mystery writer I do not feel this is the best recommendation since the mystery part of the story (the murder, the investigation and the “whodunit”) seems secondary to the story. I very much enjoyed reading this book from a historical perspective and not so much for the mystery.

cover imageTitle: Murder on Astor Place
Author: Victoria Thompson
Main Appeal Factors:  characters, history, class struggle
Mystery Subgenre:
Historical Mystery
Annotation/Thoughts: As a midwife in the turn-of-the-century tenements of New York City, Sarah Brandt has seen birth and death, suffering and joy.  A widow who married a doctor and left the safety of her uptown family, Sarah understands the life of both the working class and the upper class. (Compare this to Anne Perry’s Charlotte and Thomas Pitt series.)
While delivering a baby she sees a girl who looks familiar and definitely out-of-place. Unfortunately, the girl is murdered before Sarah can talk to her. It turns out the girl is the sister of one of Sarah’s old friends. The family does not want the crime investigated and it is up to Sarah to involve the police. Enter Detective Sergeant Frank Malloy of the New York City Police. Frank is a typical cop of his era, a time when the police were underpaid and only investigated crimes for people who could afford to pay them a reward. Frank has ambitions of becoming a captain in the force, a position for which he must pay a substantial bribe, so he’s saving his money carefully. He doesn’t have time to waste solving the murder of a girl whose family doesn’t want the crime solved, but Sarah won’t allow him to shirk his duty.
During the rest of the series, we find out more about the background of both Sarah and Frank. They both have tragedy in their pasts. Both have lost a beloved mate and both are driven to succeed. In spite of the differences in their backgrounds and social class, they come to respect each other and learn they can work well together.
The hook is the history of the police in NYC. Teddy Roosevelt is the commissioner at the beginning of the series. Italians are suspect and treated poorly as they begin to enter the police force. The police are treated like scum by the upper crust who rightfully think they are above the law.
The writing is straight-forward, the characters are for the most part caricatures: the nosy, but heart-of-gold neighbor, the proper mother who really wants to be investigating, the rich father who adores his daughter, the Irish mother who doesn’t think anyone is good enough for her son. Frank’s son is deaf —which is a main part of one book in the series. There is humor as well as history and not a lot of gore.

coverTitle: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie
Author: Alan Bradley
Main Appeal Factors:  Precocious child protagonist (female), English countryside, gentle, humorous
Mystery Subgenre:
Historical Mystery
Annotation/Thoughts:  Flavia de Luce is an eleven-year-old amateur chemist with a passion for poison is both thrilled and horrified when she finds a man taking his last breath in the family cucumber patch. Flavia sets out to find out just what happened to this man, and to vindicate her family of the crime. Flavia is a delight, as she investigates the murder mystery and torments her older sisters.
Slower paced mystery, first in a series.



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