Historical Mystery


Historical mystery is the party mix version of crime fiction genres—it contains a little something for everyone. It can include history, romance, travel, politics, true crime, archeology, and of course, a crime. To be a historical mystery, the author places the story in a historical era from the author’s viewpoint, and the plot involves the solving of a crime. The difference between a historical mystery and a classic mystery comes from the writer’s perspective.

Today, we see all of Agatha Christie and Edgar Allan Poe’s stories as being back in history. But the author wrote them in their present day. Christie did write what is probably the first historical mystery, Death Comes as the End. Set in 2000 BC, Christie set the story on the site of Thebes in Egypt. This was the site where Christie joined her second husband, archeologist Sir Max Mallowan, to explore the historical excavation of the city. This was one of Christie’s last stories to be adapted for TV.

It’s a Balancing Act

The author of a historical mystery must be careful to stay balanced on two rails. First, they have to stay true to the historical era. Many readers read in this genre because they like to learn about the history and culture of that time, and they use the story to immerse themselves into the life of that era. That means the author needs to carefully show how the characters in that time would dress, eat, and how they furnished their homes. What and how many classes of people would be involved and how would they be treated?

Making one mistake, like talking about a town before its finding, could make the reader close the book and grab another.

On the other rail, the author must write a good mystery. Does the plot make sense, within that time period, and are all the clues accessible to the reader? Is the weapon appropriate for the period? Who would be involved in solving the crime?

In England, police didn’t exist until 1829. And in the US, the first publicly organized police force was founded in Boston in 1838. Before that, in Colonial America, policing was very informal, based on a for-profit, privately funded system. In other words, if you didn’t have the money to hire someone, society left the hunt for justice in the victim’s or their family’s hands.


The Cadfael Chronicles

Many critics credit Ellis Peter’s Cadfael Chronicles for popularizing the historical mystery genre. Linguist-scholar Edith Pargeter wrote the series under the pseudonym Ellis Peters. The murder mysteries focus on Benedictine monk Cadfael in the twelfth century.

Cadfael entered the cloister after careers as a soldier and a sailor. Inquisitive by nature, he studied herbs in the Holy Land and officials often called upon him as a medical examiner, doctor, and diplomat.

Pergeter wrote twenty Cadfael novels between 1977 to 1994.


Celebrity Detectives

A current popular style of mystery uses a noted historical figure as the detective. Because the person is well known, the writer has to carefully hold true to the known facts of their lives, but can use other characters surrounding them, whether real or fictional, to carry out the mystery.

Popular characters include literary figures, statesmen, or people who had contact with them. Female characters are increasingly being used to show their fight against society norms and to help show these who are often forgotten or overlooked by historians.

Many mysteries use Jane Austen as the amateur detective. Staying in line with Austen’s writings, most of these stories would be considered cozies. The Jane Austen series, written by Stephanie Barron, is presented as journal entries discovered in the basement of a relative. The Mr. and Mrs. Darcy Mysteries by Carrie Bebris follow the principles from Austen’s Pride and Prejudice as they solve mysteries as a married couple.

There should be a mystery or series for any time period that you find intriguing. So, open a book, sat back in your chair, and enjoy a trip in a time machine. But remember to leave a light on.

I would love to know what historical series have kept you up. Please leave your thoughts below in the comments.

Thanks for stopping by our site. Keep searching for clues.

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