The Reading Life: Historical Mysteries

I’ve spent the cold, rainy weekend happily working my way through yet another historical mystery. Odd as it may sound, it’s comfort reading. Like many other librarians, the way mysteries resolve chaos into order is very satisfying to me. One is transported to another time and place, and the satisfaction is doubled–provided it’s well done. Luckily, it seems that there are many well-written (and well-researched) historical mystery series out there to enjoy.

Boris Akunin

Akunin has written two historical detective series: one starring Erast Fandorin and the other Sister Pelagia. Both are set in 19th century Russia.

Erast Fandorin is a detective with exceptional linguistic skills, athleticism, and he is a master of disguise. After the death of his new bride in the first novel of this series, The Winter Queen, the hair at young Fandorin’s temples goes grey, he develops a stammer (which disappears while under disguise or when faced with particular taxing situations) and he begins a series of adventures that will take him from Russia to Turkey, Japan, England, and across Europe. There will be sixteen novels in the Erast Fandorin series, but so far only eight have been translated into English.

The three Sister Pelagia mysteries are set in rural Russia. Sister Pelagia, a Russian Orthodox nun, is removed from her teaching duties by her bishop to investigate assorted strange happenings that disrupt the tranquil life of the region. Like Fandorin, she is nimble of mind and uses disguise to help in her investigations, but she has a more lively sense or play and humor than Fandorin. The first in the series–Sister Pelagia and the White Bulldog–has the good sister trying to save not only the rare white bulldogs, but also thwart a more serious crime, the murder of her bishop’s aunt. With both Fandorin and Sister Pelagia, the plotting of the stories is inventive, engaging, and thoroughly enjoyable.

Susanne Alleyn

Set in a period the late 18th century before and during the French Revolution, the political unrest is often an excuse to settle old, personal scores, or bury the past. With no offical investigative force, detectives were “informants” and acted in ways the fell somewhere between spies and snitches. Aristide Ravel is the exception and works hard to keep himself as removed from an official role as possible, and to come to grips with his own role in the revolution and his past. The series begins with A Game of Patience.

Ruth Downie

Gaius Petrius Ruso is a military physician in the Roman Empire during the reign of Trajan. Medicus, the first in the Ruso series, finds him in cold, rainy Britannia. Ruso joined the army to stave off his family’s financial ruin and put distance between himself and his ex-wife only to find that things are no less complicated in Britannia than they were at home. Perhaps they are even more so. He saves a slave girl and is reluctantly pulled in to investigate the deaths of several prostitutes. The slave girl, Tilla, continues to provide complications for Ruso, but will also give his new life new spark.

Jason Goodwin

Yashim is a eunuch, foodie, reader of French novels, and a detective of sorts during the late Ottoman Empire in 19th century Istanbul. While investigating a murder in the Sultan’s harem and also a series of gruesome (but imaginative) politically motivated murders, he traverses the length and breadth of Ottoman society, from the Sultan himself to the lowest street urchins. His close friend, the Polish ambassador (at a time when, strictly speaking, Poland didn’t exist as an independent nation) to the Sublime Porte, takes a more central role in the later novels of the series, but he’s also there from the beginning, and is in some ways Yashim’s other half. This series starts with The Janissary Tree, and continues with The Serpent Stone and The Bellini Card.

Ellis Peters

Brother Cadfael is a Benedictine monk at the Shrewsbury Abbey in 12th century, a time of civil war and political unrest. Cadfael is a Welshman with an adventerous past–he’s been on Crusade, fallen in love, and done a great many other things, before he took the cowl. Now he’s the monastery’s herbalist. He uses his knowledge of anatomy and human nature to help solve murders and other mysteries. This series starts with A Morbid Taste for Bones and includes twenty volumes in total. Many of the Cadfael stories have also been adapted for television, starring Sir Derek Jacobi as Cadfael.

Caroline Roe

Isaac of Girona is a Jewish physician in medieval Spain who is gradually losing his sight, but compensates with his other senses and help from his daughter and a young Muslim assistant. The author’s academic background provides a richness of historical detail that compliments, but doesn’t overwhelm the characters or their relationships. The author’s explanation of the genesis of the characters is more accurate and concise than I could manage:

Although the political background for the first book, Remedy for Treason, comes to a fair extent from The Chronicle of Pere the Ceremonious, King of Aragon, its outline rose from the character of the Bishop of Girona, Berenguer de Cruolles. Judging from church records-since conflicts between Christians and Jews were settled in the Bishop’s court-he was shrewd and balanced in his legal decisions, including those involving the minority Jewish population. He himself had a Jewish doctor (as did the King, who had more than one), and it was a short step to making the next continuing character the Bishop’s physician.

Almost instantly, Isaac was born, and then his family. Yusuf, his Muslim apprentice, reflects two historical realities. The king at one point had a Muslim page boy, son of an important member of the government in Granada, and in the kingdom of Aragon there were hordes of street children, plague orphans, many of them, and Muslims, casualties of the wars between the Christian and Muslim states.

I did not intend to include a Yusuf when I sketched out the series. I needed him briefly, because I needed someone to help Isaac when he was caught in the disturbances on the Eve of St. John the Baptist’s day. He could have been an adult, perhaps one of Isaac’s patients, but for no reason at all, on the spur of the moment, I made him a boy, intending to write him out of the book at once. But he refused to go, and so I gave up and let him stay. It seemed a good omen.

Anne Perry

Anne Perry has several series, most of which are set in Victorian England. I’ve not read all of her books, but there is one, The Face of Stranger, the first of a series involving William Monk, is strong as a stand-alone novel. William Monk wakes in a hospital with a case of amnesia that he is both reluctant and embarassed to admit. He begins to discover who he is again, and to solve the mystery that brought about his accident. The power of the story is the psychological tension that develops as Monk sees himself from the outside–his vanities, ambitions, isolation from the other members of the police force, and questions just what sort of man he is.

I. J. Parker

I’ve just started the first in the Sugawara Akitada series: The Dragon Scroll. Sugawara Akitada is a young government inspector in 11th century Japan who is sent on a mission to investigate missing tax revenue–but it is a mission that will not aid his future career, regardless of the outcome. I’ll be curious to see how the young inspector and his friends wind up all the threads that are in play and how Parker will move them on in the next part of the series.

Umberto Eco

The Name of the Rose is not part of a series, but it is one of greatest of all the historical detective novels and cannot be omitted from this list. It is the story of the investigation of a series of murders at an abbey in northern Italy in 1327, conducted by one William of Baskerville and recounted by William’s novice, Adso of Melk, many years later. William, like Cadfael, is a Benedictine with more worldly experience than most in religious orders and an inquisitive mind, which has led him afoul of the Inquisition in the past. Only William of Baskerville seems convinced that it is the hand of man which has killed the monks, and not something more supernatural. There are layers and layers to the novel, making well worth reading, and reading again, and still later, again. It’s also been made into a fine film starring Sean Connery as William and a very young Christian Slater as the novice Adso.

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2 responses to “The Reading Life: Historical Mysteries

  • Susanne Alleyn

    Thank you for your nice words about the Aristide Ravel series. I hope you enjoy the other Ravel novels just as much. The fourth, _Palace of Justice_, set smack in the middle of the Terror, comes out in November!

    Susanne

    • Karen Wagner

      I’ve enjoyed all the series – not only for characters, but also the depth of historical detail and the atmosphere you’ve created.
      November will be the perfect time to settle in with Aristide and the Terror — I’m wishing it was fall already!

      Karen

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