It's a Mystery - A Little History in the Mystery

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I've written before about the many sub-genres of the Mystery genre, such as cozies, police procedurals, and hard-boiled.  One sub-genre that is regaining its popularity is the Historical mystery.

What criteria places a mystery novel in this historical bracket?  There is some disagreement as to exactly what makes a mystery historical.  But there are some guidelines.  One generally accepted rule is that the book is set in a time period of at least 50 years prior to present day.  That would currently set the timeline at anything dated 1964 and before.


Another standard is that the author writes from research rather than from personal experience.  And another source stipulates that the mystery take place in a time clearly distinct from our own.


The most common timeframes for historical mysteries are Ancient (usually before 476), Medieval (476-1500), 1500s, 1600-1700s, 1800s, and 1900s (by decade).


Readers of historical mysteries tend to be quite savvy about the time period of the books they choose.  This includes a knowledge of many of the historical details, customs, foods, language, and technologies.  They expect the authors to do their research thoroughly, especially with so much verifiable information available online.  Inaccuracies in the details can drive readers crazy and many let the authors know when they've made mistakes.  On the other hand, readers don't want to be bogged down by a lot of details.  They just want the author to get it right.


Other readers may choose historical mysteries because they want to learn about a particular time period.  While they will appreciate the details of the era, they are also looking for quality writing - and a good mystery to solve.  Historical mystery authors have a lot of bases to cover.


Again, the key to an author's success is their research into their chosen time period.  Most historical mystery authors spend about a year researching and writing each novel.  Many said that even when they think they've completed their research, they change something in the story and have to go back and research more.  Those who add real people as characters in their books double the amount of research because they have to get the biographical information correct, as well as the historical details.


There are many time periods to chose from and many types of historical mysteries, such as cozies, police procedurals, medical, and forensics.  New historical series debut every month.  Maybe one of them will be intriguing enough for you to want to give it a try.


Here is a small sampling of the most popular historical mystery series in our collection, from the different time periods.


Ancient - perhaps the least popular of all time periods among WPPL readers.

Drake, Nick - featuring Rai Rahotep, a young chief detective in the Thebes Division, ancient Egypt.

Medieval - these authors have found an audience with our readers.

Clare, Alys - series is about Lassair, a 14-year-old girl with special gifts, training to be a healer in 11th century England.

Royal, Priscilla - features Eleanor, Prioress of  Tyndal, in 11th century East Anglia, England.

Tremayne, Peter - author of the long-running series with Sister Fidelma, a 7th century Celtic sister and legal advocate in Kildare, Ireland.


Harrison, Cora - her series is about Mara: a female judge and lawgiver in the early 16th century on the west coast of Ireland.

Herring, Peg - with real people as characters, this series features Elizabeth Tudor and her friend Simon Maldon, amateur sleuths during the reign of her father, Henry VIII in London.

1600s - 1700s - quite a few of these series focus on medicine and anatomy.

Blake, Robin - featuring Titus Cragg, a coroner, and Luke Fidelis, a doctor, in 1740s England.

Harris, Tessa - her character, Dr. Thomas Silkstone, is an American anatomist working in 1780s England.

Robertson, Imogen - series with Harriet Westerman, mistress of Caveley Park manor, and anatomist Gabriel Crowther, in the 1780s in England.

1800s - popular time period with our readers

Dean, Anna - her main character is Miss Dido Kent, a 35-year-old amateur sleuth, starting in 1805 Regency England.

Finch, Charles - a very popular series featuring Charles Lenox, a gentleman sleuth, in1860s London.

Harris, C.S. - with Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, an investigator in Regency England.

1900s - 1964 - World War I and World War II era books are popular.

Albert, Susan Wittig - this series features Miss Elizabeth Lacy and the Darling Dahlias, a garden club, in fictional 1930s Darling, Alabama.

Ballard, Mignon - WWII era with Miss Dimple Kilpatrick, a longtime first-grade teacher during World War II in Elderberry, Georgia.

Benn, James R. - WWII series with real people - Billy Boyle, a Boston cop on the staff of distant relative General Eisenhower.

Bowen, Rhys - with her popular character Molly Murphy, an Irish immigrant in early 20th century NYC, who wants to be a private investigator.

Brody, Frances - a newer series featuring Kate Shackleton, a private detective whose husband is MIA in WWI, in 1920s England.

Johnson, D.E. - with Will Anderson, working in his father's electric car company, in 1910 Detroit.

MacNeal, Susan E. - another series with real people - featuring Maggie Hope, a typist turned spy in 1940s London.

Thompson, Victoria - featuring Sarah Brandt, a midwife in turn-of-the-20th-century NYC, in the Gaslight Mysteries.


Put a little history in your mystery and try one of these historical mystery authors.


Coming up - Spring and Summer preview of new releases.

Need help with picking a time era

I'm looking to write something kind of like a mystery. But really it's more of like a journal of a private investigator, but I don't know what time period to put it in.

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