The historical mystery or historical whodunit is a subgenre of two literary genres, historical fiction and mystery fiction. These works are set in a time period considered historical from the author's perspective, and the central plot involves the solving of a mystery or crime (usually murder). Though works combining these genres have existed since at least the early 20th century, many credit Ellis Peters's Cadfael Chronicles (1977–1994) for popularizing what would become known as the historical mystery.The increasing popularity and prevalence of this type of fiction in subsequent decades has spawned a distinct subgenre recognized by the publishing industry and libraries. Publishers Weekly noted in 2010 of the genre, "The past decade has seen an explosion in both quantity and quality. Never before have so many historical mysteries been published, by so many gifted writers, and covering such a wide range of times and places." Editor Keith Kahla concurs, "From a small group of writers with a very specialized audience, the historical mystery has become a critically acclaimed, award-winning genre with a toehold on the New York Times bestseller list."
Since 1999, the British Crime Writers' Association has awarded the CWA Historical Dagger award to novels in the genre.The Left Coast Crime conference has presented its Bruce Alexander Memorial Historical Mystery award (for mysteries set prior to 1950) since 2004.
Though the term "whodunit" was coined sometime in the early 1930s,it has been argued that the detective story itself has its origins as early as the 429 BC Sophocles play Oedipus Rex and the 10th century tale "The Three Apples" from One Thousand and One Nights (Arabian Nights). During China's Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), gong'an ("crime-case") folk novels were written in which government magistrates—primarily the historical Di Renjie of the Tang Dynasty (618–907) and Bao Zheng of the Song Dynasty (960–1279)—investigate cases and then as judges determine guilt and punishment. The stories were set in the past but contained many anachronisms. Robert van Gulik came across the 18th century anonymously-written Chinese manuscript Di Gong An , in his view closer to the Western tradition of detective fiction than other gong'an tales and so more likely to appeal to non-Chinese readers, and in 1949 published it in English as Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee . He subsequently wrote his own Judge Dee stories (1951–1968) in the same style and time period.
Perhaps the first modern English work that can be classified as both historical fiction and a mystery however is the 1911 Melville Davisson Post story "The Angel of the Lord", which features amateur detective Uncle Abner in pre-American Civil War West Virginia.Barry Zeman of the Mystery Writers of America calls the Uncle Abner short stories "the starting point for true historical mysteries." In the 22 Uncle Abner tales Post wrote between 1911 and 1928, the character puzzles out local mysteries with his keen observation and knowledge of the Bible. It was not until 1943 that American mystery writer Lillian de la Torre did something similar in the story "The Great Seal of England", casting 18th century literary figures Samuel Johnson and James Boswell into Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson roles in what would become the first of her Dr. Sam: Johnson, Detector series of stories. In 1944 Agatha Christie published Death Comes as the End , a mystery novel set in ancient Egypt and the first full-length historical whodunit. In 1950, John Dickson Carr published the second full-length historical mystery novel called The Bride of Newgate , set at the close of the Napoleonic Wars.
In 1970 Peter Lovesey began a series of novels featuring Sergeant Cribb, a Victorian-era police detective, and Elizabeth Peters's Amelia Peabody series (1975–2010) followed the adventures of the titular Victorian lady/archaeologist as she solved mysteries surrounding her excavations in early 20th century Egypt.But historical mystery stories remained an oddity until the late 1970s, with the success of Ellis Peters and her Cadfael Chronicles (1977–1994), featuring Benedictine monk Brother Cadfael and set in 12th century Shrewsbury. Umberto Eco's one-off The Name of the Rose (1980) also helped popularize the concept, and starting in 1979, author Anne Perry wrote two series of Victorian era mysteries featuring Thomas Pitt (1979–2013) and William Monk (1990–2013). However it was not until about 1990 that the genre's popularity expanded significantly with works such as Lindsey Davis's Falco novels (1989–2010), set in the Roman Empire of Vespasian; John Maddox Roberts's SPQR series (1990–2010) and Steven Saylor's Roma Sub Rosa novels (1991–2010), both set in the Roman Republic in the 1st century BC; and Paul Doherty's various series, including the Hugh Corbett medieval mysteries (1986–2010), the Sorrowful Mysteries of Brother Athelstan (1991–2012), and the Canterbury Tales of Mystery and Murder (1994–2012). For Mike Ashley'sThe Mammoth Book of Historical Detectives (1995), F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre wrote "Death in the Dawntime", a locked room mystery (or rather, sealed cave mystery) set in Australia around 35,000 BC, which Ashley suggests is the furthest in the past a historical mystery has been set to date. Diana Gabaldon began the Lord John series in 1998, casting a recurring secondary character from her Outlander series, Lord John Grey, as a nobleman-military officer-amateur detective in 18th century England. Using the pen name Ariana Franklin, Diana Norman wrote four Mistress of the Art of Death novels between 2007 and 2010, featuring 12th-century English medical examiner Adelia Aguilar.
Publishers Weekly noted in 2010 of the genre, "The past decade has seen an explosion in both quantity and quality. Never before have so many historical mysteries been published, by so many gifted writers, and covering such a wide range of times and places."Editor Keith Kahla concurs, "From a small group of writers with a very specialized audience, the historical mystery has become a critically acclaimed, award-winning genre with a toehold on the New York Times bestseller list."
In 1999, the British Crime Writers' Association awarded the first CWA Historical Dagger award to a novel in the genre.The award was called the Ellis Peters Historical Dagger through 2012. In 2014, Endeavour Press supported the award, which is called the Endeavour Historical Dagger for the 2014 and 2015 awards. The Left Coast Crime conference has presented its Bruce Alexander Memorial Historical Mystery award (for mysteries set prior to 1950) since 2004.
In an early twist of the genre, Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time (1951) features a modern police detective who alleviates an extended hospital stay by investigating the 15th century case of Richard III of England and the Princes in the Tower.Georgette Heyer's The Talisman Ring (1936), set in 1793 England, is a Regency romance with elements of mystery that Jane Aiken Hodge called "very nearly a detective story in period costume". Many of Heyer's other historical romances have thriller elements but to a much lesser extent.
Other variations include mystery novels set in alternate history timelines or even fantasy worlds. These would include The Ultimate Solution (1973) by Eric Norden and Fatherland (1992) by Robert Harris, both being police procedurals set in alternate timelines where the Nazis won World War II; Randall Garrett's Lord Darcy series, taking place in a 20th-century in which magic is possible; and Phyllis Ann Karr's The Idylls of the Queen (1982), set in King Arthur's court as depicted in Arthurian myth and with no attempt at historical accuracy.
The genre would not include fiction which was contemporary at the time of writing, such as Arthur Conan Doyle's canonical Sherlock Holmes works set in Victorian England, or the Lord Peter Wimsey books by Dorothy L. Sayers set in the Interwar period. However, subsequent Holmes and Wimsey books written by other authors decades later could arguably be classified as historical mysteries.
The following list consists of fictional historical detectives in chronological order of their time period setting:
|Detective||Setting||Period||Creator||Debut Title||Debut Year|
|Lieutenant Bak||Ancient Egypt||15th century BCE||Lauren Haney||The Right Hand of Amon||1997|
|Amerokte||Ancient Egypt||15th century BCE||Paul Doherty||The Mask of Ra||1998|
|Lord Meren||Ancient Egypt||14th century BCE||Lynda S. Robinson||Murder in the Place of Anubis||1994|
|Rahotep||Ancient Egypt||14th century BCE||Nick Drake||Nefertiti: The Book of the Dead||2006|
|Heracles Pontor||Classical Athens||Late 5th century BCE||José Carlos Somoza||The Athenian Murders||2000|
|Nicolaos||Classical Athens||5th century BCE||Gary Corby||The Pericles Commission||2010|
|Alexander the Great||Ancient Greece||4th century BCE||Paul Doherty||A Murder in Macedon||1997|
|Senator Decius Metellus||Roman Republic||1st century BCE||John Maddox Roberts||SPQR||1990|
|Gordianus the Finder||Roman Republic||1st century BCE||Steven Saylor||Roman Blood||1991|
|Marcus Corvinus||Rome||1st century CE||David Wishart||Ovid||1995|
|Marcus Didius Falco||Roman Empire||70 to 77 CE||Lindsey Davis||The Silver Pigs||1989|
|Flavia Gemina||Roman Empire||79 to 81 CE||Caroline Lawrence||The Thieves of Ostia||2001|
|Libertus||Roman Empire||Late 2nd century CE||Rosemary Rowe||The Germanicus Mosaic||1999|
|John, the Lord Chamberlain||Constantinople||6th century||Mary Reed/Eric Mayer||One for Sorrow||1999|
|Judge Dee||China||7th century||Robert van Gulik||Di Gong An||1949|
|Li Kao||China||7th century||Barry Hughart||Bridge of Birds||1984|
|Sister Fidelma||Ireland||7th century||Peter Tremayne||Absolution by Murder||1994|
|Father George||Byzantine Empire||8th century||Harry Turtledove||Farmers' Law||2000|
|Sugawara Akitada||Japan||11th century||I. J. Parker||"Instruments of Murder"||1997|
|Lassair||England||11th century||Alys Clare||Out of the Dawn Light||2009|
|Brother Cadfael||Wales and England||1120, 1137–1145||Ellis Peters||A Morbid Taste for Bones||1977|
|Justin de Quincy||England||12th century||Sharon Kay Penman||The Queen's Man||1996|
|Josse d'Acquin/Abbess of Hawkenlye||England||12th century||Alys Clare||Fortune Like the Moon||1999|
|Magdalene la a Bâtarde||London||12th century||Roberta Gellis||A Mortal Bane||1999|
|Adelia Aguilar||England||12th century||Ariana Franklin||Mistress of the Art of Death||2007|
|Hugh Corbett||England||13th century||Paul Doherty||Satan in St Mary's||1986|
|Theophilos (Feste)|| Illyria, Constantinople,|
Tyre, Denmark, etc.
|13th century||Alan Gordon||Thirteenth Night||1999|
|Edwin Weaver||England||13th century||Catherine Hanley||The Sins of the Father||2009|
|Oldřich of Chlum||Bohemia and Moravia||13th century||Vlastimil Vondruška||Dýka s hadem (Dagger with a snake)||2002|
|Brother William of Baskerville||Italy||1327||Umberto Eco||The Name of the Rose||1980|
|Baldwin de Furnshill||Devon||14th century||Michael Jecks||The Last Templar||1995|
|Matthew Bartholomew||England||14th century||Susanna Gregory||A Plague on Both Your Houses||1996|
|Mathilde of Westminster||England||14th century||Paul Doherty||The Cup of Ghosts||2005|
|Brother Athelstan||London||Late 14th century||Paul Doherty||The Nightingale Gallery||1991|
|Owen Archer||York||Late 14th century||Candace Robb||The Apothecary Rose||1993|
|Roger the Chapman||England||15th century||Kate Sedley||Death and the Chapman||1991|
|Dame Frevisse||Oxfordshire||15th century||Margaret Frazer||The Novice's Tale||1992|
|Kathryn Swinbrooke||England||15th century||Paul Doherty||A Shrine of Murders||1993|
|Acatl, High Priest of Mictlantecuhtli||Tenochtitlan||1480||Aliette de Bodard||"Obsidian Shards" (novella)||2007|
|Sir Roger Shallot||England||16th century||Paul Doherty||The White Rose Murders||1991|
|Nicholas Segalla||Paul Doherty||A Time for the Death of a King||1994|
|Matthew Shardlake||London||16th century||C. J. Sansom||Dissolution||2003|
|Bianca Goddard||London||16th century||Mary Lawrence||The Alchemist's Daughter||2015|
|Giordano Bruno||London||16th century||S. J. Parris||Heresy||2010|
|Sir Robert Carey||Carlisle, then London||Late 16th century||Patricia Finney (writing as P F Chisholm)||A Famine of Horses||1994|
|Sano Ichirō||Genroku-era Japan||17th century||Laura Joh Rowland||Shinjū||1994|
|Thomas Chaloner||England||17th century||Susanna Gregory||A Conspiracy of Violence||2006|
|Benjamin Weaver||England||1720||David Liss||A Conspiracy of Paper||2000|
|Canaletto||England||18th century||Janet Laurence||Canaletto and the Case of Westminster Bridge||1997|
|John Fielding||England||18th century||Bruce Alexander Cook||Blind Justice||1994|
|Lord John Grey||England, Prussia,|
Scotland and Jamaica
|1756–1761||Diana Gabaldon||Lord John and the Hellfire Club||1998|
|Samuel Johnson/James Boswell||England||18th century||Lillian de la Torre||"The Great Seal of England"||1943|
|Dick Darwent||England||1815||John Dickson Carr||The Bride of Newgate||1950|
|Matthew Hawkwood||England||18th century||James McGee||Trigger Men||1985|
|Sergeant Cribb||England||19th century||Peter Lovesey||Wobble to Death||1970|
|Thomas Pitt||England||19th century||Anne Perry||The Cater Street Hangman||1979|
|William Monk||England||19th century||Anne Perry||The Face of a Stranger||1990|
|Mrs. Jeffries||England||19th century||Emily Brightwell||The Inspector and Mrs. Jeffries||1993|
|Edmund Blackstone||England||1820s||Richard Falkirk||Blackstone||1972|
|Benjamin January||New Orleans||1833||Barbara Hambly||A Free Man of Color||1997|
|Yashim the Eunuch||Ottoman Empire||1836||Jason Goodwin||The Janissary Tree||2006|
|Uncle Abner||West Virginia||Mid-19th century||Melville Davisson Post||"The Angel of the Lord"||1911|
|Erast Fandorin||Russia, Japan, etc.||1876–1914||Boris Akunin||The Winter Queen||1998|
|Ambrose Bierce||San Francisco||Late 19th century||Oakley Hall||Ambrose Bierce and the Queen of Spades||1998|
|William Murdoch||Toronto||1890s||Maureen Jennings||Except the Dying||1997|
|Sister Pelagia||Russia||1890s or Early 20th century||Boris Akunin||Pelagia and the White Bulldog||2000 (Russian)|
|Amelia Peabody||Egypt||1884–1923||Elizabeth Peters||Crocodile on the Sandbank||1975|
|Alexander von Reisden||Boston||Early 20th century||Sarah Smith||The Vanished Child||1992|
|Simon Ziele||New York City||Early 20th century||Stefanie Pintoff||In the Shadow of Gotham||2009|
|Mary Russell||Worldwide||Early 20th century||Laurie R. King||The Beekeeper's Apprentice||1994|
|Joe Sandilands||Colonial India, Europe||1920s/1930s||Barbara Cleverly||The Last Kashmiri Rose||2001|
|Bernie Günther||Berlin||1934–1954||Philip Kerr||March Violets||1989|
|Laetitia Talbot||Crete, Burgundy, Athens||1920s||Barbara Cleverly||The Tomb of Zeus||2007|
|Phryne Fisher||Melbourne||1920s||Kerry Greenwood||Cocaine Blues||1989|
|Professor John Stableford||England||1930s||de:Rob Reef||Stableford on Golf||2013|
|Lady Georgiana||England/Scotland||1930s||Rhys Bowen||Her Royal Spyness||2007|
|Alexei Korolev||Moscow||1936||William Ryan||The Holy Thief||2010|
|Kasper Meier||Berlin||1946||Ben Fergusson||The Spring of Kasper Meier||2014|
Detective fiction is a subgenre of crime fiction and mystery fiction in which an investigator or a detective—either professional, amateur or retired—investigates a crime, often murder. The detective genre began around the same time as speculative fiction and other genre fiction in the mid-nineteenth century and has remained extremely popular, particularly in novels. Some of the most famous heroes of detective fiction include C. Auguste Dupin, Sherlock Holmes, and Hercule Poirot. Juvenile stories featuring The Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, and The Boxcar Children have also remained in print for several decades.
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Edith Mary Pargeter, also known by her nom de plumeEllis Peters, was an English author of works in many categories, especially history and historical fiction, and was also honoured for her translations of Czech classics. She is probably best known for her murder mysteries, both historical and modern, and especially for her medieval detective series The Cadfael Chronicles.
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Past Poisons: An Ellis Peters Memorial Anthology of Historical Crime is a 1998 British anthology of historical mystery short stories and novellas, edited by Maxim Jakubowski. The collection is named for novelist Ellis Peters, whose Cadfael Chronicles (1977-1994) are generally credited for popularizing the combined genre of historical fiction and mystery fiction that would become known as historical mystery.