The best historical mysteries with famous people as the amateur sleuths

Mary F. Burns Author Of The Spoils of Avalon
By Mary F. Burns

Who am I?

My mother was an avid reader of Agatha Christie, and she gave me my first Nancy Drew book when I was nine, so I’ve loved mysteries all my life—not the ‘true crime’ kind, more the ‘cozy village’ kind, where the focus is on the characters and how they solve the mystery because of who they are and how they understand the people around them. After I wrote an historical novel about John Singer Sargent and his friends, I couldn’t stop thinking about them, even hearing their voices continuing to talk—I missed them! So naturally, I decided I’d turn John and his friend Violet into detectives and write mysteries. 

I wrote...

The Spoils of Avalon

By Mary F. Burns,

Book cover of The Spoils of Avalon

What is my book about?

The death of a humble clergyman in 1877 leads amateur sleuths Violet Paget and John Singer Sargent into a medieval world of saints and kings as they follow a trail of relics lost since the destruction of Glastonbury Abbey in 1539. Written in alternating chapters between the two eras, The Spoils of Avalon is a magical mystery that bridges the gap between two widely different worlds—the industrialized, Darwinian Victorian Age and the agricultural, faith-infused life of a medieval abbey on the brink of violent change at the hand of Henry VIII. 

First in a series featuring two life-long friends as a different kind of detecting team: the brilliant and brittle Violet Paget (aka Vernon Lee), and the talented, genial portrait painter John Singer Sargent. 

The books I picked & why

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Oscar Wilde and a Death of No Importance

By Gyles Brandreth,

Book cover of Oscar Wilde and a Death of No Importance

Why this book?

This is the first book in a series that is as witty, complex, charming, and dark as Oscar Wilde himself. (“I can resist everything but temptation.”) The author is steeped in Wilde and his world, quotes him extensively (but appropriately) and also delivers a great mystery set in the fascinating era of Victorian decline and fin de siècle artistic fervor. Arthur Conan Doyle, in a great turnabout, plays “Watson” to Wilde’s “Sherlock” in all the mysteries. A later book in the series takes on Jack the Ripper, with some surprising suspects!

Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor: Being the First Jane Austen Mystery

By Stephanie Barron,

Book cover of Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor: Being the First Jane Austen Mystery

Why this book?

As someone who re-reads all major Austen works every year or so, I am so grateful for Stephanie Barron’s creation of Jane as an amateur sleuth who can’t seem to visit a country house or a London mansion without coming across a murdered peer or a suspicious “suicide”! True to the actual Jane’s acquaintances, life events, and characters (she meets “Mr. Darcy” and other people who will show up in her novels), this fictional Jane sounds like the books she writes but with even more humor, acerbity, and sarcasm. 14 books and counting! Never gets stale!

The Vanished Bride

By Bella Ellis,

Book cover of The Vanished Bride

Why this book?

Talk about feisty women who advance against tremendous odds! Despite the stultifyingly constrained life of “almost-poor” women in early Victorian England, out in the moor country, the three Brontë sisters (Charlotte, Emily, and Anne) slip around the rules, their father, and manage their wayward but beloved brother—all while being determined to become writers—and solve the occasional murder that happens in their neighborhood. Great period details and fascinating information about these three remarkable sisters, along with a great mystery read. This is the first book in the series.

A Study in Scarlet Women

By Sherry Thomas,

Book cover of A Study in Scarlet Women

Why this book?

Charlotte Holmes of the Lady Sherlock series is—next to Benedict Cumberbatch—the most wonderful, interesting, fascinating new version of Sherlock Holmes to show up so far this century. I’m not going to argue that Sherlock isn’t ‘real’—he’s more real than most people! Sherry Thomas has taken the extension of the Sherlock legend/motif/fanfiction to a greater height than previous authors, and I guarantee you will delight in Charlotte, her quirks and foibles, her keen mind, and her insatiable lust for pastries. Watson becomes “Mrs. Watson” and is a down-to-earth wonder as a sidekick for Miss Charlotte. Great additional cast of characters as well. To be savored and enjoyed over and over! This is the first in the series.

The Pale Blue Eye

By Louis Bayard,

Book cover of The Pale Blue Eye

Why this book?

This book is a haunting and haunted story of the young Edgar Allen Poe when he was a cadet at West Point in 1830. Already a published poet at that point, young Edgar is a moody and very unlikely candidate for the army, but his inclination for the darker side of human life comes in handy when a cadet is found hanging—with his heart cut out—and Edgar is chosen to help the big city detective who comes on campus to solve the murder. I just learned this was made into a movie! I loved the book, read it years ago, and have never forgotten it—now I’ve got to go get the movie.

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