The best novels featuring historical figures

Who am I?

I love the novels of Charles Dickens and when I found out that he did go out with the London Police to research the criminal underworld for his magazine, I thought what a good detective he would make. He has all the talents a detective needs: remarkable powers of observation, a shrewd understanding of human nature and of motive, and the ability to mix with all ranks of Victorian society from the street urchin to the lord and lady. I love Victorian London, too, and creating the foggy, gas-lit alleys we all know from Dickens the novelist.

I wrote...

Summons to Murder

By J. C. Briggs,

Book cover of Summons to Murder

What is my book about?

This is the ninth novel in the Charles Dickens Investigation series. A journalist friend of Dickens, Pierce Mallory, is found shot dead in his lodgings. The inquest verdict is suicide, but closer examination of the gun causes Dickens and Superintendent Jones to have doubts. Mallory left behind debts, a discarded wife, more than one discarded mistress, and two illegitimate children. There are plenty of suspects. The investigation takes Dickens and Jones into a dangerous world in which powerful people have dangerous secrets they want to keep so badly that even Dickens’s life is in danger.

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why


By Maggie O'Farrell,

Book cover of Hamnet

Why did I love this book?

I love anything about Shakespeare. This is the story of William Shakespeare’s only son, Hamnet, who died at the age of 11. Little is known about the boy, but Maggie O’Farrell weaves a moving story out of the bare facts. It is a story about the profound grief and loss shared by Shakespeare and his wife, Ann, whose name is Agnes in this book. She comes to life, too, and O’Farrell gives us a portrait of a marriage like any other where a husband and wife are sometimes at odds, sometimes want different things, but try to understand themselves in their grief. A beautifully written book, too, evoking Stratford-upon-Avon in the sixteenth century.

By Maggie O'Farrell,

Why should I read it?

27 authors picked Hamnet as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Richly sensuous... something special' The Sunday Times
'A thing of shimmering wonder' David Mitchell


On a summer's day in 1596, a young girl in Stratford-upon-Avon takes to her bed with a sudden fever. Her twin brother, Hamnet, searches everywhere for help. Why is nobody at home?

Their mother, Agnes, is over a mile away, in the garden where she grows medicinal herbs. Their father is working in London.


Book cover of Miss Austen: A Novel of the Austen Sisters

Why did I love this book?

Miss Austen is Cassandra, sister of the more famous Jane, who takes centre stage in this story, though Jane is there, too, as the beloved missed sister, not the novelist. The year is 1840, Jane has been dead for twenty years, Cassandra is in her sixties and though frail is on a quest to find some missing letters which may reveal secrets about Jane and Cassandra which must not be known. It’s a mystery and we want to know if Cassandra will find those letters, but it is also a touching portrait of sisterly devotion. Cassandra makes an admirable heroine, determined and resourceful despite her frailty. It also tells much about the way in which spinsters, usually ignored by society, have a rich and complex inner life.

By Gill Hornby,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Miss Austen as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Sunday Times bestselling novel, set to be a major TV drama
'You can't help feeling that Jane would have approved.' OBSERVER

'So good, so intelligent, so clever, so entertaining - I adored it.' CLAIRE TOMALIN
Throughout her lifetime, Jane Austen wrote countless letters to her sister. But why did Cassandra burn them all?

1840: twenty three years after the death of her famous sister Jane, Cassandra Austen returns to the village of Kintbury, and the home of her family's friends, the Fowles.

She knows that, in some dusty corner of the sprawling vicarage, there is a cache…

Book cover of The Poison Keeper: An enthralling historical novel of Renaissance Italy

Why did I love this book?

Another woman steps out of the shadows of history in this novel about seventeenth-century Italy. Gulia Tofana was a notorious poisoner of terrible men and Deborah Swift explores in a tale full of excitement and drama the imagined early career of Gulia whose mother was executed for murder. Gulia just wants to be an apothecary, but her friendship with the abused wife of an aristocratic, power greedy husband draws her into murder. It is full of rich detail – you can feel the heat, smell the perfume, hear the rustle of silk and taffeta, and you can’t help being on the side of the women trapped in a corrupt and violent world.

By Deborah Swift,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Poison Keeper as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Naples 1633

Aqua Tofana – One drop to heal. Three drops to kill.

Giulia Tofana longs for more responsibility in her mother’s apothecary business, but Mamma has always been secretive and refuses to tell her the hidden keys to her success. But the day Mamma is arrested for the poisoning of the powerful Duke de Verdi, Giulia is shocked to uncover the darker side of her trade.

Giulia must run for her life, and escapes to Naples, under the shadow of Mount Vesuvius, to the home of her Aunt Isabetta, a famous courtesan. But when Giulia hears that her mother…

Wolf Hall

By Hilary Mantel,

Book cover of Wolf Hall

Why did I love this book?

Another famous man from the sixteenth century, this time Thomas Cromwell. The Holbein portrait of Thomas Cromwell shows us a very grim-looking character with shrewd eyes looking away from us. History gives us Henry VIII’s political fixer. Hilary Mantel gives us the living, breathing man, abused by a cruel father, later grieving for his dead wife and his adored daughter while negotiating a political world in which a man must be as ruthless as his enemies. Hilary Mantel shows us that history is not as simple as it might seem, and Thomas Cromwell is a human being with all the contradictions and complexities that human nature holds. And there is so much to be learnt about the Tudor period. A compelling read.

By Hilary Mantel,

Why should I read it?

18 authors picked Wolf Hall as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Winner of the Man Booker Prize Shortlisted for the the Orange Prize Shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award

`Dizzyingly, dazzlingly good' Daily Mail

'Our most brilliant English writer' Guardian

England, the 1520s. Henry VIII is on the throne, but has no heir. Cardinal Wolsey is his chief advisor, charged with securing the divorce the pope refuses to grant. Into this atmosphere of distrust and need comes Thomas Cromwell, first as Wolsey's clerk, and later his successor.

Cromwell is a wholly original man: the son of a brutal blacksmith, a political genius, a briber, a charmer, a bully, a man with…

The Windsor Knot

By SJ Bennett,

Book cover of The Windsor Knot

Why did I love this book?

This is a detective story featuring Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II investigating a very nasty murder with the help of her assistant Private Secretary, Rozie Oshodi, formerly a captain in the army. The victim is a Russian musician, a guest at Windsor Castle. Naturally, the men in charge at Windsor think the Queen ought to be shielded from the nasty details. That’s a mistake. The 90-year-old Queen knows all about the wicked world and brings her shrewd knowledge of human nature and cunning to find out whodunnit. A marvellous portrait of the Queen – very funny at times and you learn a lot about how the court works. The Queen knows all that’s going on and what she doesn’t know, Rozie Oshodi finds out for her.

By SJ Bennett,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Windsor Knot as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

For fans of The Crown and The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman.
On a perfect Spring morning at Windsor Castle, Queen Elizabeth II will enjoy a cup of tea, carry out all her royal duties . . . and solve a murder.

'Like an episode of The Crown - but with a spicy dish of murder on the side' (DAILY MAIL)

The morning after a dinner party at Windsor Castle, eighty-nine-year-old Queen Elizabeth is shocked to discover that one of her guests has been found murdered in his room, with a rope around his neck.

When the police…

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in family secrets, plagues, and Naples Italy?

9,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about family secrets, plagues, and Naples Italy.

Family Secrets Explore 156 books about family secrets
Plagues Explore 44 books about plagues
Naples Italy Explore 19 books about Naples Italy