The best historical mysteries with a dash of social commentary

Why am I passionate about this?

I love the mysteriousness of the past. Learning dates or the importance of battles does not yield understanding. Skillfully written historical fiction can make a reader live history—in a twelfth-century abbey or nursing in WWI. The characters I find the most gripping are outsiders: a Black man always in danger of capture and slavery, and investigating the murders of the marginalized; a monk, once a crusader, who sees human frailties clearly; or a Victorian lady, restless under the constraints of her time, who marries beneath her. Why murder mysteries? Because, although murder is forbidden in almost every culture and every religion, we still kill each other. 


I wrote...

Murder on Principle

By Eleanor Kuhns,

Book cover of Murder on Principle

What is my book about?

Rees and Lydia return to Maine from the Great Dismal Swamp after liberating several enslaved people only to find the body of a murdered man in their field. Mr. Gilbert, a slave owner, comes to recover his ‘property’.

Rees begins to investigate but he wrestles with an ethical dilemma. By law, he must return the escapees to their owner, something Rees refuses to do. But what if the murderer is one of those Rees helped escape? He may be guilty of murder – but he is also resisting re-capture and a return to almost certain enslavement. Can Rees justify turning them in or should he let the killer go free?

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of A Free Man of Color

Eleanor Kuhns Why did I love this book?

Benjamin January is a rarity in New Orleans 1830s; a free Black man. He is free because his mother is a place, the mistress of a wealthy white planter. Ben is educated and smart, but the casual racism of the times means he makes a living as a musician instead of a surgeon.

Despite his papers, he is always afraid of being kidnapped and sold into slavery, and that fear casts a shadow over his life.

When a beautiful quadroon is murdered, and no one cares, Ben’s sense of justice inspires him to investigate, despite risking his own freedom.

I love the exotic setting and reread every few years. I marvel at the way Hambly threads the mystery through this unusual culture.

By Barbara Hambly,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked A Free Man of Color as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This lush and haunting novel tells of a city steeped in decadent pleasures and of a man, proud and defiant, caught in a web of murder and betrayal.

It is 1833. In the midst of Mardi Gras, Benjamin January, a Creole physician and music teacher, is playing piano at the Salle d'Orléans when the evening's festivities are interrupted--by murder.

The ravishing Angelique Crozat, a notorious octoroon who travels in the city's finest company, has been strangled to death. With the authorities reluctant to become involved, Ben begins his own inquiry, which will take him through the seamy haunts of riverboatmen…


Book cover of The Cater Street Hangman

Eleanor Kuhns Why did I love this book?

Still Perry’s best, in my opinion. Charlotte Ellison is the plain, outspoken daughter of a wealthy Victorian family. A series of murders, that includes Ellison’s maid, brings a lower-class policeman into the house. Thomas Pitt is the son of a gamekeeper and therefore not marriage material. The growing affection between the too-clever Charlotte and the compassionate Thomas is a scandal in this class-ridden society.

A great mystery that highlights the repressive mores of that time, and wonderful appealing characters.

By Anne Perry,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Cater Street Hangman as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In the debut of the New York Times–bestselling Victorian crime series, Inspector Thomas Pitt seeks an elusive strangler among upper-class British society.

Panic and fear strike the Ellison household when one of their own falls prey to the Cater Street murderer. While Mrs. Ellison and her three daughters are out, their maid becomes the third victim of a killer who strangles young women with cheese wire, leaving their swollen-faced bodies on the dark streets of this genteel neighborhood. Inspector Pitt, assigned to the case, must break through the walls of upper-class society to get at the truth. His in-depth investigation…


Book cover of A Duty to the Dead

Eleanor Kuhns Why did I love this book?

Bess Crawford is a nurse during WWI. While tending a wounded soldier, she promises him she’ll deliver a message to his brother back in England. Several months later, wounded herself and on leave, Bess takes a trip to the soldier’s village. But his brother is indifferent to the message and in fact seems indifferent to his brother’s death. Bess realizes she’s stepped into a hornet’s nest of old secrets. The setting is so well described I felt like I was there, in the middle of World War I and in danger from the secrets someone will kill to protect. I finished it in two sittings, unable to sleep until I knew what happened.

By Charles Todd,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Duty to the Dead as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

“Another winner....Todd again excels at vivid atmosphere and the effects of war in this specific time and place. Grade: A.”
—Cleveland Plain Dealer

 

“Readers who can’t get enough of Maisie Dobbs, the intrepid World War I battlefield nurse in Jacqueline Winspear’s novels…are bound to be caught up in the adventures of Bess Crawford.”
—New York Times Book Review

 

Charles Todd, author of the resoundingly acclaimed Ian Rutledge crime novels (“One of the best historical series being written today” —Washington Post Book World) debuts an exceptional new protagonist, World War I nurse Bess Crawford, in A Duty to the Dead. A…


Book cover of The Pilgrim of Hate

Eleanor Kuhns Why did I love this book?

Several bands of pilgrims descend on the abbey where Cadfael is a monk in twelfth-century England. Among them is the widow Dame Alice Weaver with her crippled nephew Rhun and his sister. Two young men, Ciaran and Matthew, arrive with them. Ciaran is under a vow to walk to Wales, barefoot and with a heavy iron cross around his neck, in penance for an impulsive killing. Matthew has vowed to accompany Ciaran to the end. A theft implicates both Ciaran and Matthew, one of whom is a thief in disguise. I love the way Peters’ plot turns on Christianity as it was practiced then, and the way the pious, suffering from hate and jealousy as well as love, rationalize the ideals of their religion to their own advantage.

By Ellis Peters,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

In the year of our Lord 1141, civil war over England's throne leaves a legacy of violence- and the murder of a knight dear to Brother Cadfael. And with gentle budstrewn May, a flood of pilgrims comes to the celebration of Saint Winifred at the Abbey of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, carrying with it many strange souls and perhaps the knight's killer. Brother Cadfael's shrewd eyes see all: the prosperous merchant who rings false, and angelic lame boy, his beautiful dowess sister, and two wealthy penitents. In the name of justice, Cadfael decides to uncover the strange and twisted…


Book cover of The Gods of Gotham

Eleanor Kuhns Why did I love this book?

Disfigured and jobless after a fire, Timothy Wilde takes a job with the newly formed NYPD. He is assigned to the Sixth Ward, right on the border of the Five Points, a ward notorious for the desperately poor who live there and the rampant crime. One night he finds a young girl running through the street in a nightgown soaked with blood. She tells an unbelievable story of bodies buried in a nearby woods. Wilde investigates and soon finds himself a target of the city’s wealthy, several of whom are guilty of the most heinous of crimes but feel entitled to escape any accountability. Written in the slang of the times, it reads with the immediacy and plausibility of a memoir. I loved this book because it treats such serious issues: income inequality and the lack of accountability for the rich and powerful—even when engaged in child prostitution and murder.

By Lyndsay Faye,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

'Spectacular' Gillian Flynn. GODS OF GOTHAM is the fantastic first novel in Lyndsay Faye's Edgar Award-nominated series, for fans of Andrew Taylor and Antonia Hodgson's The Devil in the Marshalsea.

August 1845 in New York; enter the dark, unforgiving city underworld of the legendary Five Points...

After a fire decimates a swathe of lower Manhattan, and following years of passionate political dispute, New York City at long last forms an official Police Department. That same summer, the great potato famine hits Ireland. These events will change the city of New York for ever.

Timothy Wilde hadn't wanted to be a…


You might also like...

A House on Liberty Street

By Neil Turner,

Book cover of A House on Liberty Street

Neil Turner Author Of A House on Liberty Street

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Reader Traveler Inquisitive Family guy Writer

Neil's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

Meet Tony Valenti. His high-flying corporate law career just cratered. His society marriage blew up in a bitter divorce. He's returned to the Chicago suburbs to lick his wounds and regroup in the haven of the Valenti family home. But time to heal isn't in the cards.

Tony's elderly father inexplicably shoots a sheriff's deputy on their front porch. Nobody knows why, and Papa isn't talking. Then their house becomes an unlikely target for condemnation and expropriation by corrupt local officials and their cronies.

With money and hope dwindling, Tony steps up to defend his father and take to city hall, and quickly finds himself in peril when he unearths sinister connections between the cases. The audacity of the plot against them fuels a gritty determination to get to the bottom of what really happened—regardless of the risks and ultimate cost to himself. To win, Tony must earn his father's trust and outwit his wily opponents.

A House on Liberty Street

By Neil Turner,

What is this book about?

A father. A son. A murder.

Meet Tony Valenti. His high-flying corporate law career just cratered. His society marriage blew up in a bitter divorce. He’s returned to the Chicago suburbs to lick his wounds and regroup in the haven of the Valenti family home. But time to heal isn’t in the cards.

Tony’s elderly father inexplicably shoots a sheriff’s deputy on their front porch. Nobody knows why, and Papa isn’t talking. Then their house becomes an unlikely target for condemnation and expropriation by corrupt local officials and their cronies.

With money and hope dwindling, Tony steps up to defend…


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