Not a good day for Julius Caesar... Et tu, Brute? and all that... but possibly a good day to talk about some of my favorite historical mysteries and series. I became fascinated with English history in my teenage years, so much so that I eventually went to graduate school and earned a Ph.D. in medieval history. Medieval England is my favorite, but I also enjoy other periods as well, particularly Elizabethan and Regency England. Then of course there's ancient Rome, the early Middle Ages, and those intriguing Victorians... colonial America, the pre-Columbian world, and, well, lots of history in lots of different places.
But back to the subject of historical mysteries. Here are some of my favorite books and authors.
Crocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters. First in the wonderfully entertaining and informative series starring Amelia Peabody, later to become Mrs. Radcliffe Emerson. Late Victorian and early twentieth-century Egyptian archaeology never had a finer spokesperson than the late, great Dr. Barbara Mertz (aka Elizabeth Peters and Barbara Michaels). The inimitable Amelia plunges headlong into adventure, danger, and romance, and you'll be laughing and turning the pages far into the night.
A Morbid Taste for Bones by Ellis Peters. Meant to be a one-off, this book introduced the twelfth-century herbalist monk Brother Cadfael. The character caught hold of Peters's imagination, and the result was a long-running series set against the civil war waged in England between two grandchildren of William the Conqueror -- Stephen of Blois (King Stephen) and the Empress Maud. Cadfael is one of the great characters of mystery fiction, Peters's finest creation.
Death Comes as Epiphany by Sharan Newman. The first adventure of Catherine le Vendeur introduces readers to the world of mid-twelfth-century France, and a vividly atmospheric world it is. Catherine had intentions of becoming a nun, but plans change, of course, and the result is a fascinating series that brings medieval France to life. Newman expertly weaves a full tapestry, showing many facets of the Middle Ages, both Christian and Jewish.
Catalina's Riddle by Stephen Saylor. Rome in the last years of the Republic is the setting for this series about a man named Gordianus the Finder. Saylor, a Texan with a degree in classics, has become a worldwide bestseller with these finely wrought stories of life in ancient Rome. Catilina's Riddle is the third in the series that began with Roman Blood. Saylor often uses historical events as the bases for his plots, and in this book, that event is the Catiline Conspiracy. The author shows that fact can make an enthralling basis for fiction.
The Face of a Stranger by Anne Perry. The author was already well-established as a writer of Victorian mysteries featuring Charlotte and Thomas Pitt when she launched a new series with this book. William Monk wakes up in hospital having no memory of who he is or what his life was. He quickly discovers that he was a policeman who was badly injured during a case, and he doesn't let anyone realize he is suffering from amnesia. He is quickly forced to the realization that everyone who knows him loathes and fears him, and he wonders why. As he works to solve the case which brought him so low, he explores his own identity. Who was he, and why was he so despised? Does he really want to be that man again? Fascinating reading, and an interesting exploration of identity -- what really makes us who we are.
The Last Kashmiri Rose by Barbara Cleverly. Joe Sandilands is a Scotland Yard man who has been seconded to India to share his expertise with the police there. It's the early 1920s, the time known as the "British Raj" when the British still held control in India. Sandilands is presented with a baffling case, and in solving it he will come to learn much about India. One of the things I love about this particular book is that the motive for murder is endemic, so to speak, to its setting. Sandilands solves three further cases in India (all enthralling) before returning to England where the series continues.
A Mortal Bane by Roberta Gellis. Set in mid-twelfth-century England, this book introduced Magdalen la Batarde, madam of a brothel in Southwark, London. Gellis was one of the two writers who introduced me to medieval England in my teens, the other being Anya Seton. Before she wrote mysteries, Gellis was well-known as the author of richly detailed medieval romances, a writer whose books were heavily laced with history along with a love story. Magdalen is unique among medieval sleuths, thanks to her profession, and sadly there are only four books in the series.
The Beekeeper's Apprentice by Laurie R. King. Fifteen-year-old Mary Russell was walking the Sussex Downs one day when she stumbled across a man who turned out to be none other than Sherlock Holmes. Thus begins an intriguing relationship between the young, outspoken, intelligent Russell and the greatest of all consulting detectives. Mary Russell is a vibrant character who can more than hold her own with Sherlock Holmes. Their adventures together have taken them to far-flung places, like Palestine and North Africa, not to mention India and Japan. This is a great series for anyone interested in strong female characters as sleuths.
Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear. Scarred emotionally by her service as a nurse in World War I, Maisie is working as a detective in London ca. 1929 when we first meet her in this book. Her methods are modeled on those of her mentor, Maurice Leblanc, who advocates a more psychological approach to solving crimes. This first book contains a mystery, but the main point of the story is getting to know Maisie and to begin to understand what makes her who she is. Winspear, much influenced by her grandparents' stories of life during and after World War I, weaves history and fiction together in compelling ways.
I could keep writing about historical mysteries until the Ides of March have passed, but that's enough for now. If you enjoy historical mysteries, or perhaps have never even read one, I hope you will enjoy some of these fine writers and their work.