Historical Fiction

Whodunits Abroad: 8 Historical Mysteries Set Outside the U.S.

Vanessa Diaz

Managing Editor

Book Riot Managing Editor Vanessa Diaz is a writer and former bookseller from San Diego, CA whose Spanish is even faster than her English. When not reading or writing, she enjoys dreaming up travel itineraries and drinking entirely too much tea. She is a regular co-host on the All the Books podcast who especially loves mysteries, gothic lit, mythology/folklore, and all things witchy. Vanessa can be found on Instagram at @BuenosDiazSD or taking pictures of pretty trees in Portland, OR, where she now resides.

WayBack Press

When a corpse washes up on the riverbank at Lord Hani’s country house, his daughter Neferet, her fellow physician Bener-ib and apprentice Mut-tuy head for the local village to try to identify it. But they find themselves entangled in a web of murder and lies in the heart of a family of weavers. Can the perseverance of three determined women and the bonds of parental love win out, or will Neferet herself become the next victim?

The only thing I love even more than a good whodunit (or howdunit or whydunit) is one with a historical setting. There’s something about unraveling a mystery without the benefit of modern technology that is fascinating to me, of watching sleuths, whether amateur or professional, untangle a knot of clues using nothing but their little grey cells. Add in a setting outside the U.S. and I’m doubly satisfied. I get the satisfaction of a resolution that my anxious brain craves, and a little bit of armchair travel all in one pretty package.

But first: what do I mean by “historical?” Some would argue that to count as historical fiction, the story should be set at least 50 years in the past. Seven of the eight titles I’m recommending fit this bill, but one is set in the ’80s (and also partially in the U.S.). I opted to include it because a) it’s that good, and b) if I have to live with the fact that the ’80s are not, in fact, 20ish years in the past but 40+, then you do too.

I’ve rounded up eight of my favorite historical mysteries set outside the U.S., many of which are starts to excellent series, so there’s lots to explore. These reads will transport you to 1920s India, 1980s Burkina Faso, Victorian England, 15th century Korea, 1970s Mexico City, and more. Enjoy!

Book cover of The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey

The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey (Perveen Mistry #1)

Perveen Mistry is a lawyer in 1920s India—the first and only female lawyer in the country. Though she can’t legally practice on her own, she is uniquely qualified to investigate a suspicious will involving three Muslim women living in purdah. The case takes a deadly turn, and Perveen must get to the bottom of it before others wind up hurt or dead. We get flashbacks throughout the story revealing Perveen’s tragic past, a past that drives her in her fight for women’s legal rights. Four books later, the Perveen Mistry series it is still one of my favorites, and it’s inspired by a real person!

TW: domestic violence

cover of American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson

American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson

Set in the mid-1980s, this spy novel follows a Black woman FBI intelligence officer writing her young sons a letter in order to explain a series of recent events, from her initial recruitment to a dangerous assignment to seduce the Communist president of Burkina Faso and help bring about a coup. You get the espionage, the high stakes, the twists and turns, plus the challenges unique to a Black woman navigating an old white boy’s club. This character-driven story is not what you might expect from a spy novel, trading in a thrilling, break-neck pace for slow suspense. It’s worth the wait.

If you’re an audiobook person, the one and only Bahni Turpin reads this one.

Book cover of A Study in Scarlet Women, featuring a woman in a red dress walking into a doorway that is spilling light out into the night

A Study in Scarlet Women by Sherry Thomas (Lady Sherlock #1)

The Lady Sherlock books are a gender-flipped reimagining of Sherlock Holmes where there is no Sherlock at all. In Victorian England, Charlotte Holmes and her benefactor Mrs. Watson pretend to assist their brother Sherlock with his cases, but are really solving them on their own through some light subterfuge (“he’s just in the other room!”). Charlotte is one of my favorite characters ever, a woman whose powers of deduction are matched only by her love of a good slice of cake. She’s found a way to live independently in a society that does not typically allow women agency, cracking cases while also pursuing the object of her affection in the mother of all slow burns—as in we’re eight books in, and the game has only recently been afoot.

This series is another excellent one on audio—Kate Reading could read me the back of a shampoo bottle, and I’d pay for the privilege.

TW: violence against children, off-page

Book cover of The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley (Flavia de Luce #1)

In the 1950s, a young girl named Flavia lives with her widowed father and sisters in a dilapidated estate in the English countryside. Flavia has a habit of stumbling upon dead bodies and can’t help but stick her nose in other people’s business, a winning combination for an amateur sleuth. Flavia is smart and delightfully snarky, precocious but not annoying like I just know I was (sorry, Mom and Dad). The mysteries in each of the books in this completed series are great on their own, but there is a separate mystery running throughout the series that really takes a turn if you stick with it. Can I just say how much I adore Flavia’s relationship with Dogger? The gardener saved her father’s life during the war and now experiences symptoms of what we know as PTSD. Their bond is just so damn tender and makes me go all soft.

I know I keep saying this, but it’s just true: this series, read by Jayne Entwistle, is fantastic on audio.

Cover of The Forest of Stolen Girls by June Hur

The Forest of Stolen Girls by June Hur

In 1426 Joseon (Korea), Hwani is searching for her father, a detective who went missing while investigating the disappearance of 13 girls in a forest with a dark history—and a connection to Hwani’s own past. Hwani and her sister also went missing in that very forest years ago, but she has no memory of the incident. The disappearances are all linked, and Hwani must figure out what the connection is in order to find her father. Doing so will mean diving deep into buried memories and the secrets of the forest. This is such a suspenseful, atmospheric mystery, and it kept me guessing until the end.

A Master of Djinn Book Cover

A Master of Djinn by P. Djèlí Clark

This speculative historical mystery is the third book in P. Djèlí Clark’s Dead Djinn Universe, set in an alternative version of Cairo in 1912, where angels and djinn exist alongside humans. Decades earlier, a Sudanese mystic named Al-Jahiz was said to have shaken the world when he drilled a hole in the veil between the magical and non-magical worlds before vanishing without a trace. Agent Fatma el-Sha-arawi is a special investigator and the youngest (maybe only?) woman at the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities, and she’s been brought in to investigate the suspicious murder of an entire brotherhood dedicated to Al-Jahiz. This blend of science fiction, fantasy, and mystery examines gender, class, and colonialism in such a fun steampunk setting. It’s full of twists and red herrings with a side of queer romance, and I hope we get more books set in this world.

cover of A Curious Beginning

A Curious Beginning by Deanna Raybourn (Veronica Speedwell #1)

This series set in Victorian England features adventuring sleuth and scientist Veronica Speedwell. After the two aunts who raised her both pass away, Veronica finds herself free to roam the world as a lepidopterist and enjoy the company of men (heyyy!). Before she can do any of that, she is attacked by an intruder but rescued by a mysterious stranger who tells her that he knew Veronica’s mother, that she’s in grave danger, and she needs to follow him right away. She agrees (mostly for the free trip to London) and gets paired up with a cranky taxidermist named Stoker until the stranger, named Baron, can figure out their next move. When Baron is found dead in his home, Stoker and Veronica go on the run from an unknown villain. This series is currently nine books in and is every bit as fun as when it started. You get some romance with the adventure times and the excellent dialogue Raybourn is known for.

Velvet Was the Night cover

Velvet Was the Night by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

This historical thriller from Silvia “Watch Me Write All the Genres” Moreno-Garcia is set in Mexico City during the Dirty War of the ’70s. Maite is bored with the ho-hum pace of her life, begrudging her desk job, her overbearing mother, and her lack of romantic prospects. When her glamorous next-door neighbor Lenora goes missing under suspicious circumstances, Maite goes looking for her and winds up elbow-deep in Leonora’s secret life of radical activism and dissidence. Meanwhile, hitman (and kind of a goon) Elvis has been hired to track down Leonora but winds up tailing Maite and growing more and more obsessed with this woman who appears to share his love of rock’n’roll and longing. As Maite and Elvis attempt to discover the truth behind Leonora’s disappearance, they’ll face down hitmen, government agents, and Russian spies, “because Mexico in the 1970s is a noir, where life is cheap and the price of truth is high.”

For even more historical whodunits, try these 17 historical mystery books and these newer batches of historical mysteries, too.