Historical mystery books are a fantastic genre combo that feels like getting two for the price of one: a story set in another time period (most argue at least 50 years past) plus a mystery to be solved. While you’re putting together all the clues, or watching someone(s) solve the mystery, you’re also transported to another place and time where you get to compare the whole this is now and that was then.
There are so many historical mystery books it is a never ending list filled with lots of time periods, places around the world, historical events, historical figures, and interesting “detectives” determined to put the puzzle pieces together — or stop a crime. Some merely use the time period as a background and others bring to light historical moments that have never been spotlighted in history classes. There is truly so much to explore and enjoy, it’s a genre of riches. I’ve gone with my favorites (well, 17 favorites) and separated them into best historical mystery series and standalone historical mystery books — including historical detective fiction, Victorian mystery novels, and crime books. So dive in and marathon a series or take a short hop into a time period with these excellent historical mysteries.
(I’ve included trigger warnings where I made note of them, but where they aren’t listed, I didn’t have a record of them. It’s worth looking up trigger warnings on those titles if there’s anything in particular you want to avoid.)
Standalone Historical Mystery Books
Ophie’s Ghosts by Justina Ireland
I’m starting with one of my all time favorite child characters in literature. In 1922, Ophelia Harrison’s life is quickly uprooted as her mother moves her from Georgia to Pittsburgh after her father’s murder. Not only is all of this already confusing and difficult enough — including Ophie having to now work as a maid instead of going to school and living with family that isn’t all welcoming — she’s also about to learn that she has the ability to see ghosts. But a relative tries to teach Ophie not all ghosts are friendly, and they can be dangerous. Something she’s having to navigate as she realizes her new friend at her job is not one of the living, and if she was murdered, then who is responsible?
The Boy in the Red Dress by Kristin Lambert
We’re staying in the 1920s (barely) but moving to a speakeasy in the New Orleans French Quarter. Ring in the New Year at the Cloak & Dagger, a friendly home to the queer community, where Millie’s aunt has had no choice but to leave her in charge as the club’s drag performer Marion finds his past crashing into his current life — and making him the suspect of a socialite’s death. Millie won’t allow her best friend to go down for murder, so she jumps right in to cop-fighting, breaking-and-entering, and sleuthing in order to find out what did happen and hopefully clear Marion’s name.
(Trigger warning: implied partner abuse/homophobia)
Opium and Absinthe by Lydia Kang
If you’ve ever wanted to play “is it regular murder or vampire murder?!” this is the book for you! Set in 1899 New York, Tillie Pembroke is doing her absolute best to get around societal pressures and mandates because she’s a delightfully curious woman seeking independence and knowledge. When her sister is killed, and peculiar bite marks are found on her neck, Tillie’s mother and grandmother want to move on but Tillie refuses. On painkillers from an injury, she decides to investigate her sister’s murder through her grief, addiction, and current reading of Dracula, which may be leaving her questioning if vampires do in fact exist.
(TW: brief mention of past child abuse, detail/ brief mention of past partner abuse, familial abuse on page/ addiction/ brief mention past suicide; attempted suicide, detail/ attempted rape, on page; alludes to past rape)
A Gentleman’s Murder by Christopher Huang
For Agatha Christie fans, here’s a locked-room murder mystery where a murdered man is found in the vault of at an exclusive club after a friendly bet. A member of the club who is working on editing a mystery manuscript, Lieutenant Eric Peterkin, decides this is enough to qualify him to solve the case. Also, he finds the assigned detective to be shady. And so the hunt for the killer begins. Set just after World War I in London, this brings to light soldiers’ PTSD, and the lives of nurses, while not crossing the line into dark or gritty.
(TW: PTSD/ addiction/ suicides mentioned, with detail)
Clark and Division by Naomi Hirahara
While the beginning of the book gives us a bit of childhood stories and then being forced into Manzanar, one of the concentration camps where Japanese Americans were incarcerated during World War II in the U.S., the majority of the book takes place in 1944 Chicago, showing what life was like during the resettlement of Japanese immigrants and Americans released from concentration camps. While Aki and her parents had to stay longer in Manzanar, the eldest sister Rose was given permission to leave and begin resettlement in Chicago. When Aki and her parents are finally released as well, instead of a family reunion, they come to learn that Rose has just died, being hit by a subway. Questioned as an accident or suicide, Aki is determined to find out exactly what happened and what her sister’s life was like before she died. While this book gives a well-plotted mystery, it also shines light on a time period rarely discussed and really brings to life a community of Japanese Americans.
(TW: predator, sexual assault incidents, not graphic / main case questioned as suicide/ misgendering )
The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins
This is one of those books that feels like it’s breaking the mold because we rarely get this voice in this genre. We start in 1826 with Frannie Langton, a formerly enslaved Jamaican woman and current London servant, in prison awaiting trial for the murders of her employers. But Langton can’t offer much of way of her innocence or guilt to the reader seeing as she has no memory of the night in question. What we can learn to start though is her life, from Jamaica to London, and certainly somewhere something will unlock a memory or clue…The U.S. hardcover edition will forever be one of my favorite cover images.
(TW: abuse/ rape/ suicide — this trigger warning list may be incomplete)
The Silence of Bones by June Hur
Not many books will take you to 1800, Joseon Korean dynastic kingdom — at least not historical mysteries that I’ve come by. Seol was orphaned as a child and recently sent by her older sister to the capital to find her older brother’s grave, while being trained as a police damo — which is basically an indentured servant to the Capital Police Bureau. But Inspector Han forms a friendship with her and helps teach her how to solve cases until the murder of a woman makes Seol question if Han is involved…
(TW: past suicides mentioned, detail/ mentions public groping/ torture/ past child murder mentioned)
Murder in Old Bombay by Nev March
If you like Acorn murder mystery shows and “forbidden” romance subplots — the woman’s family warns him that he isn’t allowed to be with her because of their culture — this is a great historical mystery. Captain Jim Agnihotri, son of an Indian mother and British father, starts the book recovering in a military hospital in 1892, Bombay. It’s there that he reads Sherlock Holmes and also the real case about two young women who fell from a university’s clock tower. With his new love of Holmes, and a plea from the women’s family, he decides to set out and investigate — disguises sometimes included.
(TW: case believed suicide at first/ mentions domestic abuse, no detail/ child marriages, slavery/ child death)
Series Starting Historical Mystery Books
Murder on the Red River (Cash Blackbear Mysteries #1) by Marcie Rendon
Set along 1970s Red River, one side in Minnesota and one side in North Dakota, this is where we meet Renee “Cash” Blackbear, a 19-year-old Chippewa woman. When she was 3, Sheriff Wheaton took her from a car accident and always kept an eye out for her. She made herself independent as soon as she could, learning to work the farms doing the jobs assigned to men. Now Sheriff Wheaton has a dead man and asks for Cash’s help. As she keeps hustling people in pool, working, and fighting her way through a difficult life, she’ll also have to watch for her own safety when she starts asking too many questions. This is a great series for fans of character driven mysteries.
(TW: alcoholism/ past suicidal thoughts briefly mentioned, detail/ past child abuse)
The Frangipani Tree Mystery (Crown Colony #1) by Ovidia Yu
We get to follow SuLin, a teen girl who was educated thanks to her aunt after being orphaned young and having a limp from contracting Polio, in 1936 Singapore. Wanting to avoid being married off, she instead looks to find a way to work: enter a nanny being murdered and there being an open position. Now SuLin finds herself not only trying to care for the girl in her charge, but also navigating upstairs, downstairs, and racial politics. Plus, there’s the matter of solving that pesky murder in the Governor’s House, which Chief Inspector Thomas LeFroy is in charge of. If you’re looking for a great start to a mystery series with a smart, perceptive, and kind lead, this is your book.
Who Is Vera Kelly? (Vera Kelly #1) by Rosalie Knecht
Traveling back almost 60 years to Argentina, here’s a look at a moment in history not often discussed. Told in past and present chapters, we get to know Vera Kelly: her tumultuous relationship with her mother; being recruited by the CIA; and pretending to be a student in Buenos Aires to get information on campus radicals. This first book, while ending with a bang, is mostly a historical book about a now spy that slowly reveals her past to you. The sequel, Vera Kelly Is Not A Mystery, transitions Vera Kelly from the world of a CIA spy into being a PI. Kelly is a great addition to a genre that has mostly been straight men.
(TW: suicide/ homophobia / child abuse)
An Extraordinary Union (The Loyal League #1) by Alyssa Cole
If you think a book could not possibly be both a romance novel and a Civil War spy novel, Alyssa Cole is here to prove you wrong. Seriously, this book will have you feeling all hot under the collar one moment and then on the edge of your seat the next as we follow two undercover agents. Elle Burns is a spy for the Union Army with a photographic memory, posing as a slave, and Malcolm McCall is a detective for Pinkerton’s Secret Service. It’s such a layered and great read filled with conflict not just from the war and time period but also internally in the characters and between each other.
A Rising Man (Sam Wyndham #1) by Abir Mukherjee
If you like a series where characters evolve professionally and personally, here’s one set in Calcutta (British ruled in 1919) following Captain Sam Wyndham, a former Scotland Yard detective and increasingly through the series Sergeant Banerjee, one of the only Indians in the CID. The series starts with Wyndham leaving behind his previous life and moving to Calcutta, but he’s brought his Opium addiction with him, which he needs to keep in check in order to solve the murder of a British official. I love watching Wyndham and Banerjee throughout the series not only solving crimes but also navigating the time period, their relationship, and growing as people.
Dead Dead Girls (Harlem Renaissance Mystery #1) by Nekesa Afia
Fictional serial killer: Check! Amateur Sleuth: Check! Harlem Renaissance: Check! Set in Harlem, 1926 Louise Lloyd would like to no longer be known as the teen who escaped a kidnapping, while freeing other girls with herself. At 26 she works at a cafe, lives in a boardinghouse, and spends as much time as she can dancing in a speakeasy. But after a fight with an officer, a detective offers her no trouble if she’ll help him investigate the current murders of Black girls. As much as she does not want to, she is forced to, and ends up putting herself in danger. I really enjoyed Louise’s character — no rose colored glasses for her — and I look forward to the sequel in 2022.
(TW: attempted rape/ kidnapping/ homophobia)
A Study in Scarlet Women (Lady Sherlock #1) by Sherry Thomas
Is this series ALWAYS on my lists? Yes! Lady Sherlock is my favorite Sherlock. From watching her become Sherlock (after literally imploding her societal standing), to her friendship with Mrs. Watson, to the slow-burn love story, to the mystery solving, the adventures, and ALL the dessert eating, everything about this series is a complete delight. Every year during fall I treat myself to a new addition to the series. Bonus: the audiobook narrator, Kate Reading, is also delightful.
A Curious Beginning (Veronica Speedwell #1) by Deanna Raybourn
A perfect read for fans of Sherry Thomas’s Lady Sherlock is Veronica Speedwell. You get the mystery, adventures, slow-burn love story, family drama, and a lot of laughs set in London in the 1880s. The pairing of a cheerful woman, Veronica Speedwell (a lepidopterist), and a total grump, Stoker (a natural historian), could not be more perfect. Enjoy marathoning this delightful series, and Raybourn’s fantastic humor.
The Widows of Malabar Hill (Perveen Mistry #1) by Sujata Massey
I’m a huge fan of seeing the legal system throughout history and in countries outside of the U.S., so I always look forward to following Perveen Mistry. Set in early 1920s Bombay, Perveen works as a solicitor for her father, being the first women in this role. The series starts with us getting to know her backstory, which is slowly revealed between the case: three widows appear to be giving away what was left to them in a will, and Perveen thinks there may be something wrong. Since the three widows live in purdah, Perveen being the only woman solicitor makes her the only person who can go see them to make sure everything is fine. I adore Perveen and her smart, thoughtful, caring manner and how Perveen is always aware that her actions can impact any female lawyers coming up behind her.
(TW: domestic abuse/ girl death — this trigger warning list may be incomplete)
Whether you love series or standalone historical mystery books — or both! — enjoy an escape from today with a mystery set in the past with one of these great historical mystery books.