It is said that if we do not learn from history, we are doomed to repeat it. The tales told within the halls of historical thrillers are prime suspects that this saying is true. Throughout the centuries, deadly secrets are buried and then uncovered; dangerous obsessions lead to unspeakable acts; and disappearances shake up communities and reveal the ugly truths we try so hard to conceal.
If you are newer to the historical thriller genre and looking to dip your toe into these murky waters, you may be wondering what sets a historical thriller apart from a historical mystery or a historical suspense novel. Naturally, all three take us to the past. A mystery follows a protagonist trying to find out the truth behind a murder or a crime; the danger levels they’re in are usually mild. A suspense will gradually reveal the danger and rely on tension and uncertainty to unsettle both the protagonist and the reader. A thriller, ahh…therein lies the danger. The gloves have been removed, dear reader, and our protagonist is in grave danger from the offset.
This list is dedicated to the historical thrillers that bring us protagonists with unusual skill sets, unseen motivations, and an unrelenting drive for answers. Let us take you across four centuries in five different cities: London, New York, Boston, Vietnam, and Venice.
The Poison Bed by Elizabeth Fremantle
London, 1615. A murder has occurred in the court of King James I. The suspects? Lord Robert and Lady Francis, married, ambitious. Robert went from rags to one of the richest, most powerful men in the country; Francis escaped an abusive marriage and is determined to forge a better life for herself with Robert. Neither will give up who actually committed the murder. The king is convinced they both did it, but there’s one complication: Robert is his lover, too. Can he sentence Robert to death? Who will pay the ultimate price for the poisoning?
Hour of the Witch by Chris Bohjalian
Boston, 1662. Mary Deerfield is stuck in the New World with a violent, alcoholic husband in a community that does not tolerate or recognize divorce. Mary is desperate to leave, and strains against the oppression of the colony and its hypocrisy. But Mary’s problems have only just begun. “Tainted” objects are found in her garden; a boy she treats with herbs dies; a servant flees their home in terror. Whispers of witchcraft surround Mary, and she has to find out who is setting her up before she is sent to the gallows.
The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins
London, 1826. Frannie Langton is accused of murdering her employers, a scientist and his French wife. She’s to stand trial, and the entire city is abuzz over the scandal, but there’s on problem: Frannie doesn’t remember what happened that night, or how she became covered in their blood. We dive into Frannie’s past to discover how she got here, from her childhood on a Jamaican plantation, to her apprenticeship under an extremely unethical scientist, to what led to her employment (and a forbidden relationship). Frannie’s testimony will do much more than solve the crime at hand.
The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal
London, 1850s. The Great Exhibition is coming to the city, and Iris has come to watch it appear before her eyes: a respite from her monotonous, unexciting life painting doll faces. She meets a taxidermist named Silas, and although the meeting is utterly forgettable for Iris, it marks the beginning of an obsession for Silas. All Iris wants to do is realize her dream of becoming an artist, and she has no idea that Silas is following her every move, waiting for his chance to get closer…
The Impossible Girl by Lydia Kang
Manhattan, 1850. Cora Lee has a special skillset that’s quite coveted amongst the anatomists of the city: she is a resurrectionist. As someone who straddles the world of the elites and the forgotten, this is a lucrative business for Cora, and one that allows her to keep an eye out for those keeping an eye on her. It’s not every day that a girl is born with two hearts, is it? Murders begin to occur all around Cora, and the group of people she trusts begins to shrink while she tries to figure out who wants her dead.
A Gentleman’s Murder by Christopher Huang
London, 1924. Lieutenant Eric Peterkin, a WWI vet, has been gifted a membership to the city’s most elite soldiers-only club — just in time for another member to get murdered. Peterkin knows that someone else in the club is responsible, but his investigation into what happened takes him to some unexpected places, from heroin dens to abandoned war hospitals, as he dives back into the history and memories of a war they’re all trying to get past.
A Woman of Intelligence by Karin Tanabe
New York, 1954. The war has ended, and Katherina Edgeworth is living the American dream…on the surface. Underneath her Fifth Avenue life with her pediatric surgeon husband and two sons is a longing for the excitement of her past, when she worked as a translator for the United Nations. When she’s approached by the FBI to become an informant, she jumps at the opportunity. A man from her past is now a Soviet spy, and Katherina is the only person who can get close to him. The closer she gets to the KGB, however, the more people around her lose their covers…and their lives.
Palace of the Drowned by Christine Mangan
Venice, 1966. Frankie Croy has never been able to match the success of her debut novel, and she’s finally cracked under the pressure. Needing to recharge, she flees to a friend’s palazzo in Venice, only to run into a young admirer named Gilly. Gilly worms her way into Frankie’s solitude in a manner that raises Frankie’s suspicions. Who is this woman? When is she telling the truth, and what is she lying about? The mystery of Gilly is thrown into even more dire straits when both are swept into the 1966 flooding of Venice.
Build Your House Around My Body by Violet Kupersmith
Saigon, 1986. The daughter of a wealthy Vietnamese family gets lost as she tries to run away from her angry father. Twenty-five years in the future, an unhappy Vietnamese American woman disappears from her Saigon home. These two instances are linked, but to find out what that link is, we must explore other seemingly unrelated incidences across half a century of Vietnamese history, all carrying the same thread that will lead back to what happened to those girls.
American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson
New York, 1986. Marie Mitchell is an intelligence officer with the FBI, and her career is stagnating: she’s a young Black woman in an overwhelmingly male and white field, and she gets left out of every high profile case. That changes when she’s given the chance to join a secret task force to take down Thomas Sankara, the Communist president of Burkina Faso. A slight problem, since she secretly admires Sankara’s idealogy, and is still dealing with the grief of losing her sister. Marie spends the next year getting closer to Sankara, seducing him, and coming to terms with what it takes to take him down.
I hope this list satisfies your thirst for something dangerously thrilling, with enough twists and intrigue to keep you guessing until the very last page. Want more historical thrills? You came to the right place. Keep traveling down that rabbit hole, reader, and see what you find: