Murder Room Guide: Historical Fiction

There’s something undeniably magnetic about a historical crime thriller: the gaslight, the horses and carriages and the ‘orrible murders. The past contains so many places we long to visit, and is so heavy with its own mythology and stories, that we feel as if we’ve known them all our lives.

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And this is largely thanks to the fiction of the age that we still read today, whether it’s Jane Austen, Arthur Conan Doyle or Rudyard Kipling. It’s a tradition that is also kept alive by the many brilliant historical fiction authors of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

It would be wrong of us not to start with a classic: if you’re a fan of Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes (maybe you’ve even read Moriarty by Anthony Horowitz) then you can complete your set and revisit the detective of all detectives again in The Secret Cases of Sherlock Holmes by Donald Thomas. Seven new cases that were kept under lock and key at the Public Record Office in Chancery Lane have come to light – seven cases that were too scandalous for the Victorian Age.

Under the pseudonym Francis Selwyn, Donald Thomas is also the author of the fantastic Sergeant Verity series (we’d start with the first, Sergeant Verity and the Cracksman). Nowhere near as smart as his Baker Street colleague, Sergeant Verity, working for Scotland Yard’s ‘Private Clothes Detail’, investigates the grim criminal underworld of Victorian London. What he lacks in smarts he makes up for in stubbornness as he attempts to stop a major crime in the making led by his cunning adversary Lieutenant Dacre, cavalry officer, woman-beater and gentleman cracksman. You can’t better it for Dickensian ambience and the dialogue of the criminal underworld.

For those of you who like a touch of the macabre about their historical thrillers, something that Daphne du Maurier made her own, we have Screams from a Penny Dreadful by Joan Fleming. When Mr Stanroyd is found hanged in his own mill, his three young daughters are forced to realise that they are now mill-owners, a position quite unbecoming to a Victorian young lady. The eldest, the enchanting and redoubtable Severel, confides her hopes and fears – and the strange course of events – to her diary. Who killed whom? Which of the three girls married? Which of them was so shocked that she was deprived of speech? What happened to Uncle Eli and to raffish Cousin Bertie from Australia? And who hanged dear Papa?

Fans of Victorian crime novels and of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher will love Scandal at High Chimneys by John Dickson Carr, the man Agatha Christie described as ‘King of the Art of Misdirection’. Here Mr Whicher arrives to take on the mysterious puzzle of the murder of Matthew Damon, shot by a mysterious ghost-like figure who vanished immediately afterwards. You’ll kick yourself for not figuring it out before the end.