Past Intrigue: Historical Mysteries | The Reader’s Shelf

Combining two genres—historical fiction and mystery—these books offer a walk through time and crime, via well-set novels that are abundant in detail, feeling, and clever plots.

terriblebeauty.jpg32017The second in Elly Griffiths’s “Magicsmokemirrors.jpg32017 Men Mysteries” series, Smoke and ­Mirrors (Houghton Harcourt. Oct. 2016. ISBN 9780544527959. $25; ebk. ISBN 9780544527980), reunites Detective Inspector Edgar Stephens with magician and actor Max Mephisto. Edgar is leading a murder investigation in Brighton, England, and Max is starring in the seaside town’s most popular theatrical production. The novel’s opening establishes an atmospheric setting of a cold winter and the tactile impression of small-town English life in the wake of World War II. At its heart, the case is particularly horrid—two grade school children have been murdered and left on view in the snow, surrounded by candy. Using fairy tales and theater, this modern reinterpretation of the Golden Age mystery quickly entangles readers in its coils.

Darktown (Atria. Sept. 2016. ISBN 9781501133862. $26; ebk. ISBN 9781501133886), Thomas Mullen’s gritty and sharp procedural, centers on three officers new to the 1948 Atlanta police department. Lucius Boggs and Tommy Smith are members of the recently established “Negro Police.” The division is issued uniforms and guns but is accorded none of the other privileges of serving on the line. Meanwhile, rookie Dennis Rakestraw, a white man, is paired with one of the most brutal racists on the force (which is saying something). The four are working their beats in the dark hours of the evening when Boggs and Smith have to radio in for aid. The call triggers a cascade of death and powers a story of corruption, hate, and pure nerve as Mullen brilliantly transports readers to the seething landscape of Atlanta.

Sherry Thomas’s sprightly A Study in Scarlet Women (Berkley. Oct. 2016. ISBN 9780425281406. pap. $15; ebk. ISBN 9780698196353) plays on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective and introduces Charlotte Holmes, a woman of powerful mind and great determination. Coming to understand fully her lot in life and the constrained choices of Victorian society, Charlotte boldly removes herself from the marriage market, creating a scandal that eventually launches her career as a sleuth. Separated from her family, she finds the company of helpful characters—with nods to Conan Doyle’s original cast—and becomes a private consultant. The deaths of three aristocratic Londoners provide Charlotte with the perfect opportunity to prove her ­adept mind.

A Terrible Beauty (Minotaur: St. Martin’s. Oct. 2016. ISBN 9781250058270. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9781250106407) is the 11th installment in Tasha Alexander’s “Lady Emily” mysteries. However, it could easily stand alone if librarians are looking for another way into the popular series featuring the many cases of the bright and intrepid Emily. Neatly wrapping up the intervening years with a quick summary and looping back to the day Emily attended her first husband’s funeral, Alexander has that long-lost man return from the grave. It seems he was not dead after all. With her current husband by her side, Emily must figure out what is happening. This series entry, exquisitely set in Greece, offers a tale full of great dialog and archaeological elements.

Originally published in 1994, Caleb Carr’s The Alienist (Random. 2006. ISBN 9780812976144. pap. $17; ebk. ISBN 9781588365408) is being adapted for television, making it a good time to revisit one of the best-known historical crime novels of the last 25 years. In 1896 New York City, the Gilded Age, Theodore Roosevelt has just been appointed police commissioner. To stop a killer, he turns for help to a crime reporter from the New York Times and an alienist (a forerunner to a modern-day criminal psychologist). A crew of others, including a secretary in the police department, joins them as they work to apprehend the murderer. Carr’s plot is fiendish, and his depiction of the city—and all levels of its society—is downright sumptuous.

If mystery fans are just a bit worn out by the past, librarians should suggest ­Magpie Murders (Harper. Jun. 2017. ISBN 9780062645227. $27.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062645241) by Anthony Horowitz. Taking place in two time periods, the novel is first presented as a manuscript of a cozy 1950s English whodunit, while the second half details a present-day parallel mystery. It is the kind of book that quickly captures one’s attention and refuses to let go. ­Horowitz has demonstrated his writing chops with very popular books such as his Sherlock Holmes and James Bond titles and is the creator of TV shows like Foyle’s War, proving he knows his way around well-conceived characters, a gripping narrative, and fine locales.

Neal Wyatt compiles LJ’s online feature Wyatt’s World and is the author of The Readers’ Advisory Guide to Nonfiction (ALA Editions, 2007). She is a collection development and readers’ advisory librarian from Virginia. Those interested in contributing to The Reader’s Shelf should contact her directly at

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Neal Wyatt About Neal Wyatt

Neal Wyatt compiles LJ's online feature Wyatt's World and is the author of The Readers' Advisory Guide to Nonfiction (ALA Editions, 2007). She is a collection development and readers' advisory librarian from Virginia. Those interested in contributing to The Reader's Shelf should contact her directly at