In our current technological climate, it’s harder to get away with crimes than ever before. Imagine how easy it would have been before luminol, cell phones, or the internet, though: you could just tell someone a different name from your own, and they’d have almost no way to check it. If you weren’t seen at the site of a murder (or never confessed to it), they’d have, like, zero evidence to convict. Oh man, and if I have to watch another show where the entire plot could have been prevented with a simple text message, I’ll scream.
Still, the limitations of earlier technology make historical crime fiction sort of more fun—after all, with our new progressions (like DNA evidence, for instance), there’s much less mystery. So if you love a period piece or a historical crime drama, check out these books next:
In Victorian London, where traveling sideshows are the very pinnacle of entertainment, there is no more coveted ticket than Ashe and Pretorius' Carnivale of Curiosities. Each performance is a limited engagement, and London's elite boldly dare the dangerous streets of Southwark to witness the Carnivale's astounding assemblage of marvels. For a select few, however, the real show begins behind the curtain. Rumors abound that the show’s proprietor, Aurelius Ashe, is more than an average magician. It's said that for the right price, he can make any wish come true. No one knows the truth of this claim better than Lucien the Lucifer, the Carnivale's star attraction. Born with the ability to create fire, he's dazzled spectators since he was a boy.
When Odilon Rose, one of the most notorious men in London, comes calling with a proposition regarding his young and beautiful charge, Charlotte, Ashe is tempted to refuse. After revealing, however, that Rose holds a secret that threatens the security of the troupe's most vulnerable members, Ashe has no choice but to sign an insidious contract.
The stakes grow higher as Lucien finds himself drawn to Charlotte and her to him, an attraction that spurs a perilous course of events. Grave secrets, recovered horrors, and what it means to be family come to a head in this vividly imagined spectacle—with the lives of all those involved suspended in the balance.
This novel is set in Nazi-occupied Paris, and it follows 72-year-old reformed, queer con artist Clem, as one of said Nazi bureaucrats demands her services: Oskar Voss needs her to recreate a scent only known by the uber-wealthy to help him win Hitler’s favor. This literary historical crime fiction has romance, espionage, haute couture, burlesque performances all from the perspective of an American expat who truly loves Paris. It’s not to be missed—and if you like this book, try Timothy Schaffert’s The Swan Gondola next.
One more for WWII history? Hannah Martel’s fiancé was murdered in his kosher butcher shop in Berlin after the Nazis discovered the resistance printing press in its back room. Hannah escapes to America until her ship gets turned away at the port. She turns to her family in Brussels, only to return to work in a secret resistance, the Sapphire line, in Belgium as well…and that’s when her cousin’s family gets marked for deportation to Auschwitz, and it’s up to Hannah to save them.
Perhaps you heard of the Parisian apartment abandoned on the eve of the Nazi occupation and never opened for 70 years? The owner was a famous courtesan and socialite Marthe de Florain, who kept paying the rent on the place until she died at the age of 91. This book hinges on the secret romance and criminal activity of the urban legend… Susan lives in Boston, but after the deaths of her parents, she comes across a letter from Marthe de Florain to her grandfather about another ancestor’s murder. The book’s plot jumps from its past narrative in the 1930s to Susan searching for answers in present-day Paris… so if you’re a Francophile, you already have two books to add to your TBR.
If you loved The Lost Apothecary, try the author’s next book. It opens in 1873 with our protagonist Lenna Wilkes participating in a séance in a French chateau. Lenna’s sister has just been murdered, but she’s not there to try to contact her through the veil: Evie was an aspiring spiritualist training under this same medium, and Lenna is there for answers to the crime. More drama unfolds when a second murder surfaces, on the same night, no less. It’s a varied perspective novel full of Gothic crime.
Meghan McKenzie has always heard about her great-grandfather’s murder, but no one knows exactly what happened because his body was never found. In 2019, encouraged by the Black Lives Matter movement, Meghan goes to Birmingham, her great-grandfather’s home. In 1929, when he lived, he was a master carpenter with a beautiful life and fancy car who moved to Birmingham for its opportunity… although it was also a Klan stronghold, and still very much segregated. This book, inspired by a true story, is Meghan’s search for the truth behind the tragedy.
In this fantastical historical crime novel, Sherlock Holmes and Henry James team up to solve a mystery. In 1895, Clover Adams (wife to the U.S. historian) has apparently completed suicide, but they suspect homicide might be the case, especially when they recognize a potential motive. On top of this mystery, Holmes has a theory that he might be a fictional character instead of “real,” which makes them both question his problem-solving skills. It’s wacky, but people love it.
What to Read Next
Mary Kay McBrayer is the author of America’s First Female Serial Killer: Jane Toppan and the Making of a Monster. You can find her short works at Oxford American, Narratively, Mental Floss, and FANGORIA, among other publications. She co-hosts Everything Trying to Kill You, the comedy podcast that analyzes your favorite horror movies from the perspectives of women of color. Follow Mary Kay McBrayer on Instagram and Twitter, or check out her author site here.