Historical detective novels

(Inspired by the Roman books thread)

As a history buff in need of some light reading, I’ve read some Roman detective novels, by Lindsey Davies and Steven Saylor, and a look at Amazon reveals there is at least one more series out there, but reviews say it’s not true enough to the source.

What is your favorite series of historical detective novels? When are they set? Are they accurate enough that they won’t make the purist angry? How are the portrayals of real life figures?

The “Judge Dee” mysteries by Van Gulik.

Set in ancient China, it describes the Chinese legal system, & is based on actual practises & cases.

Van Gulik was an expert on Chinese culture, & it is very top drawer.



is a good place to begin.

Don’t forget “The Name of the Rose” by Umberto Eco.

Steven Saylor is incredibly accurate. And a damned good read. I am very underwhelmed with Lindsay Davis.

Barbara Hambly has a good series set in the early 1800s in New Orleans just after France sold it to the US. She captures the culture shock of that period extremely well. As well as her detective is “a free man of color” there is the black white conflict and she does a very good job with it.

Peter Tremayne writes some very good stories set in the late 600s in Ireland. Sister Fidelma is a Catholic nun and a dalaigh, an advocate of the law courts. The stories are witty, exciting and a good read. They also accurately portray the chaos of the Dark Ages and the order that some peoples carved out for themselves. And few people realize the level of culture Ireland had at that time.

Edward D Hoch is an amazingly proflific writer! Unfortunately few of his stories have been gathered into anthologies. The Sam Hawthorne stories take place during the period between the two WOrld Wars. They are less about the time period than the mystery but I think are none the less accurate.

The “Brother Cadfael”( 13th century England) stories, by Ellis Peters , are a good read. It helps though to keep the Derek Jacobi series in mind, should you have been so fortunate to have seen it. Steven Saylor’s books are well-researched, gives a real sense of time and place, the characters are believable[his core group appear in each novel] and the continuity is seamless.

How could I forget Brother Cadfael! I have all of the books… or atleast nearly all of them!

I second Judge Dee.

Name of the Rose was good… I skipped over most of the theology though, I have Eco’s new one Baudolino in a stack to be read.

John Maddox Roberts and his SPQR series are good. It is set in late Repoublican period of Rome,(the same period as Saylor’s) whereas Lindsey Davis’ Marcus Didius Falco is set a couple of generations later, when Vespasian was emperor. I like both series, for different reasons. I buy the Falco series from Amazon UK, because they get published over there way in advance of here in the USA, and I’m too impatient to wait.

I honestly can’t say these books are accurate, but I can say that they feel accurate. Few glaring anachronisms, for example.

Death Comes as Epiphany, by Sharan Newman. About a novice who gets caught up in medieval French politics when she goes to the convent founded by Peter Abelard. Abelard and Heloise are both handled in believable ways, though I don’t know enough of the period to say if they are 100% accurate. This is the first in a series. I’ve only read this one. Much more charming than you might expect.

“Dame Frevisse” mysteries by Margaret Frazer. Dame Frevisse is a nun in medieval England. These books are fascinating, with enough detail about life in medieval times to be really neat. Dryer than the Newman books, though.

Candace Robb’s “Owen Archer” mysteries. I seem to be establishing a theme, here. Medieval England, Archer is Welsh. I’ve only read one (A Spy for the Redeemer) but was impressed by the complexity of the story. A Spy is late in the series, so I was very confused at times. I’d strongly recommend starting at the beginning. Archer does encounter some real historical figures, but none who are famous enough that you’d probably find anything wrong in their portrayal.

Sally Wright’s “Ben Reese” mysteries. Not so far in the past, but so darned good. These are set in the 60’s and Wright is definitely channeling Dorothy L. Sayers. Excellent books.

I love Elizabeth Peters, so I enjoy her “Amelia Peabody” series, but I don’t think I’d ever claim they are historically accurate. Peters is a real Egyptologist, though.

Speaking of Egypt, PC Doherty has a series set in ancient Egypt with a sleuth called Amerotke who is, if I remember correctly, a judge. I thought the story was interesting but, again if I remember correctly, the writing was a bit dull. Like so many people, I find Egypt fascinating, so a good series set there/then would be lovely.

Hope this helps.


I meant to second this recommendation. These books are very good, very atmospheric, and will have you swatting at clouds of non-existent mosquitos as you read. What a climate. Bleaugh.


I rather like Stephanie Barron’s mysteries, with Jane Austen as an amateur detective in Bath, Lyme, Portsmouth, and various country houses around southern England. The historical detail seems decent, particularly in matching up where Austen was and what she was doing in real life with when the murders she investigates in the books occurred.

I’ll second the recommendatoins for John Maddox Roberts (though they’re more thrillers than mysteries) and van Gulik.

I agree. Davis (sorry for the misspelling in the OP) seems more concerned with the mystery rather than the historical backdrop, whereas with Saylor they’re blended together perfectly. Also, Saylor has a way of including real people without being cliché about it, while Davis’s characters are mostly fictional. Nothing wrong with that, but I prefer Saylor. I’ve also seen him interviewed on several cable Roman documentaries and he seems properly knowledgeable.

Gallows Thief by Bernard Cornwell is set in London during the early 1800’s. A former calvary officer desperate for income takes a temporary commission to investigate a murder. The mystery aspect isn’t as good as it might have been since the protagonist has no idea at all how to conduct an investigation. So it’s sort of an adventure/mystery. Not surprising, since Cornwell is primarily known for his Sharpe’s Rifles series. He did get obsessive about the exact details of how hangings were conducted during this period. This book isn’t up to Saylor’s standard though.

Anyone who love’s Saylor’s books would probably like Dorothy Dunnet’s two historical series, Lymond and Niccolo. The focus isn’t on mystery, but you get the same kind of vibrant characters and rich, accurate detail. And all that intrigue is a great substitute for mystery.