Crime Thursday: When history and mystery mix

Being a pacifist, I’m not sure why I find it so relaxing to read a good murder mystery. English crime writer P.D. James, in her autobiography Time to Be in Earnest, offers the following explanation for why mystery aficionados enjoy the genre:

“…the catharsis of carefully controlled terror, the bringing of order out of disorder, the reassurance that we live in a comprehensible and moral universe and that, although we may not achieve justice, we can at least achieve an explanation and a solution.”

Like many readers, I enjoy the way a mystery allows me to escape my current surroundings; I especially like mysteries that immerse me in a far-flung historical setting. Here are some of my favorite historical mystery authors:

laws in conflictCora Harrison sets her mysteries in medieval Ireland. Her main character, Mara, is a well-respected female judge who dispenses justice according to the laws of her Celtic ancestors, and is occasionally called upon to solve murders. These cozy mysteries contain fascinating information about ancient Brehon law, and also include beautiful descriptions of the stony landscape of the western coast of Ireland.

Lady Susanna Appleton is a skilled herbalist and amateur sleuth in Kathy Lynn Emerson’s mysteries set in Elizabethan England. At times Lady Appleton must sort out whether a crime is a “simple” murder or a plot to overthrow Queen Elizabeth I. Interesting information about the use of medicinal herbs is threaded through these cozy mysteries.

The Accusers by Lindsey DavisLindsey Davis’s mysteries feature Marcus Didius Falco, a smart, cynical and wry investigator who solves crimes (sometimes with the help of his beloved wife Helena Justina) in ancient Rome. Each mystery immerses the reader in a different facet of Roman history such as the workings of the senate (The Accusers), holiday rituals (Saturnalia) or the aqueduct structure (Three Hands in the Fountain). (The audio books, read by Christian Rodska in a gravelly, bemused British accent, are wonderful!)

Set in Massachusetts Colony on the brink of the American Revolution, Barbara Hamilton’s mysteries feature none other than Abigail Adams as a sleuth. The intelligent and patriotic wife of John Adams investigates various murders and secrets related to the Sons of Liberty and their fight for independence from Britain. These mysteries are filled with historical detail and politics, and are not overly gruesome.

For more reading suggestions, check out this list of historical mysteries selected by Seattle librarians.

What’s your favorite mystery with a historical setting?

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