Well-written historical mysteries combine the thrill of the chase with an immersive trip to another time and place. Susan Spann, author of the Hiro Hattori novels, understands the excitement history brings to a mystery. Her novels, set in 16th century Japan feature a unique crime-solving duo—a ninja assassin and a Jesuit priest—who join forces to hunt down killers in samurai-era Kyoto… and beyond. Here, she shares her top five historical mysteries.
I love the way historical mysteries let me travel in time, as well as location, to catch a killer. The best ones read like a page-turning thriller, immersing readers in the sights and smells of a different place and time without allowing historical details to overwhelm the excitement of a fast-paced, twisting plot. Here are my top five historical mystery reads, which span the globe as well as the calendar.
Brother William of Baskerville is summoned to an Italian abbey to investigate accusations of heresy, but a series of murders transform his mission into that of a 14th century sleuth. Secret symbols, labyrinths, and coded manuscripts make Umberto Eco’s classic page-turner a must-read for fans of thrillers like The Da Vinci Code.
The stellar opening novel in Annamaria Alfieri’s series is set in early 20th century British East Africa. Fans of The African Queen will love the intrepid Vera McIntosh and her partner in crime-solving, British policeman Justin Tolliver, whose quirky romance blooms as they attempt to discover the truth behind the murder of Vera’s uncle, who was found with a Maasai spear in his back.
Though published in 1951, Josephine Tey’s final novel involves a modern detective’s investigation of King Richard III’s alleged murder of the famed “princes in the tower.” In addition to a fine mystery, and some excellent historical sleuthing, Tey’s masterpiece examines the way the “truth” sometimes depends on who’s telling the tale.
When a samurai woman and an impoverished artist are discovered dead in Kyoto’s Kamo River, the apparent victims of a double suicide, only detective Sano Ichiro suspects foul play. To expose the truth, he must risk his honor and his life. As an author of mysteries set in medieval Japan, I love Laura Joh Rowland’s Sano Ichiro series from start to finish. Readers new to the series will want to start here, at the beginning.
Though shelved in historical fiction, this page-turning debut novel features a unique, dual-timeline retelling of one of history’s most compelling mysteries, and an unexpected answer to what really happened to Anastasia and the heir to the Romanov throne.
Susan Spann is the award-winning author of the Hiro Hattori / Shinobi Mysteries. Betrayal at Iga (Seventh Street Books, July 2017) is the fifth in her acclaimed series featuring ninja detective Hiro Hattori and Portuguese Jesuit Father Mateo. Her debut novel, Claws of the Cat (Minotaur, 2013), was a Library Journal Mystery Debut of the Month and a finalist for the Silver Falchion Award for Best First Novel. Susan has a degree in Asian Studies and a lifelong love of Japanese history and culture. She lives in California with her husband, two cats, and a highly opinionated cockatiel.