The unmissable best historical thrillers, including at least a few you haven’t heard of
1. Enigma. Robert Harris.
A thrilling dramatization of the British battle to break German codes during World War II. It’s tough to say whether this is better than Harris’s Archangel — in fact, I think it’s probably not — but this is set entirely in a historical period, whereas Archangel takes place in the present (with a couple of characters who might be said to be living in the past). So I’m including Enigma here.
2. The Coffee Trader. David Liss.
Liss is the premier writer of crime fiction set during the early modern period. Here he takes on the Inquisition and Jewish life in Holland, in a story that revolves around the newly introduced, mind-bending drug known as coffee.
3. The Alienist. Caleb Carr
When I first read The Alienist, I was living in Manhattan in my twenties. Naturally I was out on the town most of the time. So I only got to read late at night before bed. This was a very poor choice of book for those circumstances. I’m not ashamed to reveal that I used to put out the light and dive under the covers to hide, haunted by the tale of gruesome murders in 1896 New York. It might’ve been the drugs, but I think it was because of the book. Quite the scariest thing I’ve ever read, it also introduces early stages of forensic science to the plot.
4. Cain His Brother. Anne Perry
The best of Perry’s Monk series, set in Victorian London. A disturbing story of brothers engaged in dreadful deeds that reminds me of the Strange Case of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde in its conjoining of tormented psychology with depraved city.
5. The Silence. J. Sydney Jones
In this marvelous novel the real mayor of Vienna at the onset of the twentieth century, Karl Lueger, is at the heart of a conspiracy to raise big money from the sale of the Vienna Woods and at the same time to gain political capital by blaming Jewish property developers for the destruction of the city’s beloved green belt. It’s a measure of Jones’s skill as a writer that, while his hero is a lawyer-turned-investigator of Jewish origin, the novel’s Jews are not really better or worse than the society around them. They aren’t portrayed as poor saintly victims. They’re simply part of Jones’s Vienna, as they were part of historical Vienna. There’s also a youthful role for little Ludwig Wittgenstein. For lovers of Sherlock Holmes, you can’t go wrong with Jones.
6. The Athenian Murders. Jose Carlos Somoza
A deeply engaging story told by the ancient Greek translator of a still more ancient Greek manuscript. The manuscript is a murder mystery. The translator becomes entangled in the mystery. Philosophy ensues… It won the CWA Gold dagger a dozen years ago.
7. Sandman. J. Robert Janes
Janes’s series set in World War II revolves around a French police detective and his colleague from the Gestapo. Like the other novels, this one is highly elliptical — a perfect reflection of the delicate line these two investigators must tread if they aren’t to fall foul of the Nazi rulers of Paris.
8. Morality Play. Barry Unsworth
Medieval actors create a play about a murder recently solved in the northern English town where they’re staying. As they perform the play, they realize the wrong person has been found guilty. One of the greatest books by Unsworth, who died last year and whose ability to capture a moment or a character in a phrase is unparalleled in recent literature.
9. The Bridge of Sighs. Olen Steinhauer
The first of Steinhauer’s terrific series chronicling the Communist decades of eastern Europe. The restraint with which he writes — and his characters behave — truly does make this a very Le Carre experience. (I know it’s pretty common to say that this or that writer is “the new Le Carre.” It seems to me that Le Carre himself stopped being “Le Carre” a few decades ago. Maybe he transmigrated into these early books by Steinhauer…)
10. Ragtime in Simla. Barbara Cleverley
Set in 1922 in Simla, the summer retreat of the British in India, Cleverley exposes the seamy underside of what was at the time the Jewel in the Crown.