Authors of historical fiction often pluck their characters from the historical record, imagining how they might have spoken and acted in life. Other writers, probably those with an aversion to the drudgery of documentary research, avoid using historical figures as characters, other than for cameo appearances. Writers of historical genre fiction—especially science fiction and mysteries & suspense—face the same choice. But those who opt to include people out of history as characters in their novels have written some of the most engaging works I’ve read in their fields.
In this post, I’ll focus simply on the writers who have put historical figures to work as detectives. I’ve enjoyed every one of these books. (All but one are novels.) The characters named below are listed in the chronological order of their namesakes’ lives.
Famous people as detectives: Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527)
The Malice of Fortune by Michael Ennis — Niccolo Machiavelli, private eye
This historical novel, framed as a murder mystery in which Machiavelli plays the part of the detective, lays out the basis on which he wrote The Prince and illuminates his relationship with Cesare Borgia, known widely then as Duke Valentino, the subject of that famous book, The Prince. The Malice of Fortune is based on historian and journalist Michael Ennis’ intensive research into primary sources, its characters and the events it portrays all solidly grounded in historical evidence.
Famous people as detectives: Giordano Bruno (1548-1600)
Heresy (Giordano Bruno #1) by S. J. Parris—An historical spy thriller in the Elizabethan Age
Britain during the reign of Elizabeth I (1533-1603) was wracked by turmoil and intrigue rooted in doctrinal differences between the newly independent Church of England and the deeply entrenched forces of Catholicism. To root out the many conspiracies mounted by her foreign and domestic enemies, the Queen’s principal private secretary, Sir Francis Walsingham (1532-90) operated an extensive network of spies. And in S. J. Parris‘s engaging historical spy thriller, Heresy, Walsingham recruits the famed Italian philosopher and mathematician Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) to spy on the dons of Oxford University during the time he spent on the island as a fugitive from the Inquisition.
Famous people as detectives: Francis Bacon (1561-1626)
Murder by Misrule (Francis Bacon Mystery #1) by Anna Castle—A lawyer is murdered in the Elizabethan Age
In centuries to come, Francis Bacon came to be widely regarded as the father of the scientific method. A lawyer as well as a philosopher and statesman, he became the first person designated as Queen’s Counsel when Elizabeth I named him as her legal advisor in 1597. Later, under James I (James VI of Scotland), he was knighted and served successively as Attorney General of England and Wales and as Lord High Chancellor. Given his eminence as a methodical thinker, it’s not far-fetched to imagine him as the protagonist of the six Francis Bacon mysteries. Murder by Misrule is the first.
Death by Disputation (Francis Bacon #2) by Anna Castle—Religious conflict in Elizabethan England fuels this gripping spy story
There is no lack of religious conflict in today’s world. Hindus against Muslims. Sunni vs. Shia. Christians and Jews squaring off against Muslims. But it’s hard to find anything today to surpass the sheer complexity of the festering three-way collision of incompatible faiths in sixteenth-century England. Then, barely half a century after Henry VIII pulled the Church of England out of Rome’s orbit, the established Protestant church battled several varieties of more extreme Protestants as well as the remnants of the large and wealthy Catholic population that for so long had ruled over the land. And this contentious scene is the backdrop for the second entry in Anna Castle’s beautifully crafted Francis Bacon mystery series. The novel, a murder mystery that broadens into a suspenseful, high-stakes spy story, revolves around this religious conflict as it plays itself out in the shadow of England’s approaching rendezvous with the Spanish Armada.
Famous people as detectives: Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593)
A Prisoner in Malta (Christopher Marlowe #1) by Phillip DePoy — A delightful historical mystery novel starring Christopher Marlowe
In this fast-moving historical mystery novel featuring Christopher Marlowe, the 19-year-old poet and playwright swashes buckles with the best of them. Naturally, he comes out on top (since this is, after all, the first book in a series). But Kit Marlowe isn’t the only character seized from the pages of history. The book is crammed with historical figures, including the man to whom the term “spymaster” was first applied: Sir Francis Walsingham.
A Tip for the Hangman by Allison Epstein—This historical spy story ignores history
Christopher Marlowe is a graduate student at the University of Cambridge in 1585 when he receives a surprise visitor from London. It’s none other than Francis Walsingham, Secretary of State to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth I. Walsingham operates a spy network and presses Marlowe into enlisting. It’s a perfect beginning for an historical spy story. Although Marlowe operates as a spy, he is in a true sense a detective. And there are enough murders in this tale to satisfy the most bloodthirsty mystery and thriller fan.
Famous people as detectives: Charles Dickens (1812-1870)
A Tale of Two Murders (A Dickens of a Tale) by Heather Raymond — Charles Dickens falls in love
Given his commitment to social reform, his ability to mix with people of all social classes, and his acute powers of observation, it’s not too much of a stretch to think that young Charles Dickens might have become involved in a murder investigation. After all, violence was ever-present in Victorian London. In any case, that’s the conceit of Heather Raymond’s charming novel A Tale of Two Murders, starring Dickens at age 22.
Famous people as detectives: Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919)
The Alienist by Caleb Carr — In a classic whydunit, The Alienist makes his debut
Theodore Roosevelt plays an important role in The Alienist in a serial killer investigation in New York City. The action takes place just months before he was to be named Assistant Secretary of the Navy by William McKinley, whose running mate he would become four years later. Roosevelt had served in the New York State Assembly, where he caused a ruckus, and on the Civil Service Commission in Washington, DC, a job in which he also made more enemies than friends. In 1896, he served as President of the New York City Board of Police Commissioners under a reform Mayor. Carr expertly portrays the enormous political pressures on Roosevelt as he attempted to introduce honesty and modern police methods to a notoriously corrupt and inept force.
Famous people as detectives: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930)
Conan Doyle for the Defense: The True Story of a Sensational British Murder, a Quest for Justice, and the World’s Most Famous Detective Writer by Margalit Fox — How Sherlock Holmes foreshadowed today’s “scientific detecting”
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle brought to bear the same “scientific detecting” skills he had written about in the Sherlock Holmes stories in two high-profile court cases—two of the most notorious miscarriages of justice in Edwardian Britain. The case at the heart of Margalit Fox’s riveting new book, Conan Doyle for the Defense, “involved a patrician [murder] victim, stolen diamonds, a transatlantic manhunt, and a cunning maidservant who knew far more than she could ever be persuaded to tell.” An innocent man was convicted of the crime in 1909. Conan Doyle’s on-and-off efforts to free him spanned nearly two decades. He succeeded at length “with little more than minute observation and rigorous logic” in a truly Holmesian display of scientific detecting.
Famous people as detectives: Ian Fleming (1908-1964)
Too Bad to Die by Francine Mathews – Ian Fleming stars in this delightful spy story worthy of James Bond
Imagine an espionage novel starring Ian Fleming, Winston Churchill, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Alan Turing, Josef Stalin, Lavrenti Beria, Churchill’s daughter and daughter-in-law, one of Roosevelt’s sons, and a passel of other recognizable characters thrown together at a fateful time in 1943. Oh, and you might add James Bond to the mix. In this delightfully wicked novel, American crime and espionage writer Francine Mathews builds on known facts about the high-powered people who figure in the story — and imagines them as they might have reacted to a Nazi assassination plot directed against Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin.
Famous people as detectives: Groucho Marx (1890-1977)
Groucho Marx Master Detective (Groucho Marx Mysteries #1) by Ron Goulart — Sherlock Holmes, meet Groucho Marx, Master Detective
Here’s the ultimate wisecracking detective, and, yes, it’s Groucho Marx, in person. If you’re a fan of the Marx Brothers classics of the 1930s—Duck Soup, A Night at the Opera, Horsefeathers, Animal Crackers, and the others—you’ll love this fast-paced romp through the dark side of Hollywood. In Groucho Marx Master Detective, prolific novelist and popular culture historian Ron Goulart shows off his ability to mimic the irrepressible jokester. The novel is the first of six in a series that Goulart wrote between 1998 and 2005 featuring Groucho in a role that would cause Philip Marlowe to blush.
Groucho Marx, Private Eye (Groucho Marx Mysteries #2) by Ron Goulart — The comedian solves a baffling murder
Groucho’s wit was based on his matchless ability to turn any question or any statement into a string of non sequiturs. So any author who would dare to capture him between the covers of a book would certainly need a far above average facility with the English language. Clearly, Ron Goulart has that. In Groucho Marx, Private Eye, he reproduces Groucho’s seemingly inimitable patter on the page with letter-perfect skill. Fortunately, Goulart wrote six Groucho Marx detective novels between 1998 and 2005. So far, I’ve read only the first two, but I’m looking forward to more.
Elementary, My Dear Groucho (Groucho Marx Mysteries #3) by Ron Goulart — Groucho Marx versus Sherlock Holmes: guess who wins
Every self-respecting film buff is well acquainted with the Marx Brothers. Both Duck Soup and A Night at the Opera are among the top twelve comic films selected by the American Film Institute, and three others they made join them in the top 100. There were five brothers. But of all five, the only one who built a successful career on television was Groucho. You Bet Your Life, the quiz show that showcased him, ran on radio and TV from 1947 to 1961. With his obvious intelligence and wildly imaginative non sequiturs, he was a natural for the printed page as well. And popular historian and novelist Ron Goulart does him proud in the six Groucho Marx Mysteries published from 1998 to 2005.
Groucho Marx and the Broadway Murders (Groucho Marx Mysteries #4) by Ron Goulart—Groucho Marx solves two baffling murders
As the title suggests, much of the action in this novel takes place in New York. But the story is firmly grounded in Hollywood, where the tale begins. Groucho and his Dr. Watson, scriptwriter Frank Denby, are kidnapped and hustled to the lair of Vincent Salerno, “head of mob gambling in Southern California.” The gangster wants them to find out who murdered his henchman, Nick Sanantonio. But both Groucho and Nate, for different reasons, are scheduled to leave for New York and are forced to decline the worrisome invitation. Somehow, they get away with that.
Groucho Marx, Secret Agent (Groucho Marx Mysteries #5) by Ron Goulart—Groucho Marx exposes Nazi spies in Hollywood
In Groucho Marx, Secret Agent, the fifth book in the series, Groucho and his sidekick, scriptwriter Frank Denby, become immersed in the effort to root out Nazi spies in Hollywood. The year is 1939, and war had come to Europe with the German invasion of Poland. Hollywood was host to a long list of illustrious German emigrés (Bertolt Brecht, Thomas Mann, Arnold Schoenberg) and among them, and in the German Consulate in Los Angeles, there were believed to be many Gestapo spies. This often hilarious novel spotlights the murder of a Hollywood director who turns out not to be the man people thought he was. It’s all about German espionage in LA’s other major industry — airplane production — and sleuthing by Groucho and his Watson stand-in to expose the spies at work there. If you’re looking for something light to read, you should enjoy this clever little story.
Groucho Marx, King of the Jungle (Groucho Marx Mysteries #6) by Ron Goulart—Groucho Marx solves another baffling murder
In the sixth and final entry in Ron Goulart‘s series of Groucho Marx Mysteries, the irrepressible comedian and his trusty sidekick and scriptwriter, Frank Denby, once again wander into the thicket of Hollywood studio politics to investigate a murder.
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You might also enjoy my post Mysteries set in Elizabethan England.
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