a couple of years ago

Top 10 historical mysteries and thrillers reviewed here (plus more than 100 others)

historical mysteries and thrillers: The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

I admit it. I have a special weakness for historical mysteries and thrillers. The following list of nearly 200 such novels will certainly prove the point. They’re divided into three sections, beginning with my selection of the top 10 standalone novels. Immediately below that section are the four dozen books in 13 series of historical mysteries and thrillers reviewed on this site (including only those series in which I’ve read at least three books). The other four dozen individual titles follow further below. Within each section, the books are listed in alphabetical order by the authors’ last names.

Many of the titles in the series listed below might individually qualify for the list of my favorites, but I’ve arbitrarily chosen to omit them. Although I’ve loved reading the books in nearly all these series, I confess that Olen Steinhauer’s Yalta Boulevard cycle is my favorite among them.

Please note that I’m including here only those historical mysteries and thrillers reviewed on this site that have been written long after the events described. For example, even though such novels as A Coffin for Dimitrios by Eric Ambler or many of the works of Ross Thomas concern events that are now long in the past, they were written either at or shortly after the time portrayed. I’ve also attempted to avoid those that refer to historical events through flashbacks. (If I’d included those titles as well, this list would be considerably longer.)

This post was updated on April 6, 2021.

The top 10 standalone historical mysteries and thrillers reviewed here

Running the Rift by Naomi Benaron – A brilliant novel of love, hope, and the Rwanda genocide

The Rwanda genocide is the central event in Running the Rift, a remarkable novel that tells the story of a young Tutsi man, Nkuba Jean Patrick, a supremely talented runner who aspires to compete in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. The tale begins when Jean Patrick is a boy just beginning to detect his gift, and it explores his life, and the reality he experienced, in the years of increasing violence in the late 1980s and early 1990s, through the terrible trials of 1994, and for several years afterward. Read the review.

The Devils of Cardona by Matthew Carr – A gripping historical thriller set in 16th-century Spain

This gripping historical thriller is set in 1594, more than a century after Ferdinand and Isabella set in motion the Spanish Inquisition. Six years earlier, the English had destroyed the Spanish Armada with the aid of a massive storm. But Spain still reigned as the world’s most powerful nation. The Spanish Empire covered all of Central and South America, much of North America and the Caribbean, a wide swath of North Africa, the Netherlands, the Kingdom of Naples, and a chunk of Central Europe. And throughout Spain and the New World territories, the Inquisition competed with civil authorities for supremacy. This is the historical backdrop to Matthew Carr’s engrossing and well-researched new novel. Read the review.

The Historians by Cecilia Ekbäck—A spellbinding WWII thriller set in neutral Sweden

1943. Sweden. In a Sami village in the country’s far north, a region called Lappland, a thirteen-year-old girl goes missing while setting traps for rabbits near an iron mine. She is far from the first of her tribe to vanish on the mountain. Meanwhile, the daughter of the foreman at that mine, a university graduate student in history, is brutally tortured and murdered in the distant south. Her best friend, now employed in a trusted government post, sets out to learn who killed her. And the personal secretary to the Minister of Foreign Affairs uncovers evidence indicating that his boss is involved in secret discussions he is desperate to cover up. These are the three tracks along which this exceedingly clever and compelling WWII thriller winds its way to a conclusion. Read the review.

The Trinity Six by Charles Cumming – A stellar new spy story

Much of the latter-day literature of espionage is based, directly or indirectly, on the notorious Cambridge Five—young, bright Cambridge men seduced by the lure of Communism as undergraduates during the tumultuous 1930s who spied for the Soviet Union during World War II. Their defection to the USSR following the war created what was arguably the greatest spy scandal in modern history. For many years thereafter, rumors of a “sixth man” continued to roil the waters of the British Secret Intelligence Service. The Trinity Six relates an ingenious story about that sixth man and his longer and even more consequential career. Read the review.

The Plague of Doves by Louise Erdrich – Tragedy, on and off the reservation

Just try to imagine a novel that encompasses all these elements: a lynching on an Indian reservation, a young woman’s lesbian awakening, a man’s kidnapping of his wife, a multiple murder, a collection of rare postage stamps, a dim-witted Catholic priest, a rape, a twisted messianic preacher, a valuable violin, a woman’s murder of her husband, a tragic automobile crash, and an extended stay in a mental hospital. If a novel is a work of fiction in which “something happens,” as Joseph Heller once suggested, Louise Erdrich’s novel, The Plague of Doves, has the makings of at least a dozen books. Yet somehow it all works, through the magic of Erdrich’s surpassing genius. Read the review.

An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris – The Dreyfus Affair, reenacted in a suspenseful spy novel

The Dreyfus Affair. In the closing years of the nineteenth century and for decades thereafter, that notorious case was seen as indelible a stain on the veneer of European civilization as the Holocaust came to represent a half-century later. A Jewish officer in the French Army was convicted of treason on trumped-up charges and relegated to solitary confinement on the notorious Devil’s Island for several years before a courageous fellow officer uncovered the truth and, with the help of the country’s most famous writer, forced it onto the consciousness of an unhappy nation. Dreyfus was only exonerated and restored to the rank of major in the French Army in 1906, twelve years after his conviction. Robert Harris retells the story as a tale of espionage that’s hard to put down. Read the review.

The Eagle Has Landed by Jack Higgins – A classic espionage thriller that’s well worth rereading

The Eagle Has Landed introduces Liam Devlin, a fast-talking agent for the Irish Republican Army, who is featured in three of Higgins’ subsequent thrillers. Though nominally about espionage, as the story revolves around an imaginary plot by the Nazi military intelligence agency, the Abwehr, in 1943, the novel is more properly a thriller, action-filled virtually from the beginning to the end. The principal characters in The Eagle Has Landed include two accurately rendered real-life leaders of the Third Reich, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, head of the Abwehr, and Heinrich Himmler, leader of the SS and widely regarded as heir apparent to Adolf Hitler. Read the review.

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver – Leon Trotsky, Diego Rivera, and the Red Scare

The protagonist of The Lacuna is Harrison Shepherd, a writer of best-selling historical romance novels set in the empires of the Aztecs and the Maya. Born shortly after World War I, son of a minor American federal official and a desperate Mexican woman who sees him as a mealticket, Shepherd crosses borders to become a first-hand witness to the Bonus Army march and encampment in Washington under Herbert Hoover, the rise to fame of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, the assassination of Leon Trotsky, and the slow, painful unfolding of the Red Scare that seized hold of the United States in the early years of the Cold War. The Lacuna is crammed with unforgettable portraits of historic figures, including Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, and Leon Trotsky. Read the review.

The Debba by Avner Mandelman – A superb novel digs for roots in Israel’s modern history

The Debba, though framed as a murder mystery (and an excellent one at that), is a serious fictional inquiry into this roots of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the view of its author, Avner Mandelman, it’s also an examination of “necessary evil,” the manipulations and assassinations and kidnappings that governments carry out in the name of national security. Mandelman, a short-story writer who divides his time among Canada, California, and Paris, was born in Israel and served in the Israeli Air Force in the 1967 Six Days’ War that established the boundaries within which Israel allegedly lives today. He is well qualified to explore both questions. Read the review.

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen – The Vietnam War through Vietnamese eyes

The Sympathizer opens in April 1975 as troops of the North Vietnamese army and the National Liberation Front (Viet Cong) are closing in on Saigon. The remnants of the American mission and many thousands of South Vietnamese officials and other collaborators are frantically fighting to claim the few remaining spaces on American airplanes available for the evacuation. In the midst of this chaos we meet the narrator, a captain in the South Vietnamese army. He introduces himself this way in the opening line of his account: “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.” He is, in fact, the Sympathizer of the title—a secret agent of the NLF actually living in the home of the General who commands the South Vietnamese security police, the Special Branch. Read the review.

Four dozen books in 13 series of historical mysteries and thrillers reviewed on this site

The John Madden series by Rennie Airth, set in England between the wars:

Benjamin Black’s Quirke series set in 1950s Dublin:

The Hannah Vogel novels by Rebecca Cantrell set in Nazi Germany:

The Night Soldiers novels of Alan Furst set in WWII-era Europe:

The Alex Gerlis spy stories set in Europe during World War II:

Joseph Kanon’s post-WWII novels of espionage:

Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series set in the World War II era:

The Wyndham and Banerjee series by Abir Mukherjee, set in 1920s Calcutta

Ellis Peters’s Brother Cadfael series, set in 12th-century England:

The Captain Alexei Korolev novels by William Ryan, set in Stalin’s Soviet Union:

The Yalta Boulevard cycle from Olen Steinhauer, portraying Central Europe under Communism:

Paul Vidich’s engaging historical spy novels:

The William Catesby series by Edward Wilson, set in Cold War Britain:

Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs novels set in England between the world wars:

Four dozen other historical mysteries and thrillers reviewed here

Other historical mysteries and thrillers in series:

Snow by John Banville—John Banville launches a new detective series

The Second Rider (Inspector Emmerich #1) by Alex Beer—The debut of a rewarding series of detective novels set in Vienna after World War I

Three Hours in Paris by Cara Black—A suspenseful World War II espionage thriller set in Paris

To Shield the Queen (Ursula Blanchard #1) by Fiona Buckley—A worthy murder mystery set in the court of Queen Elizabeth I

His Bloody Project: Documents Relating to the Case of Roderick Macrae by Graeme Macrae Burnet—An unreliable narrator explains three brutal murders in 19th century Scotland

The Hot Country (Christopher Marlowe Cobb #1) by Robert Olen Butler—American vs German spies in the Mexican Revolution

The Star of Istanbul (Christopher Marlowe Cobb #2) by Robert Olen Butler—An American spy in World War I takes on the German Empire

The Alienist (Dr. Laszlo Kreizler #1) by Caleb Carr – In a classic whydunit, The Alienist makes his debut

Murder by Misrule (Francis Bacon Mystery #1) by Anna Castle—A lawyer is murdered in the Elizabethan Age

Death by Disputation (Francis Bacon #2) by Anna Castle—Religious conflict in Elizabethan England fuels this gripping spy story

The Coroner’s Lunch (Dr. Siri Paiboun #1) by Colin Cotterill – A murder mystery set in Communist Laos in the 1970s

The Rat Catchers’ Olympics (Dr. Siri Paiboun #12), by Colin Cotterill – Dr. Siri Paiboun and the rat catchers at the 1980 Moscow Olympics

The Spanish Game (Alec Milius #2) by Charles Cumming – Intrigue and romance in Madrid in the waning days of Basque terrorism

Berlin Game (Bernard Samson #1) by Len Deighton—A classic novel of Cold War espionage reminiscent of John le Carré

A Prisoner in Malta (Christopher Marlowe #1) by Phillip DePoy—A delightful historical mystery novel starring Christopher Marlowe

Jack of Spies (Jack McColl #1) by David Downing – The “Jack of Spies” was no James Bond

Lenin’s Roller Coaster (Jack McColl #3) by David Downing – A novelist revisits the Russian Revolution

Fellowship of Fear (Gideon Oliver #1) by Aaron Elkins – Soviet spies on the loose, with an anthropologist to the rescue?

The Gods of Gotham (Timothy Wilde #1) by Lyndsay Faye – The first cops in old New York star in a thrilling historical novel

The Laws of Murder (Charles Lenox #8) by Charles Finch – An engaging detective series set in Victorian London

Prince of Spies (Richard Prince #1) by Alex Gerlis—British spies and the Nazi V-2 rocket

The Ways of the World (James Maxted #1) by Robert Goddard – A superb novel of espionage set in 1919 Paris

The Bellini Card (Inspector Yashim #3) by Jason Goodwin – A very odd couple solves murders in this historical novel

Conspirata (Ancient Rome Trilogy #2) by Robert Harris – Ancient Rome, before the fall

Jade Dragon Mountain (Li Du #1) by Elsa Hart—An intriguing murder mystery set in 18th century China

Eye of the Storm (Sean Dillon #1) by Jack Higgins – Reimagining Saddam Hussein’s role in history

Thunder Point (Sean Dillon #2) by Jack Higgins – One of Jack Higgins’ best thrillers

Touch the Devil (Liam Devlin #2) by Jack Higgins (Harry Patterson) – The IRA, the KGB, MI5, and the Corsican mob all conflict

Luciano’s Luck by Jack Higgins (Harry Patterson)—Fact and fiction about the Mafia and the WWII Allied invasion of Sicily

The Valhalla Exchange by Jack Higgins—Jack Higgins imagines Martin Bormann on the run

Death of a Dissident (Inspector Porfiry Rostnikov #1) by Stuart M. Kaminsky—A grim murder mystery set in the USSR

Black Knight in Red Square (Inspector Porfiry Rostnikov #2) by Stuart M. Kaminsky—The collapse of the USSR is underway in this detective novel

Death in Shanghai (Inspector Danilov #1) by M. J. Lee — In a grim historical thriller, a serial killer strikes in 1920s Shanghai

Live by Night (Coughlin #2) by Dennis Lehane – A thoughtful, action-packed crime story

World Gone By (Coughlin #3) by Dennis Lehane – Suspenseful historical fiction that’s hard to put down

A Conspiracy of Paper (Benjamin Weaver #1) by David LissFinancial skullduggery in 18th century England in this historical thriller

A Spectacle of Corruption (Benjamin Weaver #2) by David Liss—Rampant political corruption in 18th century England

Black Water Rising (Jay Porter #1) by Attica Locke—Corporate crime and political corruption dominate this promising debut

The Salzburg Connection by Helen MacInnes — Nazis, Communists, and Western spies clash in this classic spy novel

The Widows of Malabar Hill (Perveen Mistry #1) by Sujata Massey—The first woman lawyer in Bombay solves a baffling mystery

The Satapur Moonstone (Perveen Mistry #2) by Sujata Massey—A murder mystery set in colonial India highlights the princely states

Devil in a Blue Dress (Easy Rawlins #1) by Walter Mosley—The suspenseful first Easy Rawlins detective novel

Heresy (Giordano Bruno #1) by S. J. Parris—An historical spy thriller in the Elizabethan Age

An Echo of Murder (William Monk #23) by Anne Perry – Ritual murder and Hungarian émigrés in 1870 London

A Tale of Two Murders (A Dickens of a Crime #1) by Heather Redmond – Charles Dickens falls in love in “A Tale of Two Murders”

Girl Waits with Gun (Miss Kopp #1) by Amy Stewart – She was the country’s first female deputy sheriff

Lady Cop Makes Trouble (Miss Kopp #2) by Amy Stewart—A real lady cop a century ago in an excellent fact-based crime novel

A Test of Wills (Inspector Ian Rutledge #1) by Charles Todd – Before PTSD, there was “shell shock”

Search the Dark (Inspector Ian Rutledge #3) by Charles Todd – A British detective novel that doesn’t measure up

The Chinese Maze Murders (Judge Dee #1) by Robert van Gulik – A fascinating Chinese detective novel

Other standalone historical mysteries and thrillers:

November Road by Lou Berney – A desperate woman, a passel of gangsters and JFK’s assassination

Wolf on a String by Benjamin Black – A murder mystery set in the Holy Roman Empire

The Secret Guests by Benjamin Black—Booker Award winner Benjamin Black returns to historical fiction

The Mandela Plot by Kenneth Bonert – A novel about the anti-apartheid struggle

A Single Spy by William Christie – A Soviet spy in Nazi Germany

Frog Music by Emma Donoghue – Unforgettable characters in 19th century San Francisco

Exposure by Helen Dunmore – Gay life in 1960s Britain in a suspenseful thriller

The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy—A classic crime novel about LA’s unsolved Black Dahlia murder

The Malice of Fortune by Michael Ennis – Niccolo Machiavelli, private eye

A Tip for the Hangman by Allison Epstein—This historical spy story ignores history

High Crimes by Joseph Finder – A taut thriller about Special Forces running amok in El Salvador in 1983

The List by Martin Fletcher – A suspenseful tale of Holocaust survivors in post-war London

The Eye of the Needle by Ken Follett—The 40th anniversary edition of Ken Follett’s classic WWII spy novel

Long Time Coming by Robert Goddard – A tale rooted in the brutal Belgian Congo

The Reckoning by John Grisham – John Grisham digs deeply into history with this excellent WWII novel

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah – A deeply affecting novel of the French Resistance

Munich by Robert Harris – Why Neville Chamberlain went to Munich

V2 by Robert Harris—A WWII thriller about Nazi “vengeance weapons”

Shake Off by Mischa Hiller – Behind the First Intifada

The Increment by David Ignatius – A gripping novel about Iran and the CIA

Agents of Innocence by David Ignatius—The CIA and the PLO in Cold War Beirut

A Map of Betrayal by Ha Jin – Betrayal is in the eye of the beholder

The Accomplice by Joseph Kanon—Hunting Nazis in Argentina

Who Is Vera Kelly? by Rosalie Knecht – A puzzling spy story set in Argentina in the time of the generals

High Dive by Jonathan Lee – Irish terrorists attempted to kill Margaret Thatcher (for real)

The Lady in the Lake by Laura Lippman—Laura Lippman’s shifting point of view in her latest novel

A Conspiracy of Paper by David Liss – Financial skullduggery in 18th century England in this historical thriller

The Cutting Season by Attica Locke—Attica Locke’s brilliant second mystery novel

Watergate by Thomas Mallon – Watergate through a novelist’s eyes

Bodyguard of Deception by Samuel Marquis – Propulsive action in a tale of World War II espionage

The Darwin Affair by Tim Mason—When Charles Darwin threatened the stability of English society

Jack 1939 by Francine Mathews – Young John F. Kennedy stars in a spy thriller

Too Bad to Die by Francine Mathews – Ian Fleming stars in this delightful spy story worthy of James Bond

Tightrope by Simon Mawer – A well-written novel about World War II British espionage

Prague Spring by Simon Mawer—A tale of love and espionage during Prague Spring

The Long Drop by Denise Mina – A courtroom drama set in Glasgow in the 50s

The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee – The human toll of social change

City of Secrets by Stewart O’Nan – Inside the fight for Israeli independence

The Strivers’ Row Spy (Renaissance #1) by Jason Overstreet—African-American history comes to life in this engaging spy novel

The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott—Doctor Zhivago and the women in the CIA typing pool

Red April by Santiago Roncagliolo—The brutal legacy of terrorism in the Andes

The Book of Aron by Jim Shepherd – A brilliant novel of the Warsaw Ghetto

Provisionally Yours by Antanas Sileika—A fascinating spy story set in Lithuania following World War I

The Constable’s Tale: A Novel of Colonial America by Donald Smith – A clever detective novel set in Colonial America

The Girl from Venice by Martin Cruz Smith – Film stars, partisans, and Nazi generals in 1945 Italy

December 6 by Martin Cruz Smith—A standalone novel from the author of the Arkady Renko stories

The Farm by Tom Rob Smith – A thriller that simply wasn’t very exciting

The Singapore Wink by Ross Thomas – An engaging novel of crime and espionage set in 1960s Singapore

An Honorable Man by Paul Vidich – The Cold War, the early CIA, and the McCarthy Era

The Good Assassin by Paul Vidich – A compelling spy novel set during the Cuban Revolution

The Coldest Warrior by Paul Vidich – Project MK-Ultra and the scientist who fell to his death

The Wages of Sin by Kaite Walsh – A Victorian-era murder mystery set in Edinburgh

For more reading

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For an abundance of great mystery stories, go to 200 suspenseful detective novels, including the top 20.

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