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The Historical Mystery Genre

What is a Historical Mystery?

A historical mystery is defined as any mystery that is set more than 50 years prior to the publication of the book. That means a book written today about the 1960s is a historical mystery. An Agatha Christie novel written in 1960 is not a historical novel.

The book can fall in any era or any country. The historical mystery can be hard-boiled or cozy with a private eye or an older woman who sits in her cave. The breadth of the category is staggering, and many readers enjoy learning something about a bygone era while being entertained.

The only downside to a historical is that people know how the story ends. If the story uses any real events or real people in the narrative, then the reader will know the outcome. If the outcome varies from recorded history, then the novel becomes an alternative universe novel.

Historical Mystery Characteristics

  • Level of Characterization

    There's a certain level of characterization that must exist in a historical. Since the people of an earlier era did not possess the same perspective as people living in the current day, those differences must be explained either in dialogue or thoughts to the reader. Southern people in 1859 thought slavery was okay. In Victorian Times, women had very few rights.

  • Level of Plot

    Plot is a major part of any historical novel. The action has been set in an earlier time for a reason. The plot will be dependent on many factors that are appropriate for that time. The Reformation was not a great time to be Catholic, so the murder of a priest might be more expected – and the sleuth will need to figure out who committed the crime.

  • Level of Mystery

    The level of mystery is high. There is more thinking and deducing going on in a historical mystery, because the characters don't have access to DNA and modern forensics. A character in ancient Rome has only what his eyes and ears can learn.

  • Level of Suspense

    The level of suspense can vary greatly. The mysteries can be somewhat cozy or may impact the fate of the nation. In one historical, the villains want to blow up the newly built Brooklyn Bridge, and the heroes must stop them.

  • Level of Thriller

    Historical mysteries can take place at the highest levels of government and affect world politics. Presidents and Kings can be threatened and wars might occur because of the acts of these rogues.

  • Level of Strangeness

    These books can feel strange at times, because real-life characters can be added as background or as main characters in the work. Any action by these people are fiction and not real.

  • Level of Violence

    The level of violence can vary drastically. The books may be cozy to the point of being bloodless or can be awash in blood and guts.

  • Level of Action

    The level of action can vary as well. The books can be traditional whodunits with more focus on deductive reasoning or hardboiled shoot-em-ups.

  • Degree of Thriller, Suspense, Crime, or Mystery in this the Historical Mystery Subgenre

    The books are all over the place. They all can be classified as mysteries, but they can easily fit into the thriller category, depending on who is involved and the stakes of the crime. They can be suspenseful with timelines that must be met to stave off disaster. They can also be beautifully written, and many are, using the lyrical language of an earlier day.

Related MYSTERY Subgenres



  • Murder Mystery. Many of these books have a murder to be solved as the plot motivator.


    Puzzle Mysteries. Historical mysteries can easily be puzzle plots since they don't rely on modern technology.

  • Romantic Mysteries. There's a lot of kissy-kissy in the annals of history and in historical mysteries.

Historical Mystery isn't for you IF...

like current technologies, sleuths who can use CSI, cell phones to keep people from getting into bad situations and the like

Popular Historical Mystery Books