First off, no, these are not mysteries you read once a month. “Period mysteries” are mystery stories that are set in the past. Another term for them is “historical mysteries,” but I’ve never liked that description because it sounds like they are based on actual events.
My love for fantasy is pretty well documented by now, but when I am not traversing magical lands, I really like a good murder. I blame it on watching too much Scooby Doo growing up. I am particularly fond of Victorian mysteries; the ones I like best are well researched and full of details about life in the pre-electric age, which I find fascinating. And since the social rules for women were so strict, there are ample opportunities for ladies to rebel and defy convention. I do love ladies defying convention.
And so, here are a few of my favorite mystery series set in days gone by:
I have a whole shelf devoted to my Anne Perry books. If you are looking for something that will keep you busy for a while, she’s got you covered. Her first series features Thomas and Charlotte Pitt and starts with The Cater Street Hangman. (I’m sorry, I can’t do this without a mini-spoiler.) Thomas is a police inspector sent to investigate a series of murders on Charlotte’s street (all the books in the Thomas Pitt series have street names in their title), and the two of them end up falling in love even though she is well above him class-wise. The Pitt books are fairly straightforward, classic murder mysteries but they also explore the differences in class structure in Victorian England. Charlotte marries beneath her station, the police were not well thought of back then, but her sister marries above her station. Especially in the first few books, Perry explores the different roles of women as the two sisters adjust to their new lives.
Her other Victorian series is the William Monk novels. These start with Face of a Stranger, where William Monk wakes up on page one with amnesia. He figures out that he is a police detective, but he is afraid to tell anyone that he can’t remember who he is. He actually realizes that he doesn’t like who he was very much as he learns more about his past while trying to solve a nobleman’s murder. In this first book, he meets Hester Latterly, a nurse who has recently returned from the Crimean war. Hester is pretty awesome, and they develop a sort of love/hate relationship based on irritated respect. The Monk books are a little more psychological than the Pitt novels. In these, Perry delves deeper into the motivations and emotions of both the killers and the victims. It can make them a bit more unsettling, but also more thrilling.
The Robin Paige Victorian Mysteries (you can tell they really put some thought into this series title) are a lot lighter than Anne Perry. If the Thomas Pitt books are like Law and Order, and the Monk books are like Law and Order: Criminal Intent, then the Robin Paige books are like Murder, She Wrote. They are charming and exciting and fun to read. The series starts with Death at Bishop’s Keep, where we meet our plucky heroine Kate Ardleigh, a young woman from a poor American family who is invited to England to work as a secretary for her well-to-do aunt. Much like my beloved Jessica Fletcher, you may not want to hang out with Kate too much because people seem to die wherever she goes. But don’t worry, she always finds her man. And she’s also a writer! Before getting the letter from her long-lost aunt, she was supporting herself by writing penny-dreadfuls (or shilling-shockers, now that she’s across the pond) and she sees no reason to stop just because circumstances have changed. Along with the mysteries and relationship stuff (because where would we be without a love interest or two?) Paige explores the technological advances that began to blossom around the late 1800s. There’s fingerprints, cars and balloons, even some electricity. I love these books and I have reread them many times, even though I usually remember who did it about half way through.
Victoria Thompson’s Gaslight Mysteries are awesome. They take place in New York around the turn of the century and feature Sarah Brandt and Detective Frank Malloy. Sarah grew up a wealthy young woman, but after a family tragedy she decides to leave her family and become a midwife. At the time of the first book, Murder on Astor Place, she has been a widow, supporting herself as a midwife, for a few years. Frank Malloy is a decent man, who has hardened himself to get ahead in a police force that is more corrupt than most of the criminals they bust. Sarah brings out the best in him, and he really hates it. Thompson’s books are chock full of New York history, from people and places to medical and technological developments. I appreciate the fact that, if she changes a detail to fit the story, she will note it in the afterword. And her murders are pretty unpredictable. About halfway through the first book, I started to guess how it could end, but I thought “Surely she won’t go there with this.” She did go there. She went there and pretty far beyond. Sometime I can guess who the murderer is without peeking, but about half the time I am completely surprised.