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All Historical Mystery Coverage

Straddling the line between suspense and historical fiction, Lori Rader-Day’s Death at Greenway is an unsettling murder mystery that gives readers a nuanced look into life on the British homefront during World War II. 

Student nurse Bridget “Bridey” Kelly made a horrible mistake on duty, resulting in the death of an officer in her care. Her only hope for redemption is to take an assignment caring for 10 children who are being evacuated from London and sent to Greenway House, the country home of Agatha Christie. Christie makes only the briefest of appearances, although her library of books on murder makes for a chilling backdrop.

Like the children, Bridey experiences the effects of PTSD, so she struggles to care for them, especially when her fellow nurse, Gigi, proves to be less than enthusiastic (or knowledgeable). From the moment they settle into Greenway House, things feel amiss. Items go missing, and one of the children reports seeing a man lurking outside at night. After a body washes up in the quay, Bridey is asked to help and realizes the victim’s injuries were the result of homicide, not accidental drowning. All the while, the mysterious Gigi’s stories of her life before Greenway House fail to add up. When she goes missing, Bridey knows something foul is afoot.

Told from multiple perspectives (even those of individual children), Rader-Day’s novel is in many ways a portrait of grief and trauma. Each character is suffering due to displacement, rationing and German bombings. There are no real monsters, just people forced into circumstances they never thought possible. Bridey is a particularly compelling character—the reluctant detective, longing to move on with her life, but unable to let sleeping dogs lie.

Far from a cozy mystery, Death at Greenway is as taut as a bow string, with every character capable of snapping at a moment’s notice. 

Far from a cozy mystery, Death at Greenway is as taut as a bow string, with every character capable of snapping at a moment’s notice.

Phryne Fisher fans will fall in love with Kiki Button, the gossip columnist and sleuth of Autumn Leaves, 1922 by Tessa Lunney. While this historical mystery can easily be read as a standalone, odds are readers will immediately seek out Kiki’s first adventure, April in Paris, 1921, after being enchanted by Lunney’s charismatic heroine.

Kiki has returned to her beloved Paris after a year spent sorting through her late mother’s estate in Australia. Kiki is struggling under the weight of her grief, both for the mother she never really understood and for a world that’s still recovering from the traumas of World War I. As a wartime nurse and spy, Kiki personally witnessed indescribable suffering, and those images have stayed with her.

She’s looking forward to returning to her glamorous life, reporting on parties and society scandals, but she finds herself pulled back into the world of espionage by her former handler, Fox. Fox holds evidence that could clear Kiki’s childhood friend and current lover from charges of desertion and treason, and he uses this to force Kiki back into his shadowy world. Using her society connections, Kiki must diffuse a scandal related to the growing fascist movement in Europe, which could implicate the Prince of Wales.

As engaging and suspenseful as Kiki’s mission is, Lunney makes the mystery of the mother Kiki barely knew equally fascinating. As she reads her late mother’s diaries, Kiki realizes that the woman who always seemed cold and distant was actually living a secret life not unlike Kiki’s own.

Kiki rubs shoulders with artists, deposed Russian princes and expats like Ernest Hemingway, all while keeping a bevy of lovers on standby. Seemingly living on a diet consisting solely of cigarettes and champagne, she navigates high society, the bohemian art scene and the Paris underworld with ease. Lunney’s prose is beautifully atmospheric, capturing a collective sense of postwar trauma but also hope as Europe enters a new age.

Phryne Fisher fans will fall in love with Kiki Button, the gossip columnist and sleuth of Autumn Leaves, 1922 by Tessa Lunney.

Set amid the incarceration and subsequent displacement of Japanese Americans during World War II, Clark and Division is as much about communal trauma as it is about the anguish of the Ito family, who are at the story’s center. The grief of the Japanese community in Chicago infuses the atmosphere of this novel, offering a compelling, nuanced tale of loss.

Aki Ito and her family have been in a Japanese incarceration camp in California since shortly after Pearl Harbor was bombed. When the Itos are forced to resettle in Chicago in 1944, Aki’s outgoing, dynamic sister, Rose, is sent to the city a few months before the rest of the family arrives. The unfailingly resilient Rose has endured incarceration with the least visible distress, so Aki is shocked when they arrive in Chicago and find that Rose took her own life two days prior. 

Aki refuses to believe her sister would kill herself, and in between a bleak job search and caring for her now frail parents, she seeks out answers about her sister’s death. Amateur sleuth Aki must navigate her insular community, which is insulated for depressingly good reasons, as well as overt racism from the wider world as she learns that some people would prefer she let the matter rest. 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: How Naomi Hirahara used a crime novel to "cut through to the truth."

Edgar Award-winning author Naomi Hirahara explores trauma on multiple scales in this mystery. On a micro level, Aki struggles to accept the loss of her vibrant sister and watches her father, once a successful businessman, decline into alcoholism. Her family’s home and business back in California have been stolen from them, forcing her parents, deeply proud immigrants, to take whatever jobs they can find. 

On a macro level, everyone in the predominantly Japanese American neighborhood of Clark and Division (named for two nearby streets) is struggling to find their place in a world where they are unfairly seen as the enemy. Some members of the community enlist in the military in order to prove their loyalty to the United States, some turn to crime to earn a living and some are so boxed in by deeply racist socioeconomic structures that they give up entirely.

Yet for Aki, hope is still present, if tarnished. Her journey to make peace with Rose’s death is also a journey to reconcile herself to her new life, while still refusing to forget Rose or their family’s history.

The grief of the World War II-era Japanese community in Chicago infuses the atmosphere of this mystery, offering a compelling, nuanced tale of loss.

In 1942, the rights to Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories passed from 20th Century Fox to Universal Studios. Rather than continue to tell the adventures of Holmes and Watson in their original Victorian setting, Universal had the unorthodox but brilliant idea to bring Holmes and Watson into then-contemporary London, which added a jolt of modernity to Conan Doyle’s work and gave the war-weary British public a chance to see the heroic detective battling the Nazis on the silver screen.

Robert J. Harris’ A Study in Crimson takes its inspiration both from those films and the original stories. The result is a World War II-era adventure in which the iconic sleuth must hunt down a copycat of Jack the Ripper. In this essay, Harris explores how this unique fusion of literature, film and history came to be.

"The name of Sherlock Holmes will always be associated with a hansom cab racing through the fog-bound streets of Victorian London—but suppose he had been born later. Just imagine if he had been there when his country most desperately needed his help."

This is how I might have introduced A Study in Crimson if the concept of Sherlock Holmes in World War II had been my own invention. But it was Universal Pictures who in 1942 brought the detective forward in time in Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror, the first of a classic series of 12 films starring Basil Rathbone. This was done with the full approval and support of the Conan Doyle estate. In fact, Conan Doyle’s son Adrian Conan Doyle declared this to be the best Sherlock Holmes film ever made. One might argue accordingly that these new adventures have much more of a claim to be an official part of the Holmes legacy than many of the other pastiches on the market.

All of this was in my mind when the idea occurred to me of adapting this version of the character for a novel. I grew up watching these films on television, and Basil Rathbone has always been my Sherlock Holmes, with his faithful Watson played by Nigel Bruce. Watching them in later years with my own children, I was struck by how seamlessly the transition from Victorian times to wartime London was made. This was due in great part to the fact that Rathbone and Holmes were already well established as the duo in two earlier Victorian-set movies and a very popular radio series.

In recent years, I have written three novels for younger readers in my Artie Conan Doyle Mysteries. In these, I imagine the young Conan Doyle having a series of adventures that will later inspire the creation of Sherlock Holmes. One of the most important aspects of these stories for me was that the mysteries should be worthy of the great detective himself. This naturally brought to my mind the notion of writing a Sherlock Holmes novel, but what held me back was that there are already so many Holmes pastiches out there, and that unless I had a different approach, there would be little point in my adding another.

Then one day my eye lighted upon my boxed set of the Basil Rathbone Holmes films. The producers, writers and directors of those films had managed to transfer Holmes to the 1940s while still retaining all the qualities that make him so memorable. Would it be possible, I wondered, to do the same thing in a novel?

I was very taken with the idea, but it was some weeks later before I had my plot. I was leafing through a Sherlockian biography of Holmes when I came to a chapter on Jack the Ripper. Holmes and Jack have confronted each other a number of times in books and on screen, and it occurred to me that the blacked-out streets of London provided a perfect setting for a new Ripper, one who called himself Crimson Jack. This would not only present Holmes with a worthy case but would also maintain a strong connection with the character’s Victorian roots.

I hope readers will be hugely entertained by the result, and perhaps even be ready for a further adventure.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of A Study in Crimson.

How a classic film series and a legendary killer inspired Robert J. Harris' new Sherlock Holmes adventure.

Anna Lee Huber always knew that her Lady Darby mysteries, which are set in the 1830s, would eventually reach the cholera epidemic of 1832. What she couldn’t have known was that she’d be writing A Wicked Conceit, in which sleuth Kiera Darby must solve a series of crimes in a disease-stricken Edinburgh, while the COVID-19 pandemic was affecting Huber’s own life.

Illness is nothing new, and neither are epidemics, for that matter. Yet very few of us living in the developed world have experienced a pandemic. We’ve read about them in history books, but we haven’t experienced the strain and uncertainty and immediacy of dealing with one—until now. 

When I first began writing the Lady Darby mysteries and decided to set the first book in August of 1830, I always hoped the series would last long enough for the characters to reach the year 1832. But while I was aware that my characters would eventually have to wrangle with the cholera epidemic that struck Britain beginning in late 1831, I had no idea I would be writing about it while enduring a new pandemic in our time—nor could I have predicted how my own personal experience with a pandemic would inform not only my understanding of the past but also our present predicament.

First I had to confront the methods used for controlling a pandemic and treating disease in 1832 and how they differ from those we utilize today. Our scientific and medical knowledge has progressed immensely in 188 years. For one, we now understand that viruses and infections like cholera are caused by germs and not by miasmas.

In 1832, miasma theory was the predominant medical theory held by the brightest minds of the age to explain how diseases spread. The belief was that bad, noxious air emanating from things like rotting corpses, marshy land areas and other putrid matter actually released vapors that caused people to fall ill. This “influence in the atmosphere” was also believed to afflict those who had weakened themselves by exposure to certain behaviors, places or “exciting causes.” These theories promoted the idea that only people of “irregular habits” should fear diseases like cholera. So in addition to avoiding noxious air, doctors prescribed preventatives that were supposed to keep you from contracting dreaded diseases.

One of the most useful measures was the establishment of the first Central Board of Health, which was based in London with branches in other cities throughout Britain. The World Health Organization and the Center for Disease Control are the modern equivalents of these Boards of Health. Also, much like the regular televised coronavirus briefings held in 2020, the 1832 Central Board of Health published the Cholera Gazette to disseminate information to the public in an organized manner. Broadsides were posted that advised people of what foods to eat, how to clean themselves and their homes, and how to be mindful of the weather and the suitability of their clothing. Buildings in infected areas were even cleaned and whitewashed.

Quarantine measures were rarely recommended because cholera didn’t seem to spread by contagion but by personal contact. Contagionism was a precursor to germ theory, so it conflicted with the accepted concept of miasmatism. Quarantine was unlikely to have been effective anyway because the bacteria that causes cholera is not airborne like the virus that causes COVID-19. We now know that the reason cholera outbreaks kept recurring despite all the Central Board of Health’s efforts was that they failed to address the true source of the disease: open cesspools throughout communities.

It wasn’t until 1854, when Dr. John Snow was able to trace the source of a single cholera outbreak in London to a specific water pump, followed by a decadelong fight for germ theory to overtake miasma theory, that the real cause of cholera was pinpointed and accepted. Once significant sanitation improvements were made and uncontaminated water supplies were created, cholera became largely eradicated from many parts of the world, though areas without these two crucial elements still struggle with the disease.

While writing for an audience now familiar with the masking and social distancing protocols of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was important to communicate the differences in methodology between the medical community of 1832 and today. However, the feelings of dread, fear and misgiving that people experience during such times of crisis were as present in the past as they are today. The desire to make sense of such a calamity, to understand its cause and to draw some sort of meaning from it, was just as strong. 

Some people in 1832 found healthy ways to grapple with these issues and emotions, while others responded with anger and vitriol. Pamphlets from the time railed against people’s sinful natures and called on the government to change laws to save people from their own iniquities, correlating the concept of contagion with the idea that cholera was divine punishment for intemperance and immorality. Others even blamed doctors for allowing or causing people to die of cholera so their bodies would be available for dissection in anatomy schools. This fear ultimately resulted in violent cholera riots throughout Britain and Europe. 

But not everything that can be gleaned from our study of past pandemics is dire or disheartening. In fact, there is great comfort to be found in realizing we have been through difficult times like this before, and we’ll get through them again. Chaos and uncertainty may reign for a time, but humanity will eventually prevail. Science and social understanding will be advanced. We’ll emerge with a better understanding of the past, and hopefully of ourselves and others. As an author, I now have a greater empathy for the characters who inhabit my pages and the misfortunes I inflict on them.

Anna Lee Huber shares what it was like to write about the cholera epidemic of 1832 while the COVID-19 pandemic was affecting her own life.

Hope Adams’ historical mystery, Dangerous Women, has a particularly inspired setting: the Rajah, a British transport ship carrying almost 200 female prisoners to Australia in 1841. In this essay, Adams reveals how the quilt made by the Rajah’s occupants inspired her to write her debut novel.

In 2009, I went to see an exhibition at the Victoria & Albert museum. It was called “Quilts,” and the Rajah Quilt, sent all the way from Australia, was hanging there among the exhibits. It’s a very beautiful piece of work. Beside it was a card detailing its history. I learned that it was made by women convicts under the guidance of a matron, Kezia Hayter. I also discovered that by the end of the three-month-long voyage, Kezia was engaged to be married to the captain of the ship, Charles Ferguson.

I could hardly believe it. If this story were invented, instead of historically true, an editor would say, “That’s too much. That’s too easily ‘happy ever after.’” I decided to write a novel about it then, astonished that it hadn’t been done before, by someone else.

I began to research the story of this voyage. I knew that men were transported to Australia and Tasmania, but did not know that since the late 18th century women had also been sent to the other side of the world.

What must such a voyage have been like? How would it be to find yourself in the middle of the ocean, far from everything you knew and were used to, separated from all those you knew and loved? The crimes that led to transportation were mostly theft, burglary, receiving stolen goods and forgery. The women who committed them often did so at the behest of men. They had scarcely any rights. They were poor for the most part and their crimes were those associated with poverty. Alongside Elizabeth Fry, the famous prison reformer, the real Kezia Hayter had worked tirelessly to improve the lot of prisoners even before she set sail on the Rajah. Her creative oversight of the work on the Rajah Quilt undoubtedly qualifies her to be thought of as an artist.

What must the women convicts’ feelings have been? How would they deal with unfamiliar companions? Who could they trust? Would they make friends? Who would take against them? All the problems experienced by any new prisoner (see “Orange is the New Black”) were going to be much harder to bear on a ship in the middle of the ocean, far away from every single thing they’d been used to.

Conditions on board the convict ships were better by the time Kezia Hayter was appointed to be matron on board the Rajah, but they were still harsh. She was to oversee the welfare of the women and one of the things she did was organize some of the convicts to make what is now known as the Rajah Quilt.

My research was helped enormously by an old school friend of mine, Carolyn Ferguson. She is an expert on the Rajah Quilt and has written extensively about it. She also showed me pictures of every single piece of fabric used in the making of the patchwork, and I’ve used word pictures of these at the top of some chapters.

This voyage of the Rajah is very well-documented. We have the captain’s log and the surgeon superintendent’s log. Kezia Hayter kept a diary. We have a list of the convict women with their names and crimes written down carefully. I have not used those names, because the descendants of these women are still living in Australia and Tasmania. The 1841 voyage of the Rajah was a very peaceful one, without much illness and only one death, from natural causes. I added a thriller element to the story to make it more suspenseful. This is a novel and not a history, so I have also changed somewhat the timeline of the romance between Kezia Hayter and Charles Ferguson.

The idea that more people will learn about Kezia and the others who made the Rajah Quilt by reading Dangerous Women gives me enormous satisfaction. I really hope everyone enjoys it.


Author photo © Hope Adams.

Hope Adams reveals how a quilt made by the occupants of a British prison ship inspired her to write her debut historical mystery, Dangerous Women.

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