One of my deficits as a reader of literary and crime fiction is that I am unable to read books set very far in the past. It seems too much of the text is taken up with the presentation of arcane material on how people lived in that time.
As a former history major, I am embarrassed at this failing.
Is there a series or even a single book that does this job very well, balancing crime and a evocation of the time period? I would like to read something different this summer and maybe this is the time for historical fiction. I am talking about a book set before 1900 and probably even earlier. Thanks.

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Patricia,

I read two books this year that I thought were terrific historical mysteries. I will tell you, it seems that half the people that read these titles loved them, and the other half quit. So, it's a matter of taste.

I liked Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin, set in 1171 in England. I appreciated the historical aspects, including the role of the female forensics investigator, and the role of Richard III. Some people objected to the treatment of children. For me, it was a part of history, so I could read it.

I also enjoyed Silent in the Grave by Deanna Raybourn, set in 1886 in London. Some felt there were too many historical details in this book. I read the book quickly, and thought it just flew by. I appreciated the historical details.

Hopefully, someone will suggest the right book for you! Keep us posted as to what you read, and what you enjoy!
The very best historicals I've read, ever, are being written by CJ Sansom. Titles so far in his series are Dissolution, Dark Fire, and Sovereign. The last I've had trouble getting here (they're published in England first). Set during the period when Cromwell was Henry VIII's minister, and the main character is a lawyer.

Any time a historical novel is written in a way that jerks you out of the story just to stick the period stuff in, I wouldn't feel bad about putting it aside or even throwing it against the wall. The story always comes first, always.
While I've been suffering in the dentist's chair today, you guys have been thinking. Now which great suggestion to start with. Thanks so much.
The late Kate Ross had a good series set in 1820's Britain about a character named Julian Kestrel. Very Beau Brummel type. Worth reading IMHO.
I am fond of Barbara Hambly's Benjamin January series, about a free man of color in New Orleans in the early 1800's.

Laura Joh Rowland's Sano Ichiro series set in Japan during the late 1600's.

Also, Margaret Lawrence's midwife Hannah Trevor series set in New England immediately after the Revolutionary War.
I think you could do a lot worse than picking up some of the Sherlock Holmes stuff itself, to be honest. It's hard not to evoke a time-period when one is writing contemporaneously, and it has the added benefit of not patronising the audience with frequent, tiresome and utterly superfluous references to the everyday lives of Those Wacky People From The Past. When Holmes distractedly sits down for a good hard think, with a pile of the very best shag, he expects you to know what he's talking about.

Conan Doyle's stuff tends to be treated with a certain amount of snobbery these day - "oh, eeeeeveryone's read that..." - but if you haven't already, you'll discover that some of the Holmes tales really are frighteningly clever. If you find yourself wading through the entire collection you slowly begin to detect a formula which spoils some of the later stuff, but for sheer intellectual originality you can't beat the first dozen or so stories.

As a writer, they make me yearn for the days when DNA, fingerprints and ballistic markings were a long, looong way off. In fact, I think that's probably true of a lot of period crime fiction: in the absence of modern technology and technique, the emphasis is more often on cleverness and observation than on procedure.
Writing inside the historical time solves a lot of the problems. You don't call attention to the things around you because you don't need to. People down the road just have to figure it out--and that's part of the charm. Unfortunately this is rare since the novel is a farly recent invention.
I certainly agree with your statement about forensic information being a long way off made books stronger in other areas. Setting a book fifty years ago is easier.
My favorite series is by Robert Van Gulik. He was a Dutch diplomat stationed in China and Japan and also a scholar. His Judge Dee books are wonderful.
OH, I used to read him years ago. He was very good.
Victoria Thompson writes nice 1890s/early 1900s cozies in the "Murder On" series, and I really enjoyed Caleb Carr's THE ALIENIST. I've yet to read the follow-up; I'm waiting for some good, summer quiet time for that one. Also, Anne Perry covers Victorian England nicely. Daphne Du Maurier wrote historicals as well as contemporaries in her time, and even though they're not pre-1900, Patricia Highsmith chills me every time.

I'm mostly interested in early twentieth century writing, so I can't help much pre-1880s.
I enjoy Sharan Newman's Catherine Levendeur series set in 12th century France. I can also add my recommendation to some that have already been mentioned - CJ Sansom, Katherine Ross and Ellis Peters.
I'd add to the votes for John Maddox Roberts' SPQR series, Robert van Gulik's Judge Dee, and THE ALIENIST. Eliza, the social context of the investigation in Carr's THE ANGEL OF DARKNESS seemed to me to be much less believable than ALIENIST.

I recommend Alan Gordon again. His Fools Guild from around 1200 didn't exist -- probably ;-) -- but it "doesn't exist" in a way that sits the reader down in the surroundings simply because his hero is there. I'll make an exception of the first book, THIRTEENTH NIGHT. It is based more on Shakespeare's play than on history.

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