Let’s face it — before the Victorian era, there were no such things as detectives, solving crime in the distant past, Philip Marlowe-style. But crime fiction readers are perfectly happy to accept the notion that there were proto-sleuths in every era – particularly when they are as winningly written as the four talents below. And one woman is generally recognised as kick-starting the genre…

Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael Peters first introduced readers to her brilliant medieval sleuth Brother Cadfael in A Morbid Taste for Bones in 1977, the inaugural novel in the long-running Cadfael Chronicles. Peters helped bring about the birth of the modern historical crime novel, and lent her name to its most prestigious prize. Over twenty books, the intuitive Benedictine monk (a former soldier who has rejected the secular world for a life of prayer) was a plausible if unlikely detective figure. (A Morbid Taste for Bones, Sphere)

CJ Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake Sansom’s lengthy, energetic and fastidiously organised novels featuring the canny hunchbacked lawyer Matthew Shardlake are catnip those who seek something a little more challenging in the field. Many of Sansom’s books (such as the Dagger Award-winning Dark Fire) are genuinely epic in their scale, and Tudor England leaps off the page. (Dark Fire, Pan)

Peter Tremayne’s Sister Fidelma The vividly written Sister Fidelma books of Peter Tremayne are now something of an institution. Their real achievement lies not just in Tremayne’s convincing us that a resourceful, strong-minded nun might behave in the manner of a modern-day detective in seventh-century Ireland, but would even have a kind of freedom in the non-ecclesiastical world of that distant era. Typically entertaining is The Dove of Death, set in 670 AD, in which Fidelma brings to justice the murderer of a prince. (The Dove of Death, Headline) 

Jason Goodwin’s Yashim In terms of unlikely historical detectives, Jason Goodwin’s 1830s Ottoman sleuth Yashim takes some beating – not least as he is a eunuch (although one who has more forcefulness than readers might associate with someone so disadvantaged). But that’s only one element of the novelty that Goodwin brings to such books as The Janissary Tree, set in Istanbul and crammed with fascinating detail. The author studied Byzantine history at Cambridge and knows his subject. (The Janissary Tree, Faber)

Bernard Knight’s Sir John de Wolfe In 12th century Exeter, Bernard Knight’s county coroner Sir John de Wolfe demonstrates the author’s mastery of a crucial sleight-of-hand of the genre: refracting ancient sensibilities through anachronistic modern modes of speech – a skill he has demonstrated throughout his considerable body of work. One of his best books is The Noble Outlaw in which a school is in the process of being renovated when a mummified body is discovered in the rafters. Astute historical detail, ingenious plotting. (The Noble Outlaw, Simon & Schuster) 

Historical Noir by Barry Forshaw is published by Pocket Essentials/Oldcastle Books


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