historical thrillers

I’ve been trying to come up with a list of historical thrillers that have been commercially successful, but I haven’t got very far.

The Name of the Rose, The Alienist … there must be others that have hung on the best seller list for a while. I can think of quite a few novels that deserve to be read more widely than they are, but that’s not what I need at this moment in time. I can also come up with a couple alternative history thrillers — Fatherland, for example, that is set in Europe thirty years after Hitler won WWII.

Usually thrillers have a murder in there somewhere, but are otherwise known for fairly quick action and lots of twists. And often a really distinct primary (good guy) character with a lot of personality. Sometimes this kind of story is based on actual events. Sort of historical fictionalized true crime.

Can you think of any? That is, a novel set in the past (pre WWII) that enjoyed a lot of commercial success. At this moment I’m not worried about critical success.

9 Replies to “historical thrillers”

  1. I don’t know if these had a lot of commercial success, but I enjoyed Ariana Franklin’s Mistress of the Art of Death books–also not sure if they really would be categorized as “thrillers” (which I don’t typically read), but there is murder, mystery, threats on the protagonists life… does that count? I just read Forever by Pete Hammill which was a NY Times best seller, again not really a big “thriller” but murder, revenge, etc, all tied in with fantasy/magical realism, spanning 1700s to modern day. I just searched B&N for historical thrillers and the Ken Follett books (Pillars of the Earth and World Without End) came up–both are on my must read list but I haven’t gotten to them yet, so I can’t vouch for whether or not they are true thrillers but they certainly had success. Oh, and one of my favorites, Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks… about the plague, set in the 1600s, again, not a straight out “thriller” (who dun it was the plague! but they were trying to figure out how it spread) but definitely twists and turns and who is “good” turns out to be not so “good”. Hope that helps some, if you haven’t read Year of Wonders I really really liked it a lot, one of my top reads.

  2. Kim — I love Ariana Franklin’s work (also her books written under her own name, Diana Norman). But I don’t think they could be called huge commercial successes. They deserve to be, certainly.

    Year of Wonders didn’t work so well for me (here my commentary).

    1. I get what you mean about the 180 he does, I remember that seemed a bit “much”. I think I liked the main character and the topic so much that I was able to look past that though. I also think this is the first historical fiction novel I read that was set in the middle ages and I found that aspect fascinating. Beyond that, I don’t remember too much, I probably read it shortly after it was published. Did you read her newer book, People of the Book? I did not like it as well, felt the characterization was not handled as smoothly as it could have been, but the story itself and the way it unfolds I thought was pretty creative.

  3. The Perfume by Patrick Süsskind would fit your description and it was a global success.

  4. Here are some historical thrillers that I think were commercially successful. Some of these are WWII era, though.

    The Great Train Robbery – Michael Crichton
    The Garden of Beasts – Jeffrey Deaver (Berlin in 1936)
    The Catch Trap – Marion Zimmer Bradley (Circus life & homosexuality in 1940s)
    An Instance of the Fingerpost – Ian Pears
    The Bone Garden – Tess Gerritson
    Two O’ Clock Eastern Wartime – John Dunning (Radio announcing in 1940s)
    The Bookman’s Promise – John Dunning (not a historical thriller but has historical elements)
    Day of the Jackal – Frederick Forsyth (De Gaulle assassination attempt)

  5. Here are some. Maybe they’ll meet your criteria.
    Bruce Alexander, Sir John Fielding series, 18th C London
    Rhys Bowen, Molly Murphy series, early 20th C New York
    Carola Dunn, Daisy Dalrymple series, 20 C pre-WWI England
    Diana Gabaldon, Lord John series, 18th C England
    Charles Palliser, Quincunx, 19th C England
    Sharon Kay Penman, Justin deQuincy series, 12th C England
    Ellis Peters, Brother Cadfael series, 12th C England
    Martin Cruz Smith, Rose, 19thC England

  6. Would the Sherlock Homes books count?
    My only other offering would be Ken Folet’s “Pillars of The earth,” one of my all time favourites. I think it contains all the required elements, but still maybe it is not a thriller in the true sense of the genre. Still one of the best books I ever read though.

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