William Ryan's favourite historical crime novels

The best historical crime fiction books, as chosen by William Ryan, author of The Constant Soldier.

21/08/2016
2 minutes to read

The best historical crime novels, as chosen by William Ryan, author of The Constant Soldier, a thrilling tale of survival set against the final bitter weeks of the Nazi regime. 

Dark Fire

by C. J. Sansom

Book cover for 9781447285847

Sansom is an excellent purveyor of Tudor historical mischief-solving but in his second novel, Dark Fire, he excelled even himself.

Shardlake, his hunchback lawyer hero, is our guide through a tortuous, twisting investigation on behalf of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s Vicar-general and right-hand man. Highly recommended.

The Snake Stone

by Jason Goodwin

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Jason Goodwin is, above all, a very fine writer - but when you combine that with a fascinating central character, a eunuch called Yashim, and an even more fascinating location, 1830s Istanbul, then you’re looking at historical crime gold. When you add in Yashim’s culinary achievements, it moves to a whole different level of excellence. The Snake Stone is my favourite of the five Yashim novels but they’re all excellent.

The Devil in the Marshalsea

by Antonia Hodgson

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When Thomas Hawkins is thrown into the Marshalsea prison for unpaid debts, it’s the start of a brilliant, witty and thrilling Georgian whodunit that leaves you wanting just a little bit more. So it’s just as well that Hodgson has written two further novels in the series with, hopefully, more to come. 

Beekeeper

by J. Robert Janes

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Janes’ Kohler and St Cyr series is a bit of a hidden gem. Janes published twelve novels between 1992 and 2002, of which Beekeeper is the eleventh and for those of us who have followed the adventures of German detective Kohler and his french partner St Cyr through the labyrinthine complexities of Nazi-occupied France, Janes’ decision to start writing them again in 2012 was very welcome. You might have to hunt them out – but they’re worth it.

The Maze of Cadiz

by Aly Monroe

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In this, Monroe’s first novel, a young British spy called Peter Cotton is sent to Cadiz to deal with a rogue colleague – except that when he arrives, he finds that the colleague is dead. Monroe’s evocation of Franco’s Spain and Cadiz, a town where she lived for some time, is dreamlike and other-worldly and Cotton’s own role is often ambiguous even, it seems, to him. It’s a splendid spy novel and well worth a look.


William Ryan is part of the team behind First Mondays, a monthly evening of crime fiction held at City University, London. Tickets, special guests and further information available here.

The Constant Soldier

Book cover for 9781447255062

1944. Paul Brandt, a soldier in the German army, returns wounded and ashamed from the bloody chaos of the Eastern front to find his village home much changed and existing in the dark shadow of an SS rest hut – a luxurious retreat for those who manage the concentration camps, run with the help of a small group of female prisoners who – against all odds – have so far survived the war.

When, by chance, Brandt glimpses one of these prisoners, he realizes that he must find a way to access the hut. For inside is the woman to whom his fate has been tied since their arrest five years before, and now he must do all he can to protect her.

But as the Russian offensive moves ever closer, the days of this rest hut and its SS inhabitants are numbered. And while hope – for Brandt and the female prisoners – grows tantalizingly close, the danger too is now greater than ever.

And, in a forest to the east, a young female Soviet tank driver awaits her orders to advance . . .