Discover new authors (or revisit old favorites) with The Poisoned Martini ‘s Recommended Reads. Perhaps these suggested titles will expand your reading list.
Real People, Fictional Sleuths!
Several authors have given new life to renowned individuals—many of them authors in their own right—by chronicling their fictional exploits as amateur sleuths. Think of it as alternate histories or perhaps heretofore unknown episodes in the lives of these famous—and in a few cases, infamous—individuals.
Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor by Stephanie Barron (1996) – Binghampton, NY native Francine Stephanie Barron Mathews presents famous author Jane Austen (1775 – 1817) as an amateur sleuth. There are thirteen entries in this long-running series at present, the most recent being Jane and the Waterloo Map (2016). In the series debut, Jane visits the estate of her friend, Isobel Payne, Countess of Scargrave, who is accused of poisoning her husband and having an adulterous affair with the man’s nephew.
Oscar Wilde and a Death of No Importance by Gyles Brandreth (2007) – In this first entry, also known as Oscar Wilde and the Candlelight Murders, the notorious author of The Picture of Dorian Gray and A Woman of No Importance investigates the murder of a young artist’s model with the help of none other than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes. The most recent – and perhaps last – in the series is Oscar Wilde and the Murders at Reading Gaol (2012).
Cursed in the Act by Raymond Buckland (2014) – Though perhaps best known for his books on Wicca, author Buckland turned to the realm of fiction with this mystery featuring the creator of Dracula, Bram Stoker (1847 – 1912). As business manager for London’s Lyceum Theatre, Stoker is faced with the murder of an understudy and a nefarious plot to shut down a production of Hamlet. Followed by book two, Dead of for a Spell in October 2014.
Murder on the Cliffs by Joanna Challis (2009) – Echoing a famous opening line, this debut mystery begins, “The storm led me to Padthaway.” Daphne du Maurier (1907 – 1989), author of Rebecca, is our narrator in this fictional account of a beautiful woman found dead on the cliffs of Cornwall. Followed by Peril at Somner House (2010) and The Villa of Death (2011).
Death to Spies by Quinn Fawcett (2002) – Authors Chelsea Quinn Yarbro and Bill Fawcett team up to imagine a scenario in which Ian Fleming (1908 – 1964) continued his service as a British spy. In this debut, Fleming travels to Los Alamos on the hunt for the truth behind purloined nuclear secrets, moles, and a missing and presumed dead British Intelligence agent. Followed by Siren Song (2003) and Honor Among Spies (2014).
Lone Star by Ed Ifkovic (2009) – The author of Giant and Showboat, Edna Ferber (1885 – 1968) sets aside her writing to become an amateur sleuth in seven mysteries to date. In her first outing, she’s at Warner Brothers Studio where her Texas oil epic is being filmed. When an actress is murdered, film star James Dean comes under suspicion and Edna investigates the dark side of Hollywood. The series’ most recent title is Cold Morning (2016).
Benjamin Franklin Takes the Case by Robert Lee Hall (1988) – Author, printer, inventor, scientist, diplomat, and Founding Father Benjamin Franklin (1705 – 1790) adds sleuth to his resume in this fictional mystery, the first in a series of six books. Using the conceit of “found papers”, Robert Lee Hall relates the story of his ancestor Nick Handy, who served as an assistant to Franklin during his time in London and recorded their adventures. Their first case is the murder of printer.
In the City of Dark Waters by Jane Jakeman (2014) – Escaping from scandal and rumor, impressionist painter Claude Monet (1840 – 1926) is drawn into murder once again. While in Venice, a Count is murdered following an investigation into the papers of a recently deceased relative, but the man’s death may have a connection to the demise of Monet’s brother-in-law. Follows the series’ debut In the Kingdom of Mists (2002).
The Mosaic Crimes by Giulio Leoni (2008) – Descend into the depths of Florence’s past as Dante Alighieri (1265 – 1321), before he penned his Inferno, investigates the death of an artist found murdered at the foot of an unfinished mosaic. What secret may have been revealed had the mosaicist lived? The first of five books by Italian professor/author Leoni although only the first three books have been translated into English.
Murder Your Darlings by J. J. Murphy (2011) – Dorothy Parker (1893 – 1967) discovers a drama critic stabbed to death with a pen in the first Algonquin Round Table mystery. She and members of the legendary literary club come under suspicion and set about to outwit the culprit. There are three books and two short stories comprising this series; the latest title is A Friendly Game of Murder (2012).
Thoreau at Devil’s Perch by B. B. Oak (2011) – In the first of three books (to date), famed transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau (1817 – 1862) leaves the seclusion of Walden Pond to investigate an injustice. A young black men’s death is passed off as an accident even though it was clear he was dead long before he “fell” off Devil’s Perch. The most recent title in the series is Thoreau in Phantom Bog (2015).
Murder in the East Room by Elliott Roosevelt (1993) – For two decades, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt starred in a mystery series credited to her son, Elliott, but which was actually ghostwritten by William Harrington. The first book in the series is Murder and the First Lady (1984), but early titles in this series may be hard to come by as they are out of print. In Murder in the East Room (one of the earliest still available), as World War II is beginning, a senator staggers away from a state dinner and is later found dead in the titular room. The last and 20th book in the series is Murder at the President’s Door (2001). It should be noted that the series is not written in a strict chronological order.
Speakers of the Dead by J. Aaron Sanders (2016) – In 1843, a 23-year-old reporter “navigates the seedy underbelly of New York City’s body-snatching industry.” The reporter, Walt Whitman (1819 – 1892) is determined to exonerate—albeit posthumously—a friend charged with murder. The trail of clues leads to a man named Samuel Clement. This debut novel features the fictional appearance of several real-life figures.
The Dime Museum Murders by Daniel Stashower (1999) – In 1897, Harry Houdini (1874 – 1926) is tasked by police detectives to figure out how a toy tycoon was murdered in his Fifth Avenue mansion as if he were killed by a magic trick. Followed by The Floating Lady Murder (2000) and The Houdini Specter (2001).
The Queen’s Gambit by Diane A. S. Stuckart (2008) – In 15th century Milan, Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519) is tasked with creating a living chess game to settle a dispute, but one “piece” is murdered and da Vinci will need to solve the crime and prevent severe political repercussions. The case is narrated by da Vinci’s apprentice, Dino, who is actually a young craftsman’s daughter in disguise. The third and latest book in the series is A Bolt from the Blue (2010).
An Expert in Murder by Nicola Upson (2009) – Elizabeth MacKintosh, more famously known as Josephine Tey (1896 – 1952), meets a young woman on a train ride to London. The young woman is murdered and her death may be connected to Tey’s stage play, Richard of Bordeaux, nearing the end of its run. In the aftermath of a second murder, Tey joins forces with Detective Inspector Archie Penrose to solve the case. (Previously reviewed on The PM) There are six books in the series to date; the most recent being London Rain (2015).
Readers may also want to check out the Toby Peters series by Stuart M. Kaminsky which are set in 1940s Hollywood during the height of the studio era. While Peters wasn’t a real-life individual, several characters (many of them suspects) featured throughout the series are famous silver screen stars.
Comment on your favorite famous sleuths.