The 1920s—roaring as they were—were quite an evocative time period. So much so that when I sat down to write my debut novel Murder at the Mena House (followed by Murder at Wedgefield Manor, releasing March 30th), there was no question about when I would set the Jane Wunderly Mystery series. After all, what period paints a mental picture more easily than the 1920s, with its flappers, cocktails, and jazz?
It’s been suggested, especially recently, that the social flavor of the 1920s was a reaction to the Spanish Flu pandemic that swept the globe in 1918 and 1919. Millions of people worldwide died, and when it was safe to congregate again, they did so in style. Combine that with prohibition here in the States, and you had a heady combination of frantic party-going, dancing the night away, drinking illicit booze, and altogether living it up. A celebration if you will, of making it through alive.
As for where to set my novels, I grew up on a steady diet of Agatha Christie and PBS Masterpiece Mystery, and Egypt during the 1920s also retained a romantic air of mystery for me—which is why I set my first novel there. But I also love to wander the globe, and it seems my protagonist Jane has picked up the same wanderlust…Even if the English countryside of the second novel is a bit less exotic than the first.
There’s a glimmer of light at the end of our own tunnel, and I can’t help but think we’re going to see yet another roaring ‘20s, nearly 100 years after the first. Personally, I can’t wait for the day that I can hug my friends and family, throw a party, and dance the night away with loved ones I haven’t seen in months. But until that can happen, and I can pull my dancing shoes out, here are some books set during the original roaring ‘20s to keep you occupied. And since we can’t travel yet, these books will also transport you around the world.
Susanna Calkins, The Fate of a Flapper
In the second book in the Speakeasy Murders series, Gina Ricci has been working at a local Chicago speakeasy—The Third Door—for several months. When Gina’s cousin, a policewoman, calls her to come take photos of the victim of a poisoning, Gina realizes that the dead woman had just been at the Third Door. Did they serve bad booze? Or is there a killer among the patrons and staff? Calkins nails the flavor of Chicago during this time period, with bombings, mob affiliations, and all the slang of the times. (Her Lucy Campion series set in London during the 1600’s is also stellar.)
Catriona McPherson, After the Armistice Ball
The Dandy Gilver Murder Mystery series starts out in the 1920s, but the newest installment THE TURNING TIDE has moved into the 1930s and I don’t want to be accused of cheating. So, we start at the beginning with AFTER THE ARMISTICE BALL. Now that the war is done, Dandy Gilver is bored to tears. When the opportunity to discover what happened to the Duffy Diamonds presents itself, how could she resist? But soon a simple case of theft turns into murder. You can never go wrong with McPherson—her storytelling is impeccable no matter which book, series, or standalone you choose. The Dandy Gilver series is set in McPherson’s native Scotland and will leave you yearning for a trip abroad.
Sara Rosett, Murder at Archly Manor
It’s 1923 and Olive Belgrave needs a job—desperately. But no matter where she applies, no one seems to want to hire an impoverished aristocrat with few skills or work experience. When her cousin hires her to look into her sister’s fiancée, Olive jumps at the chance. But before she can dig up much dirt on the man, he is disagreeable enough to wind up murdered. The High Society Lady Detective series is set in England, and has everything you want from the 1920s—manor house mysteries, Egyptian antiquities, bright young things full of booze and charming Christmas parties.
Sujata Massey, The Widows of Malabar Hill
Set in 1920s India, this outstanding series stars Perveen Mistry, Bombay’s only female lawyer. She takes a case investigating a suspicious will on behalf of three Muslim widows living in full purdah—meaning they never leave their quarters or speak with men. Perveen suspects that the will might be taking advantage of the women, and when the case turns to murder, it seems that Perveen’s instincts were correct. The Perveen Mistry series is rich in historical and cultural detail, and reading them is an educational vacation.
Kerry Greenwood, Cocaine Blues
Phyrne Fisher has tired of the London season and decides to try her hand as a lady detective in Melbourne, Australia instead. But her first case of murder leads her to a drug smuggling ring, Turkish bathhouses, and a steamy affair with a handsome Russian dancer. Devotees of the show (like myself) take heart—while the books and the television program have definite differences, you’ll still enjoy everything Miss Fisher has to offer—style, adventure, and a taste of the down under.
Nekesa Afia, Dead Dead Girls
Louise Lloyd is the heroine of this brand-new Harlem Renaissance Mystery series set in 1920s Harlem. As a teenager, Louise escaped a kidnapping, and even though she’s just trying to live a normal life—working at Maggie’s Cafe, dancing all night at the hottest speakeasy around—she can’t quite escape her past. When a young black woman is killed outside Maggie’s, Louise is forced to face the fact that this isn’t the first black girl to wind up dead lately—and an altercation with the police forces her to help with the investigation. I’m afraid we have to wait until June 2021 for this one, but it’s well worth it for the rich depiction of the Harlem Renaissance and a bold heroine.
Persia Walker, Backdrop to Murder
And if you can’t wait to step into 1920s Harlem, you might give this noir novel starring society reporter Lanie Price a try. Lanie is called to the scene of a double homicide, but rather than getting a scoop, she’s there because she knew the victims—a popular photographer and his mistress, a Cotton Club dancer. Even though the photographer’s widow was found standing over the body, blurting out what sounds like a confession, Lanie isn’t so sure the woman should be headed to the chair just yet. This tale runs to the dark side and doesn’t flinch from violence, but Lanie Price is a protagonist with moxie to spare.