The notion of history repeating itself isn’t a new one, whether or not said historical event was remembered or understood. It does, however, make for the basis of a good crime read. When a situation from the past—a murder, a theft, a kidnapping, what have you—serves to shape the plot’s present, it creates an extra layer to the story. It’s also a great construct for compelling the protagonist to solve one or both crimes.
What’s more, this added layer can be effectively employed in all sub-genres of crime novels, from the darkest of psychological thrillers to a lighthearted cozy mystery like my debut novel, Murder Once Removed, about a genealogist who uses her skills to uncover the 1849 killer of her client’s ancestor and the present-day murderer of her former employer and mentor.
Another facet I enjoy is how the past crime’s dose of historical facts, insight into how a murder was investigated, or depiction of the way things were in another time, aren’t simply background information, they also contribute in a meaningful way to the protagonist’s current investigation.
The Crossing Places, by Elly Griffiths (Mariner Books)
Griffiths’ first novel in the series features Dr. Ruth Galloway, a forensic anthropologist who’s content to live in a remote area of Norfolk, England, with only her cats and her daily life of digs at an Iron Age site. While usually she identifies ancient artifacts and bones, her calm life changes when the bones of a child are found on the beach. It is believed they may be those of a little girl named Lucy Downey, who disappeared ten years earlier. Galloway is asked to identify the bones by Detective Chief Inspector Nelson, who continues to receive strange, harassing letters by the person believed to have kidnaped the little girl. When a second girl is reported missing and the details are eerily similar to the abduction of Lucy Downey, Galloway must determine if the killer is the same person or someone new who’s copying the decade-old murder.
The Unquiet Dead, by Ausma Zehanat Khan (Minotaur Books)
Set mostly in and around Toronto, Canada, Khan’s novel deals with a present-day death that may have connections to the atrocities committed during the 1995 genocide of Bosnians by the Serbians at Srebrenica. Detective Rachel Getty and her boss, Esa Khattak, are part of Canada’s Community Policing Section (CPS), which handles cases involving ethnic minorities. When Khattak is asked to investigate the apparent accidental death of a man named Christopher Drayton, he asks Rachel, his best officer, to accompany him. Rachel finds the request a little strange, especially when they find Drayton’s fall from the nearby cliffs likely wasn’t accidental. It’s possible Drayton may actually be a former Serbian war criminal. The more Rachel and Khattak look into the matter, the more complex it becomes, and the more they have to look inside their own hearts and into their own pasts while they work to uncover the truth.
In This Grave Hour, by Jacqueline Winspear (Harper Perennial)
This is book number 13 in Winspear’s wonderful historical series about trained psychologist and investigator Maisie Dobbs. It’s September 3rd, 1939, and Maisie Dobbs has just listened to Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain declare war on Germany when she is called home to her west London flat. There she finds agent Dr. Francesca Thomas waiting for her with an assignment. Twenty-three years earlier, during the Great War, a boy escaped occupied Belgium and came to London as a refugee. This boy—now a man—has been murdered, and Dr. Thomas is hoping Maisie will look into the case, afraid more Belgians who remained in Britain will be killed. When another Belgian is indeed found murdered as the Blitz begins, Maisie searches into the pasts of the former refugees to understand why they are being targeted, and by whom.
The Unquiet Grave, by Sharyn McCrumb (Atria)
Set across two timelines—1930 and 1897—McCrumb’s novel is inspired by legend and delves into the memories of James P.D. Gardner, the first black lawyer in West Virginia. In 1930, the now-elderly Gardner has been remanded to an insane asylum following an attempted suicide. Wanting to try a new form of therapy, Gardner’s doctor convinces him to talk about his past cases. The former attorney begins the tale of helping to defend a white man, blacksmith Erasmus Trout Shue, against killing his young wife, Zona Heaster, in 1897. Gardner explains the prosecution made their case against Shue through testimony provided by a unique witness: the ghost of Zona Hester. In flashbacks to 1897, Zona’s mother Mary Jane is revealed to be behind the prosecution’s bold move. Mary Jane is convinced her daughter was murdered by Shue, and suspects he may have murdered before. In persuading the prosecutor to believe Zona’s ghost came to her, Mary Jane weaves a ghost story of her own in order to seek justice for her daughter.
The Death of Kings, by Rennie Airth (Penguin Books)
The fifth book in the John Madden series, Airth brings former Scotland Yard detective Madden out of retirement after a jade necklace reappears, casting doubt on a case from eleven years earlier. In Kent during the summer of 1938, the murder of an actress on the estate belonging to a friend of the Prince of Wales results in the swift conviction of a former convict. But when the jade necklace appears again in 1949, retired detective John Madden is talked into examining the closed case once more. Crossing paths with the landed gentry, the Chinese underworld, and more, Madden investigates in an attempt to find justice—that is, if the wrong man were indeed executed for a crime he didn’t commit in the first place.
Bruno, Chief of Police, by Martin Walker (Vintage Books)
In the first installment of the Bruno, Chief of Police series, Walker introduces Benoît Courrèges, better known as Bruno. Set in the small village of St. Denis in the South of France, Bruno had once been a soldier, but now he’s very happy to be a country policeman in his sleepy village, making his own wine and handling police matters where he never arrests anyone or uses his gun. It is the murder of a North African man who fought with the French Army during the Second World War that threatens to disrupt Bruno’s charmingly slow life. With the help of a young Parisian policewoman, Bruno will have to look into his country’s dark past, including the Nazi occupation, to find answers to the immigrant soldier’s murder and protect his peaceful corner of the world.