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Historical whodunnit

The historical whodunnit is a sub-genre of the historical novel, in which the central plot involves a crime (almost always a murder) and the setting is historical. The "detective" may be a real-life historical figure, eg. Socrates, Jane Austen, Mozart, or an imaginary character.

The first known author to have written anything that might be described as a historical whodunnit is Melville Davisson Post, whose "Uncle Abner" stories were serialised in American newspapers from 1911 onwards. It was not until 1943 that Lillian de la Torre, an American mystery writer, did something similar with Dr Johnson and Boswell. In 1950, John Dickson Carr produced a novel called The Bride of Newgate, set during the Napoleonic Wars, and this may be called the first full-length historical whodunnit.

Such stories remained an oddity, and the current trend for historical whodunnits only really began with the success of Ellis Peters and her Brother Cadfael novels, set in medieval Shrewsbury. The Name of the Rose (1980) was a one-off that helped popularise the concept. Other pioneers of the genre were Lindsey Davis with the Falco novels set in the heyday of the Roman Empire, and Elizabeth Peters, whose Amelia Peabody is not only a Victorian lady but an early feminist and an archaeologist, most of her adventures taking place in Egypt.