Seven suspenseful and unforgettable historical novels

Seven suspenseful and unforgettable historical novels

Great historical novels are fully immersed in time, place and have a tangible effect of bringing you into a time period that you may otherwise never know. This is what’s truly exhilerating about the historical novel. The setting and surroundings become like a fully formed character in the novel. Whether we’re talking about a British pub just before WWII, or the painterly skies of the Dutch Golden Age. A cramped and freezing hut in Iceland in the 19th century or a dangerously plague-ridden village in England in 1666. Here are some suspenseful historical novels where you just don’t know what will happen next!

Tulip Fever by Deborah Moggach

Book Review: Tulip Fever by Deborah Moggach

Tulip Fever takes place in Amsterdam in the 1630’s during a time of immense wealth that is brought into the country by merchants and tulip sellers. A bored and wealthy young house wife and an attractive artist have a romantic tryst. Yet far from being predictable, the plot here has plenty of surprising twists and turns. A short and fast-paced book with lots of vibrant, vivid depictions of life under painters skies. I found this book to be thoroughly enjoyable as an escape hatch from the world for an afternoon or a weekend. Read more

Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky: A London Trilogy by Patrick Hamilton

Historic Jukebox: Everything But the Girl, Deep Dish and Patrick Hamilton
Cover of Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky

Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky is a trilogy of novels in one. It’s as bleak as its setting – the rain strewn wintery London streets in the weeks and months before World War II. This is the ultimate tale of longing, loneliness and sexual desperation. A young man Bob works hard as a waiter and scrimps and saves. He dreams of one day becoming a famous novelist. Then he meets a pretty girl Jenny. Who is capricious, immature and toys with his emotions horribly. It’s a disturbing, edge of your seat thriller that you will enjoy.

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Book Review: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Burial Rites is a bittersweet and melancholy tale of a woman named Agnes Magnusdottir. Set in Iceland in 1829 the book showcases Agnes’ life and all of its shimmering promise and how her life has been tragically hemmed in on all sides by poverty, circumstances and bad luck. When Agnes is accused of murder, we the readers are left in the dark. This is heart-stopping stuff, inspired by a true crime story. Hannah Kent has woven a remarkable tale that is totally bewitching and magical in how it draws you in. Read more

His Bloody Project by Graeme MacRae Burnet

Graeme Macrae Burnet - His Bloody Project

His Bloody Project by author Graeme Macrae Burnet recounts the story of the triple murder and subsequent trial of accused 17 year old crofter Roderick McRae, who brutally slays three people in his remote Scottish village in 1896. There’s a lot of layers to this onion of a novel, with class and moral politics being main themes that sit uncomfortably alongside the brutal and viscerally described murders. His Bloody Project was an outlier for the 2016 Man Booker Prize and in my book it deserved to win the big prize.

Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

This is the powerful and haunting story of the 1666 plague and how one bolt of cloth makes its way from London to an isolated village. There a housemaid named Anne Frith watches as her fellow villagers all succumb to the disease. She tends to them faithfully. Sooner after, a horrible witch hunt ensues. This is her story of survival, spiritual sanctuary personal strength. There is a meditative quality of hope to this book that permeates the book, even during the bleakest times of the plague year. It has become even more relevant in 2020 than what it was when it was written in 2001. It’s really classic historical fiction in my opinion.

The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst

In the boom years of Thatcher’s Britain when the wealthy got more wealthy, young Nick Guest moves in as a lodger in the home of a rich friend’s house whose father is a Conservative party politician. Over the years Nick, finds himself in awe of and embedded within this family and has a series of love affairs and misguided adventures. This is an emotionally charged and sensitive novel about power, money, class, sexuality and family. It’s a compelling, sweeping and enormous novel.

Book Review: She Rises by Kate Worsley

Book Review: She Rises by Kate Worsley

She Rises is an erotic, sea-faring adventure by debut novelist Kate Worsley. Under the tutelage of mentor and maven of the historical novel Sarah Waters, Kate Worsley has created a beautifully sculpted jewel of a novel set in an Essex fishing village in 1740. A word to the wise, the book is very raunchy and contains a lot of sex and violence. If that is not a deterrent to you (and is in fact an attraction) then dive right in, you will love it! Read more

Honorary mentions should go to Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch and The Secret History and also the amazing historical books by Margaret Atwood including The Blind Assassin and Alias Grace…I just haven’t got around to reviewing these, but these are also classics in the suspenseful historical fiction genre! Do you have any more to add? I would love to know!!!

Published by Content Catnip

Content Catnip is a quirky internet wunderkammer written by an Intergalactic Space Māori named Content Catnip. Join me as I meander through the quirky and curious aspects of history, indigenous spirituality, the natural world, animals, art, storytelling, books, philosophy, travel, Māori culture and loads more.

14 thoughts on “Seven suspenseful and unforgettable historical novels

  1. I would also recommend the whole series about Eberhardt Mock by Marek Krajewski. Pre War Breslau with the whole historically accurate description of its multi cultural mix of Germans, Silezians, Poles, Jews. Absolutely great and terryfying.


    1. Cześć my friend 🙂 good to hear from you. I have reserved this one in the library. I am 5th in the queue so I think this series is popular here, I will wait to get it. I reserved Death in Breslau / (2008) I believe this is the first novel but not 100% sure. Thanks for your recommendation, take care xxx


    1. Thank you Jonelle, I’m glad you have found some new books to read from your favourite authors. I have your book on my TBR and I’m sorry that I haven’t reviewed it yet. I am looking forward to getting into it though! Big hugs and I hope I can share a green tea with you when Japan opens again and we are allowed to fly xx


    1. I heard that they may be coming out of it soon on the news, fingers crossed eh. Which one do you want Nancy? I can mail you my copy of Tulip Fever if you want as I still have it. The others have already gone to the charity shop 🙂 Big hugs xxx


      1. How kind of you to want to mail me a book to add to my collection of about 2000 in my house 🙂 .No need, my dear, I have quite a few unreads and I bought a few secondhand ones at Chapter House in Mornington before they had to close.


      2. Margaret Drabble’s “The Pure Gold Baby”, Sebastian Faulks’ “Where My Heart Used to Beat” (loved those two), now have these to look forward to: Shirley Hazzard’s “The Great Fire”, John Fante’s “The Bandini Quartet” and Dan Brown’s “The Lost Symbol”. Not to mention several TBR on my shelves, and many to be read again 🙂


  2. Nice list. I definitely want to read Year of Wonders. Having in mind the titles on this list, I think you may enjoy Half a Lifelong Romance by Eileen Chang – it is historical fiction, and it is both suspenseful and full of slow-burn romance.


  3. I think you will love Year of Wonders for sure Diana. Half a Lifelong Romance I will try and get this one, it definitely sounds like it would be my cup of tea. Thank you for the recommendation Diana. 😊


    1. I hope you like it Mike. I wish I still had my copy I would send it to you but it’s already gone to the charity shop. This is a very popular book though you should have no trouble finding it 🙂 Let me know what you think 🙂


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