Top Five Historical Thrillers
Guest Post by Boyd Morrison and Beth Morrison, authors of The Lawless Land
The genre of the historical thriller is a smaller field than that of contemporary action thrillers, but the setting in a past time gives authors and readers an opportunity to experience all of the elements associated with thrillers—suspense, excitement, threats, twists—but thoroughly immersed in a different era, creating a whole different set of original challenges and possibilities.
In writing a thriller that takes place in the Middle Ages, we drew on our separate areas of expertise to forge our story. Our brother-sister writing team consists of Boyd Morrison, a New York Times bestselling thriller novelist and Beth Morrison, an expert medieval art historian.
We both love the genre of historical thrillers and drew inspiration not just from other novels set in the medieval period, but from books—fiction and nonfiction alike—that we felt not only captured the visceral sense of another time, but also cleverly utilized the unique aspects of that era to drive the story forward. The following is a selection of the books that we feel embody the best of the historical thriller genre.
Ken Follett, The Pillars of the Earth
Although Ken Follett was primarily known for spy thrillers when he published this epic novel of over 700 pages set in 12th-century England, The Pillars of the Earth quickly became his bestselling book. The intricate plot spans decades as it traces the efforts to build a new cathedral. The successes and setbacks provide the tension for the overarching narrative, but it is the individual characters—their ambitions, foibles, and personal histories—that drive the story, as they weave in and around the cathedral. By the end of the novel, the cathedral itself emerges as a main character with a life story as engaging and enthralling as any of the people who contribute to its creation. It is the setting of the novel in the remote past that gives the story its timeless appeal.
Alistair MacLean, Where Eagles Dare
Adventure authors today owe a debt of gratitude to Alistair MacLean, who essentially invented the modern action thriller. Known for muscular stories of men on a mission such as The Guns of Navarone and Ice Station Zebra, MacLean was at the height of his powers with his classic World War II commando novel Where Eagles Dare, which he simultaneously wrote as a book and a screenplay that was made into a movie starring Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood. Soldiers led by British Major John Smith are tasked with sneaking into an impenetrable Nazi castle on a wintry peak in the Bavarian Alps to rescue a captured Allied general who knows the plans to D-Day. From the very beginning, there are twists that build one on the other to an epic climax that turns the entire story on its head, and the witty banter between Smith and his American counterpart Schaffer is a master class in how to inject humor into suspenseful tales.
Ellis Peters, The Virgin in the Ice
It is hard to imagine the pitch for this series: “A middle-aged monk gardens and solves mysteries on the side in twelfth-century England.” Yet Brother Cadfael has become a familiar beloved figure among millions of historical fiction readers across the globe. The monastery in Shrewsbury seems an unfortunate magnet for dramatic crime every few months, but readers of this series won’t mind. Cadfael’s sharp mind, weakness for young lovers, herbal remedies, unassailable logic, and dry sense of humor delight in adventure after adventure. The Virgin in the Ice is a personal favorite, as for the first time, readers catch a glimpse of Cadfael’s unrepentant Crusading past, where he unknowingly left behind a mystery himself that becomes a recurrent theme in the series. It is the likable, aging detective whose bones creak as he constantly laments loss of sleep and an aching back in order to bring justice and peace back within the walls of the monastery that brings a much-appreciated sense of humanity to the novels.
Erik Larson, The Devil in the White City
Although The Devil in the White City is a non-fiction account of how the first modern serial killer H. H. Holmes preyed on tourists drawn to the grandeur of the 1893 Chicago World’s fair, in Larson’s sure hands the narrative reads as a compelling thriller. The Columbian Exposition, as it was otherwise known, is famous for the original Ferris Wheel and the demonstration of a new technology called electricity that would change the world. The setting provides a fascinating backdrop to the story of how Holmes hunted for his victims among the millions of visitors who came from all over the country to take in the fair’s marvels before he lured them back to his diabolical “Murder Castle.”
Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose
Given that The Name of the Rose is over 600 pages long, combines medieval history with literary theory and linguistics, and ranks as one of the bestselling novels of all time, it is difficult to believe that it was Umberto Eco’s first novel. Originally a university professor of semiotics, Eco turned his hand to fiction, presenting an intellectual and compelling mystery for the reader to solve alongside the main characters. At the novel’s heart is an arcane (and, as it turns out, murderous) manuscript that convulses the life of a medieval monastery. The events that transpire in one isolated community are recast as an epic battle between superstitious religion and academic science with implications for all of society, both for the Middle Ages and now. Although the explorations of medieval theology, philosophy, politics, and religion that permeate the novel may seem impenetrable at times, the plot’s sheer gripping strength can be seen in the fact that, stripped to its essential elements, the simplified narrative was sufficient to create the popular 1986 cinematic version starring Sean Connery.
BOYD MORRISON is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of twelve thrillers, including six collaborations with Clive Cussler. His first novel, The Ark, was an Indie Next Notable pick and has been translated into over a dozen languages. He has a PhD in industrial engineering from Virginia Tech.
BETH MORRISON is Senior Curator of Manuscripts at the J. Paul Getty Museum. She has curated several major exhibitions, including ‘Imagining the Past in France, 1250-1500,’ & ‘Book of Beasts: The Bestiary in the Medieval World.’ She has a PhD in the History of Art from Cornell University.