Give me your unresolved pasts
November 2, 2011 9:08 PM   Subscribe

Looking for book recommendations. I enjoy novels where characters deal with some type of mystery from the past. Can be historical fiction (like People of the Book or Possession) or entirely fictional.

I also enjoyed The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova and The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey. The Red Violin, though a film, is another great example of the kind of thing I mean.

I also include the 'regular' fiction books below, as the characters must uncover/solve mysteries from their personal pasts.
The Tana French mysteries (In the Woods, The Likeness, and Faithful Place.)
Harry Potter
Probably a bunch more that I'm forgetting

I'm open to most genres, though I get especially excited about Indiana Jonesy/adventurey stuff, or mysteries, or intriguing foreign locales (as in The Historian) or fun/clever new worlds (Harry Potter).

In terms of quality, I'm looking for anything from awesome (Possession) to guilty-pleasure-though-not-entirely-crap (The Historian). Dan Brown fits my general requirements but is entirely-crap. I don't really get into books like LOTR that are 100% fantasy, though books like Harry Potter, which mix the real world with fantastical elements, can be awesome (also liked Jonathan Strange, though that book wouldn't really fit into this question).

posted by imalaowai to Media & Arts (35 answers total) 47 users marked this as a favorite
Thomas Pynchon - The Crying of Lot 49
posted by Trurl at 9:36 PM on November 2, 2011

I've liked many of the books you mentioned (French and Kostova especially) and I also enjoyed The Grand Complication ("a stylish young reference librarian of arcane interests unravels an 18th-century mystery -- who stole Marie Antoinette's watch?") and A Case of Curiosities (more novel, less mystery) that are both by Allen Kurzweil.

You might also like Lev Grossman's Codex ("Enlisting the help of passionate medievalist Margaret Napier, Edward is determined to solve the mystery of the codex" more Dan Brown-ish but not entirely crap I don't think? I would skip the Magicians though some people have liked them) and The Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell ("An ivy league murder, a mysterious coded manuscript, and the secrets of a Renaissance prince collide").

Arturo Perez-Reverte has a few of these including The Club Dumas and The Flanders Panel. If you like chess you might also consider Katherine Neville's book The Eight which is a weird mystery based on sort of a game that spans two books [sequel not as good but still okay].

A weirder off-the-beaten-path option that I recently read and enjoyed is The Invention of Morel and, if course there's The Name of the Rose if it's somehow escaped your notice until now.
posted by jessamyn at 9:40 PM on November 2, 2011

Donna Tartt's "The Little Friend."

and the other book that leaps to mind is the famous "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," in which a disgraced journalist (and, eventually, the title character) are hired by a wealthy recluse to find out who killed his favorite child, and has been tormenting him ever since.

The second and third books in the trilogy are more like two volumes of a single, subsequent story which is interesting, and contains some cold-war history, but are not of the same mystery character as Dragon Tattoo.

Also, Second "The Name of the Rose."

Oh, and if you're open to some unusual Science Fiction, perhaps "Sundiver" by David Brin. It's a murder mystery set in the atmosphere of the sun.
posted by Sunburnt at 9:44 PM on November 2, 2011

Best answer: Cryptonomicon alternates between two timelines featuring WW2 participants and their descendents. It's not purely mystery solving from the past but there are definite elements of that.
posted by cali59 at 9:48 PM on November 2, 2011

Lord Byron's Novel: The Evening Land by John Crowley is very Posession-ish (though more predictable and less complicated): modern-day characters discovering and reading an old manuscript for clues. In the process you learn a lot about Byron and about his mathematician daughter Ada.
posted by clair-de-lune at 9:56 PM on November 2, 2011

In a light vein, Connie Willis' 'To Say Nothing of the Dog' might appeal - time travelers in Edwardian England trying to find a god awful piece of Victoriana.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 9:59 PM on November 2, 2011

Have you read "The Gold-Bug" by Poe?
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:02 PM on November 2, 2011

Katherine Neville's The Eight. (Stay far away from The Fire.)
posted by Madamina at 10:04 PM on November 2, 2011

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale
Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood
The Library of Shadows by Mikkel Birkegaarde
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 10:22 PM on November 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Just about all of Laura Lippman's stand-alone novels are about characters in the present dealing with a mystery or crime from their childhood or adolescence. Her work also deals with the fallibility of memory and how different people can have remarkably different points of view of the same incident.

Also, since you liked Possession, try The Archivist , which is about two modern scholars trying to solve a mystery in T. S. Eliot's letters as well as find resolution for their own pasts.
posted by Violet Hour at 10:44 PM on November 2, 2011

The House at Riverton
The Thirteenth Tale
And try Barbara Michaels for quick-reading but fairly well-written mysteries.
posted by Addlepated at 10:45 PM on November 2, 2011

Alan Moore - From Hell.
posted by empath at 11:31 PM on November 2, 2011

Umberto Eco's 'Foucuault's Pendulum', one of my all time favourite books, ever. When compared to Dan Brown during an interview, Eco replied something to the effect that Dan Brown is precisely the type of character that populates my Foucuault's Pendulum.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 11:58 PM on November 2, 2011 [3 favorites]

Barbara Michaels yes! Also Ariana Franklin -- historical but decent mysteries, and at least one (Grave Goods) deals with solving a mystery from the past.
posted by Cocodrillo at 1:22 AM on November 3, 2011

The novels written by Ruth Rendell under the psuedonym Barbara Vine should rock your boat. They're all lush, gothicky mysteries and 'The Blood Doctor' in particular lept to mind when you mentioned Posession.
posted by Wantok at 2:33 AM on November 3, 2011

Arthur Phillips' The Egyptologist. Wikipedia description:
The Egyptologist is structured as journals, letters, telegrams, and drawings, from several different points of view. The main story is set in 1922 and follows a hopeful explorer who, working near Howard Carter (the man who discovered the tomb of King Tutankhamun), risks more and more of his life and savings on an apparently quixotic effort to find the tomb of an apocryphal Egyptian king
posted by mannequito at 2:54 AM on November 3, 2011

Mystery writer Elizabeth Peters' Amelia Peabody series feature a woman Egyptologist working around the turn of the 20th century.

Martha Grimes' detective mystery The Blue Last is based on events which occurred during the WWII bombing of London.
posted by fuse theorem at 4:13 AM on November 3, 2011

FYI: Barbara Michaels and Elizabeth Peters are one and the same author. That said, her Amelia Peabody mysteries are delightful, and you'll end up knowing a little something about ancient Egypt and Egyptology in the late 19th/early 20th century.
posted by MonkeyToes at 4:48 AM on November 3, 2011

Jack McDevitt writes scifi about future space acrheology and is well worth a read.
posted by Jacen at 5:38 AM on November 3, 2011

Deep Quarry by John E. Stith
posted by Confess, Fletch at 6:06 AM on November 3, 2011

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell.
posted by motsque at 6:21 AM on November 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Christopher Fowler's Peculiar Crimes Unit (aka Bryant & May Mysteries) series sounds up your street. The mysteries tend to have roots in the history of London - forgotten rivers, buried architecture, lost pubs, and the like.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 6:27 AM on November 3, 2011

Mary Gentle, Ash: A secret history. The history of a young (female) commander of a mercenary company in late medieval times. Then history starts to change.
posted by bonehead at 6:44 AM on November 3, 2011

Umberto Eco's upcoming (8 Nov) The Prague Cemetery seems right up your alley (and mine).
posted by Bourbonesque at 7:09 AM on November 3, 2011

I'm debating with myself whether this fits your criteria, but I might as well suggest An Instance of the Fingerpost.
posted by crLLC at 7:20 AM on November 3, 2011

The Quincunx by Charles Palliser
Lempriere's Dictionary by Lawrence Norfolk
An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears
Ingenious Pain by Andrew Miller

All of those probably veer more towards the literary fiction side of things (i.e. Possession) rather than the schlocky crap, but all are good gripping reads with mystery-orientated plots unfolding in historical contexts. Fingerpost is probably the best read of the four, I'd reckon.
posted by hydatius at 8:11 AM on November 3, 2011

You may or may not be familiar with Laurie R. King's Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes series (beginning with The Beekeeper's Apprentice). They're enjoyable, but they're not all of the same high caliber. Still, I just finished Justice Hall, the sixth one in the series (and so far the best), and think it might fit your bill perfectly. It's well-balanced and has an affecting backstory that pays off nicely in the end.

The one caveat is that two of the main characters were central to O Jerusalem (probably my least favorite so far), but they appear in a completely different form here, so you might consider reading that first.
posted by Madamina at 8:33 AM on November 3, 2011

Based on your own book list, definitely check out Time and Again by Jack Finney . There's also a sequel, which isn't as good but has another historical mystery at its heart.

It looks like you're asking for books where modern-day people solve historical mysteries -- if you are also into mysteries entirely set in the past, then Wilkie Collins's books are really fantastic reads.
posted by Mchelly at 8:47 AM on November 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Seconding The Thirteenth Tale. Also, The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque by Jeffrey Ford comes to mind.
posted by jihaan at 8:59 AM on November 3, 2011

Another Martha Grimes book: "Hotel Paradise" and its sequels.
posted by OolooKitty at 11:56 AM on November 3, 2011

I immediately thought of Ross Macdonald, third leg of the Chandler/Hammett triangle, whose detective novels are almost always about uncovering long-buried secrets. I'm also a huge fan of Daughter of Time, and Macdonald captures that kind of slow archeology as closely as anyone I can think of. Plus, hard-boiled metaphors!
posted by ormondsacker at 12:38 PM on November 3, 2011

Kate Mosse's Labyrinth might be your thing.
posted by southpaw at 12:46 PM on November 3, 2011

Tim Power's The Anubis Gates.
posted by ridogi at 2:15 PM on November 3, 2011

The Monsters of Templeton
The main character moves home to the "perfect-little-town" where she grew up after a mishap in grad-school. She goes on a mystery-sluething historical expedition to find out who her biological father was [after long-believing that her free-love hippie mother had no idea, and therefore she herself would never know.] Ends up discovering a bunch of neat things about the towns origin and scandals.
Not the best read, but pretty entertaining and relatively well-written. The plot, if you go point-by-point, sounds like a terribly cliche soap-opera. But the author frames the events around some interesting fantasy-esque details like ghosts and monsters. It's hard to explain.

From Amazon:
So begins The Monsters of Templeton, a novel spanning two centuries: part a contemporary story of a girl's search for her father, part historical novel, and part ghost story, this spellbinding novel is at its core a tale of how one town holds the secrets of a family.
In the wake of a wildly disastrous affair with her married archaeology professor, Willie Upton arrives on the doorstep of her ancestral home in Templeton, New York, where her hippie-turned-born-again-Baptist mom, Vi, still lives. Willie expects to be able to hide in the place that has been home to her family for generations, but the monster's death changes the fabric of the quiet, picture-perfect town her ancestors founded. Even further, Willie learns that the story her mother had always told her about her father has all been a lie: he wasn't the random man from a free-love commune that Vi had led her to imagine, but someone else entirely. Someone from this very town.

As Willie puts her archaeological skills to work digging for the truth about her lineage, she discovers that the secrets of her family run deep. Through letters, editorials, and journal entries, the dead rise up to tell their sides of the story as dark mysteries come to light, past and present blur, old stories are finally put to rest, and the shocking truth about more than one monster is revealed.

posted by FirstMateKate at 9:47 PM on November 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Wow, so many awesome suggestions -- I feel really spoiled! I've already loaded up my Kindle with a bunch of samples and plan to head to the library this weekend. Thanks so much, everyone!
posted by imalaowai at 11:22 PM on November 3, 2011

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