Another Review at MyShelf.Com

How To Write Killer Historical Mysteries
The Art and Adventure of Sleuthing Through the Past

by Kathy Lynn Emerson

      OK, fair disclosure time first. I'm personally quoted a couple of times in How To Write Killer Historical Mysteries, while the historical mystery website I run (sister site to Myshelf, whose historical mystery reviews I link to) and discussion group I help moderate are generously cited too. Does that make me predisposed to look upon the author as a woman of exceptional taste and discrimination? Undoubtedly, but I still wouldn't praise her book unless I meant it. And I do.

This is a great resource for historical mystery authors / would be authors, and fans / potential fans. It's the rare how-to book that's not just a helpful reference, but is honestly enjoyable to just read for the sake of reading. The style is comfortably and good-humoredly conversational rather than lecturing, as evidenced by lines such as "If you must describe the use of a medieval torture device in loving detail, then the tone of earlier scenes should prepare the reader..." (can't you just picture the long suffering listener to that "loving" detail). The book is simply packed with information about the genre and common sense discussions of the key issues around it (e.g. how important is accuracy, what exactly is an historical mystery, what is not one no matter what the publisher claims, etc.), along with the advice promised in the title on how to write your own.

Just as a true historical mystery is not just a modern mystery with fancy dress, this is not just a generic how-to with the odd suggestion about using historical eras thrown in to justify the title. Yes, it does have some general writing and general mystery writing helpful hints in there, but literally everything in the book is either specific to historical mysteries or discussed in the context of them. Everything. From the first chapter setting up key definitions to the constant emphasis on research and making sure that everything about your story - names, murder methods, investigatory techniques, terminology for everyday objects - is appropriate historically. I can't think of a topic related to writing historical mysteries that isn't addressed and I can't find much to criticize in the advice given, which is sensible, practical, and illustrated with copious examples from the genre.

Those examples are part of why this is also an enjoyable read for fans who will never write their own book. I run a pretty extensive bibliographic site on the subject and I'm impressed by how many and how wide-ranging are the authors and books cited. Ms. Emerson doesn't just write historical mysteries herself, she clearly knows the genre as a whole. Most fans are sure to find someone new to them mentioned, along with interesting examples from and information about their work to pique an interest. Mixed in with the new authors will be interesting bits from authors they already know, discussing such things as why the author chose that period to write about - e.g. Jane Finnis was interested in 1st century A.D. Roman Britain for its own sake, but also thought it would be useful to work in an era about which there was relatively little known, leaving her more free to use her imagination to fill the gaps.

Whether you're a fan or a writer, this unique how-to is an invaluable guide and an equally enjoyable read. Highly recommended.

The Book

Perseverance Press
April 2008
Trade Paperback
Writing / How-to
More at

The Reviewer

Kim Malo
Reviewed 2008
© 2008