In order to tell a good lie, it's best to mix in some truth. The same often holds true for historical mysteries: to tell an authentic whodunit set in the past, try mixing in real-life figures. In several successful historical series, authors go further than just name-checking the contemporary president or alluding to an ongoing war. Instead, they use well-known historical figures, often fellow authors, as their crime-solving heroes.
Nicola Upson takes it one step further by using golden age mystery writer and playwright Josephine Tey as her heroine. In Upson's debut, An Expert in Murder (Harper, 2008), Tey travels from Scotland to London to see a production of her popular play, Richard of Bordeaux, but winds up investigating the murder of a young woman she had met on the train. In Angel with Two Faces (Harper, June), Tey and her colleague, Scotland Yard Inspector Archie Penrose, track a killer in Penrose's hometown in Cornwall.
Australian author Joanna Challis features another writer-as-sleuth who has ties to the mystery genre in her new series. Young Daphne du Maurier, the author of the classic novel Rebecca, stumbles across a body in Murder on the Cliffs (Minotaur, Dec. 2009) while researching local history in Cornwall. Coincidentally, Challis's amateur sleuth is in the seaside region around the same time as Tey and Penrose are solving their crime in Angel. Daphne will return for further adventures in Peril at Somner House (Minotaur, Nov.).
Laura Joh Rowland, who's written more than a dozen novelsstarring fictional 17th-century Japanese investigator Sano Ichiro, reinvented Charlotte Brontë in The Secret Adventures of Charlotte Brontë (Overlook, 2008), in which the author of Jane Eyre fights accusations of plagiarism and hunts a killer loose in London. Brontë faces a Jack the Ripperesque serial killer in the sequel, Bedlam: The Further Secret Adventures of Charlotte Brontë (Overlook, May).
Another classic 19th-century female novelist moonlights as a detective in Stephanie Barron's Jane Austen mysteries. In the 10th installment, Jane and the Madness of Lord Byron (Bantam, Sept.), the celebrated poet and notorious rake becomes a murder suspect. Even Austen's famous characters get their turn at playing detective. Carrie Bebris's series features Pride and Prejudice's Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy, who solve crimes in Regency-era England. In the fifth entry, The Intrigue at Highbury: Or, Emma's Match (Tor, Mar.), Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy join forces with another Austen heroine, Emma Woodhouse.
Like Austen and her plucky leading ladies, both Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes have been recast in new adventures. British author Gyles Brandreth, for instance, has paired Doyle with fellow author Oscar Wilde in three mysteries, the latest of which, Oscar Wilde and the Dead Man's Smile (Touchstone, Sept. 2009), is framed as a puzzle Wilde recounts to Doyle concerning suspicious deaths in a French acting group.
Wilkie Collins—whose 1886 novel The Moonstone is considered among the first detective novels—gets a chance to solve crime alongside real-life friend and fellow author Charles Dickens in Dan Simmons's Drood (Little, Brown, Feb. 2009). Taking Dickens's last, unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, as inspiration, Simmons reimagines the last years of the author's life and his obsession with the murderous stranger of the title.
Of course, notable Americans not known for their detecting abilities can also get into the act. In his first book featuring Ernest Hemingway as reluctant detective, Michael Atkinson focuses on the author's last years as Simmons did for Dickens, setting Hemingway Deadlights (Minotaur, Aug. 2009) in 1956, five years before Hemingway's suicide. But in the sequel, Hemingway Cutthroats (Minotaur, July), Atkinson rewinds to 1937, when Hemingway was living in war-torn Spain. Along with fellow writer John Dos Passos, Hemingway investigates the death of an alleged Marxist spy, running into Errol Flynn along the way.
While Las Vegas pit boss Eddie Gianelli, the narrator of Robert J. Randisi's Rat Pack mysteries, is fictional, he does favors for such real-life entertainers as Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, and Sammy Davis Jr. In the fourth book in the series, You're Nobody 'Til Somebody Kills You (Minotaur, Sept. 2009), set in early 1962, Eddie helps out Marilyn Monroe, who's distraught that she may have hastened the demise of her co-star on the set of The Misfits, Clark Gable.
Finally, for those who miss Daniel M. Klein's series featuring a sleuthing Elvis Presley, last seen in Such Vicious Minds (Minotaur, 2004), Presley has been resurrected in two unrelated but Southern-set series: reincarnated as a basset hound in Peggy Webb's series featuring hairdresser Callie Valentine Jones—the third volume is Elvis and the Memphis Mambo Murders (Kensington, Oct.)—and as a dimwitted vampire in Charlaine Harris's Sookie Stackhouse books.
Jordan Foster is a freelance writer in Portland, Ore.