I’ve always been a fan of historical mysteries, but a couple of years ago i read a couple of really great books set at the dawn of “official” policing (Gods of Gotham, about the founding of the NYPD and The Yard about the first “murder squad” at Scotland Yard) and wondered if there was more out there. They appealed to me because in general I like the structure imposed by a police procedural. In private detective novels the investigator is often a lone wolf, bending rules and operating on the fringes of the law. Amateur detectives are fun too, but they are even more freewheeling in the way they get to solve a crime. Police, on the other hand, have to follow channels. They work with colleagues and partners and answer to higher ups and police commissioners. There’s paperwork to fill out. It just seems more real to me than the other genres of mystery fiction. The added bonus in historical mysteries that focus on the early days of formal policing is that the rules are still being worked out. The hierarchies of the police force that we know today haven’t completely gelled yet. And the forensics that modern police use are in their infancy. It’s like these novels have many of the things that I like about a police procedural but with an added level of difficulty. So I set out to see how many I could find. Sadly, fewer than I had hoped for dealt directly with the founding of the police forces. What have I missed?
The Bow Street Runners have been called England’s first attempt at an organized police force. They were established in 1742 and funded by the British government, so I think they qualify, even if they were a little more loosely regulated than the police that followed (the Runners worked on commission, so they are a cross between cops and bounty hunters). There are some lovely examples of mysteries featuring thief-takers and investigators who reported to the magistrates of Bow Street.
Blind Justice (Sir John Fielding, Book 1) by Bruce Alexander
Sir John Fielding was a blind magistrate and very real historical personage who started the Bow Street Runners with his half-brother (and famed novelist) Henry Fielding. In this first book of the series, set in 1768, Fielding helps a boy named Jeremy Proctor who was falsely accused of theft and then makes use of the boy to solve a tricky murder case. There are 11 books in the series.
The Thief-Taker: Memoirs of a Bow Street Runner by T.F. Banks
Set in 1815, this mystery starts with Bow Street Runner Henry Morton being called to the scene of a suspicious death (at the home of his mistress – awkward!) that points at the involvement of one of his fellow Runners. Filled with lots of great period detail about the runners and how they work, as well as how they were perceived by the public at the time, there is just a single sequel (Emperor’s Assassin). Fun fact: the author is a pseudonym for writing duo Ian Dennis and Sean Russell (Russell is a lovely writer of SFF as well).
London’s Metropolitan Police Service was founded in 1829 and incorporated the Bow Street Horse Patrol (an offshoot of the same magistrates office that ran the Runners). They became known by their headquarters location: Scotland Yard.
The Yard (Scotland Yard’s Murder Squad) by Alex Grecian
In 1889, Scotland Yard had only twelve detectives, dubbed the “Murder Squad”, tasked with investigating every murder in the city of London. The shadow of the Met’s failure to catch Jack the Ripper hangs over the new squad. When one the team is himself murdered, the newest hire, Walter Day, is assigned the case. There’s a nice ensemble cast and some lovely details of the dawn of criminology and forensics as Day works with Dr. Bernard Kingsley, the Met’s first pathologist.
Murder as a Fine Art by David Morrell
A killer in 1854 is recreating a famous crime known as the Ratcliffe HIghway Murders from 1811. The police immediately suspect Thomas de Quincey, who write an essay expressing appreciation for the crime, and de Quincey must clear his name by finding the real killer. Morrell also writes horror, and this shows in the gruesome amount of violence here, but there are also some good period details as de Quincey works with two detectives from the fledgling Scotland Yard.
The Cater Street Hangman (Charlotte & Thomas Pitt) by Anne Perry
The first book in a series featuring Inspector Thomas Pitt of Scotland Yard and Charlotte Ellison, daughter of a wealthy London family. The two meet when the third in a string of murders occurs in the Ellison household and Thomas is in charge of the investigation. These are always well-constructed mysteries but Perry usually has a lot to say about the social strata and classes of the period as well.
Formed in 1845, the NYPD replaced the old “night watch” system and in 1857 the force was replaced by a Metropolitan Police Force including most of the boroughs, abolishing the old municipal one. This caused a HUGE clash between supporters of the municipal and metropolitan forces known as the New York City Police Riot. Interesting, no?
The Gods of Gotham (Timothy Wilde) by Lyndsay Faye
This book was the one that really blew my mind and got me interesting in the history of policing. I had read The Alienist and loved it, but this was more about the early, early days of the formation of the police. Timothy Wilde runs a bar, but when it burns to the ground he needs another source of livelihood. His brother Valentine has joined the newly formed NYPD and convinces Timothy to come aboard and become a ‘copper star.’ He’s assigned to Five Points, a notorious slum, and one night after his rounds he encounters a young girl covered from head to toe in blood. The corruption in New York, including in the NYPD is interesting in this one, as is the plight of the Irish who were flooding the city at the time due to the potato famine. There is also the fabulous period slang, known as flash, with which Faye peppers the book.
The Alienist by Caleb Carr
Justly famous in historical mystery/thriller circles, Carr’s novel was one of the first I had read that showed the early days of criminal forensic techniques. Teddy Roosevelt was Police Commissioner in 1896, when this is set, and appears as a character. But the main focus is on crime reporter John Moore and alienist (an early term for a psychiatrist) Laszlo Kreizler. Moore is called to a crime scene by his old school friend Kreizler and sees the dead body of a young prostitute. Roosevelt asks the two to help find the killer due to Moore’s connections in the underworld and Kreizler’s innovative new crime-solving techniques like fingerprinting and psychological profiling. Gritty stuff, but really gripping.