Like I’ve said many times before, I’m always on the lookout for another good mystery series to read. I know a lot of you are too, so I thought I’d share some of my favorite ones with you and hopefully a few of them will be a good match to what you’re looking for!
“It’s a great era to write about. So much crime. The last witch was burned in England in the early 18th century. Yet the beginnings of modern times are right there, too.” – Bruce Alexander (1)
I’ll start with one of the first mystery series I read from beginning to end: the Sir John Fielding mysteries by Bruce Alexander (the pseudonym of Bruce Cook). This is a historical mystery series set in the late 1700’s that features Sir John Fielding, the real-life, blind magistrate of Bow Street Court.
“I was just reading around in a book called A House in Bow Street, a history of the Bow Street Runners, by Anthony Babington, published in the UK, when I first met with Sir John Fielding, this great, great character, and wondered why nobody had done anything about him. This was about 1976 or 77. And nobody had!” – Bruce Alexander (1)
The books are narrated by Jeremy Proctor, a fictional character, who serves as Sir John’s assistant throughout the series. They are told as something of a memoir, as Jeremy is looking back at his adventures with Sir John Fielding after his mentor has died. In the first book, Blind Justice, he recounts his initial meeting with Sir John when he was brought before the Bow Street Court as an accused thief… wrongly accused of course. Sir John wasn’t fooled by the false accusation though and quickly worked out the truth of the matter. And because Jeremy was a newly-orphaned thirteen-year-old in London for the first time, he decided to temporarily make Jeremy a ward of the court. Jeremy’s father had been a printer and had trained Jeremy in the trade so Sir John decided that he should be apprenticed to a printer to finish his training. A meeting with Dr. Johnson to help set up the apprenticeship is interrupted though with news of the death of a prominent figure and their first case together is underway.
The use of a young, inexperienced side-kick is particularly well suited to historical detection; much historical information can be presented to the modern reader as the detective explains his reasoning to the perplexed assistant. Jeremy, a naive teenager from Leichfield, is somewhat of an outsider to everyday life in London, thus allowing the author to introduce the conventions of the age. (2)
As they wrapped up the murder investigation, where he proved that he could be quite useful, Jeremy hoped that Sir John would have changed his mind about the apprenticeship. But Sir John still feels that is the best decision and the second book in the series, Murder In Grub Street, opens with what is supposed to be Jeremy’s first day on the job. But fate, and murder, intervene once again.
As the series continues on with many more exciting mysteries to solve, Jeremy, now firmly established as a part of Sir John’s household, quickly begins to mature into a very capable assistant.
“And I would say I have an obligation, to the reader and to Jeremy himself, to bring him up through adolescence and so on. That’s why I spend so much time on his crushes. He becomes involved, mostly in his fantasy life, with a young prostitute. He’s an adolescent boy. He lived in one of the wildest, smallest parts of London. I’ve tried to make him develop normally, truthfully.” – Bruce Alexander (1)
The last book in the series, Rules Of Engagement, was left unfinished by Bruce Alexander at his death in 2003. His widow Judith Aller and John Shannon worked together to finish it and it was published in 2005.
I’ve read a lot of other series since I first discovered this one, but it still remains one of my favorites. One of the most important things about a book to me is that it has unique, memorable characters and this series certainly does. The fictional characters are well-thought-out and the addition of real-life people adds a lot to the stories. And while I haven’t read many books set in this time period, it seems to be pretty accurate to how life was then.
Historical accuracy in characterization is another important element in this series. Using a real historical personage as a detective is common in historical mysteries. Alexander is thoroughly versed in the minutiae of Sir John Fielding’s life and displays that knowledge for the benefit of the reader. (2)
“Well, I have said that he was a good man in a bad time, and he was that. He was knighted for his social plans and for his work with the Bow Street Runners and so on…
I couldn’t tell you what Sir John Fielding was really like; but I suppose I’ve been inspired somewhat by Samuel Johnson. He’s a little less haughty than Samuel Johnson, but I would say he’s just as given to controversy. And doesn’t duck a good controversy.” – Bruce Alexander (1)
If you’ve read The Sir John Fielding books I’d love to know what you thought about them. And if you’d like to check out another series that features the Bow Street Runners then pick up T.F. Banks Memoirs of A Bow Street Runner series that’s set in the early 1800’s. The Thief Taker was published in 2001 and The Emperor’s Assassin in 2003.
1. “Cook’s Tour Of The Past” an interview of Bruce Cook for January Magazine (1999) written by Tom Nolan
2. The Detective as Historian: History and Art in Historical Crime Fiction edited by Ray B. Browne and Lawrence A. Kreiser, Jr.
Bruce Alexander article written by Donna Bradshaw Smith. Published by University of Wisconsin Press (2013). Pages 176 & 178