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The Past Is Killer: 7 Grisly Reads for Alienist Fans

by  | June 24
Photo from the Alienist TV show

Dark streets lit only by oily lamps, men in bowler hats checking pocket watches, a gruesome murder scene on the cobblestones. There’s just something about a historical murder mystery that draws you into a world both familiar and strange. And if you’re like me, one series that has done so is The Alienist.

Based on the novel by Caleb Carr, the show follows Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, an alienist who studies troubled children and is tasked by NYPD Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt (yes, that Roosevelt) in the late nineteenth century to uncover who is behind a series of terrible child murders. He is joined by news illustrator John Schuyler Moore and Roosevelt’s assistant Sara Howard as they race to catch the killer.

While 2020 has delayed a lot of great TV shows, The Alienist has actually moved up its planned second season premiere to July 19, sure to be filled with even more horrific crimes and historical intrigue. But if you can’t wait (or just need some more reads to fill your shelves), here are seven historical mysteries to keep you guessing.

The Wolf and the Watchman

The Wolf and the Watchman

by Niklas Natt och Dag

In Stockholm 1793, watchman Mickel Cardell is awoken to the news of a grisly crime: a murdered body floating in Larder Lake. But things are not as straightforward as they first appear. Cardell teams up with lawyer Cecil Winge, whose days are numbered due to consumption, to identify the body and hunt down the killer. There are more players in this plot, and it is through the intricate cast of characters that we see the dark underbelly of the city where violence reigns. And by dark, I do mean dark—this is not a book for the squeamish or faint of heart. Niklas Natt och Dag paints an incredibly detailed city and drags the reader in with twisted prose and moments of spine-tingling horror.

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The Lost History of Dreams

The Lost History of Dreams

by Kris Waldherr

Poets are known to be dramatic, but turning up dead in the bath might just be a tad much. When Robert Highstead, a post-mortem photographer in London, has to photograph his cousin, poet Hugh de Bonne, it sounds like a straightforward, if somewhat personal, job. Take the picture, and de Bonne can be laid to rest in the chapel he had built to house his wife, Ada. But Ada’s niece won’t let de Bonne’s body into the chapel until Robert reads the story of his cousin’s strange marriage. And what he finds in those pages not only speaks of the dead, but of Robert and his own wife, revealing just how little he knew about those he loved. The Lost History of Dreams, set in 1850, is the kind of eerie, Gothic tale that so masterfully blurs the edges of reality, you’ll constantly be questioning what is real…and what it means to be dead.

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The Doll Factory

The Doll Factory

by Elizabeth Macneal

Who doesn’t love a good Victorian thriller, especially when it hides its evil so subtly? London in the 1850s is an exciting time, with the Great Exhibition and the construction of the Crystal Palace well underway. Among the many excited Londoners is aspiring artist Iris, whose only creative outlet is painting faces on dolls for work. Her luck seems to change when she catches the eye of painter Louis Frost, who promises to teach her if she models for him. But Silas Reed, a creepy taxidermist Iris meets, won’t be content until Iris is his—a dream that seems to be slipping away as Iris begins to fall in love with Louis. Disturbing doesn’t even begin to cover the dark and often dream-like world of The Doll Factory, in which author Elizabeth Macneal utilizes art as a way of highlighting both the beautiful and the hideous that lies in all of us.

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Things in Jars

Things in Jars

by Jess Kidd

It’s hard being a female detective in Victorian London, but Bridie Devine is never one to shy away from a challenge. So, when the kidnapping of Christabel Berwick—a supernatural oddity and illegitimate child of Sir Edmund Athelstan Berwick—falls in her lap, Devine is on the case. Unlike the other books on this list, Things in Jars comes with fantastical elements such as ghosts, giants, potions, and more. Additionally, by mixing in suspense and comedy, Jess Kidd is able to take the tried-and-true tropes of the genre and play with them in new and unexpected ways. While there is certainly darkness in store (Christabel’s powers are sought after by many a gross collector), there’s plenty of levity to keep you laughing, as well as sitting on the edge of your seat.

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Burying the Honeysuckle Girls

Burying the Honeysuckle Girls

by Emily Carpenter

If you’re looking for something a little more modern, why not step into 1930s Alabama? Althea Bell is haunted by her mother’s last words: “Wait for her. For the honeysuckle girl. She’ll find you, I think, but if she doesn’t, you find her.” Returning home to reconnect with kin, Althea ends up uncovering a dark family secret, one that she’s due to inherit on her upcoming thirtieth birthday. If you’re looking for Southern Gothic, it doesn’t get much better than Burying the Honeysuckle Girls. Author Emily Carpenter’s rich descriptions of Mobile are second only to the Bell family, in all their complex and unsettling glory. Family shame, missing women, rekindling old flames who might have ulterior motives—all of it awaits those ready to go home.

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The Confessions of Frannie Langton

The Confessions of Frannie Langton

by Sara Collins

At first, The Confessions of Frannie Langton seems to have no real mystery to solve. The titular Frannie, in the London of 1826, is on trial for the murder of her two employers, renowned scientist George Benham and his wife, Marguerite. After all, she was found covered in their blood and claims to have no recollection of what happened—that and her Jamaican heritage seem to seal her fate. As the trial progresses and more and more witnesses attest to Frannie’s poor moral character, we find out just how it is she came to work for Benham. Will her story set her free, or will she pay for the crimes of the society that despises her? Sara Collins’s exquisite character-study-meets-courtroom-drama will enthrall readers as they hunt for the truth, if such a thing even exists.

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The Alienist

The Alienist

by Caleb Carr

Okay, so technically this one is cheating a little, but come on, what better way to prepare for the new season than to dive into the original source material? And, if you're like me, audiobooks hit that sweet spot between TV show and written word, adding something more to the experience. Listen to the dynamic performance of narrator George Guidall as you follow Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, John, and Sara on the hunt for the grisly child murderer loose in New York City in 1896. Plus, it's a great way to recap everything that happened in the first season, while getting some sneak peeks at what's to come in Season 2! And yes, there is also a sequel—The Angel of Darkness—if you need even more thrills on your TBR.

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A reporter by trade, Sara Roncero-Menendez is a lover of horror, sci-fi, and all things pop culture. From indies to classics to even the strangest genre pieces, all movies, TV shows, and books are fair game for a binge-fest. Follow her on Twitter @sararomenen or at her website, www.sara-roncero-menendez.com