Top Ten Civil War Mysteries
The Civil War novel is a cottage industry unto itself: library and bookstore shelves sag under the weight of battlefield chronicles brimming with pageantry, gun smoke, valor, and carnage. But within the mystery and thriller genres, the War Between the States has received fairly scant treatment. Which is a shame, because as the ten books listed here so finely demonstrate, those years of national disunion were fertile ground for stories of mystery, suspense, and treachery.
And not all of that intrigue took place in the military theater. As we see from the recent successes of 12 Years a Slave and Free State of Jones—and the enduring popularity of Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain—there was plenty of misery, mystery, and plain horror to be observed off the battlefield, before, during, and after the national upheaval. The ten mysteries and thrillers that follow span that time, from the iniquities that led to war to the aftermath of the conflict.
Historian Shelby Foote famously said that to understand contemporary American, you must understand the Civil War. These books are a thrilling way to get there.
Walk Through Darkness by David Anthony Durham
Only fitting to start the list with the harrowing story of a slave—specifically, a runaway seeking his pregnant lover who has been carried north to Philadelphia. Hounded (literally) by a Scottish immigrant tracker, Maryland slave William must navigate a minefield of danger and betrayal to reunite his family in the era of the Fugitive Slave Act. Durham’s novel is a breathless—and often grisly—account of the inhumanity that led to the nation’s great internecine conflict.
Fallen Land by Taylor Brown
This is a galloping novel of pursuit that calls to mind both Night of the Hunter and William Gay’s Twilight. A young southern bushwhacker defects from his unit to run away with a new love, leaving his former comrades believing he’s murdered their leader in the escape. A protracted, nail-biting chase across the southern landscape ensues. One of Brown’s characters declares, “It’s a evil moment in the world, this war. Evilest I seen, or will.” The reader concurs.
Enemy Women by Paulette Jiles
Jiles’s novel of the Civil War home front opens in Missouri, when “there was hardly anybody left in the country but the women and the children.” Trouble manages to find its way to them nonetheless. When the apolitical Adair Colley is falsely accused of being a Confederate spy, her world transforms from the family farm to the horrors of a women’s prison. Interspersed with excerpts from actual historical records, Enemy Women is a powerful mix of the real and the imagined.
Woe to Live On by Daniel Woodrell and The Wildwood Boys by James Carlos Blake
A tie here: two novels of bushwhacking savagery that show the home front could be every bit as dangerous and brutal as the front lines of the war—differing takes on the Kansas-Missouri border war, but both are brilliant. Woodrell and Blake are masters of language and atmosphere and vividly convey the world of war and its attendant civilian horrors.
The World Made Straight by Ron Rash
Faulkner said the past is never really past, and Rash’s novel of North Carolina bears out the truth of that assertion. Part country noir and part historical meditation, the novel succeeds as both. Rash’s characters live with one foot in the 20th century and one in the 19th—and find life brutal in both.
It seems safe to say that no list of great mysteries is complete anymore without a Burke title on it. Here is the master’s take on the southern experience of the war, complete with conflicting loyalties, the decay of the old order, and Burke’s characteristically evocative prose. Even as the plot compels you to turn the pages, the beauty of the language beckons you to linger.
Busch delves deeply into the psyche of a maimed Union sniper living nocturnally in postwar Manhattan. The disfigured William Bartholomew is haunted by his duty as a sniper—was it valor and service, or cowardice and murder? Add to the mix a mysterious prostitute and an obscure night inspector at work on a book about a great, white whale, and you’ve got a classic historical noir.
Son of the Morning Star by Evan Connell
Novelistic in structure, Connell’s account of Civil War veteran George Armstrong Custer’s Last Stand is one of the most gripping narratives I’ve ever encountered; it starts in medias res with the pinned-down cavalrymen and never lets up. And the enigma of the cocksure Custer and his ill-fated charge remains one of our history’s great mysteries. Not a novel, but paced as strenuously and vividly as the best fiction, and deserving of a place on this list.
For my money, a contender for the best American gothic ever—a vicious little pit viper of a novel. Battle-scarred Union veteran Jacob Hansen only wants peace in his little town of Friendship, Wisconsin, but his respite is short-lived. A cholera epidemic ravages Friendship—and Jacob as well, as his carefully constructed separate peace is rocked to its foundations. The story races along as the reader wonders whether Jacob will survive the plague—or whether he’ll want to. Don’t be put off by the present-tense, second-person narrative: you’ll finish this book feeling like you’ve spent a long night in a soul-baring, face-to-face conversation—with a ghost.
MATTHEW GUINN’s debut novel, The Resurrectionist, was a finalist for the Edgar award. His second historical thriller, The Scribe, is now available in paperback from W.W. Norton. Find him at www.matthewguinn.com.