Bowery Boys Bookshelf

Here’s 25 essential historical novels set in New York City. Help me expand the list to 50 titles!

As a follow-up to last month’s list of essential non-fiction books about New York City, here’s my list of 25 favorite historical fiction novels written in the past one hundred years, using the history of the city as a backdrop for drama, mystery, fantasy and romance.

There are really two types of historical fiction — recollection and period.  Books like Edith Wharton and Betty Smith hearken back several decades in the past using the authors’ own experiences to create lasting, classic narratives. Well-researched American period fictions (once the domain of European swashbucklers) came into popularity in the 20th century thanks to authors like James Michener and Margaret Mitchell, telling big, far-flung stories using the past as both a driving engine and a form of decoration.

Historical fiction novels set in New York City are more popular today than ever before.  My list below reflects both old classics and newer releases, literary fiction and genre.  To make the list, the book had to be written in the past 100 hundred years and reflect on an era of New York City 20-30 years before the book’s publication.

There’s even a couple pure fantasy books on this list; after all, aren’t they all somewhat fantasy to some extent?

But I know this is an imperfect list.  All of the books in the list above are fantastic, but this is far from comprehensive.  I need your help to make it better!  I’d like to expand this to an Essential 50 list, using your suggestions.

Is there a glaring omission? Any recent historical fictions that are begging for inclusion?  Please give me your suggestions in the notes below, on the Bowery Boys Facebook page, or via email (

Note I’m distinguishing between regular novels (written from the perspective of the present or recent past) and New York City historical novels (which specifically use the past as a plot element and are set back at least 20-25 years).  For instance, The Great Gatsby and Catcher In The Rye are classic New York books, but I don’t consider them historical fiction, as they are set in or near the period in which they were written.   There will be other lists in coming months to include any books this parameter might leave out.

I’ll take all the suggestions, narrow them down to 25 and add them to this list to make a definitive recommended reading list next week.  (For an idea of what this will look like, check out 50 Favorite New York City History Books Chosen By Bowery Boys and Readers from last month.)

Thanks for your help and happy reading!

22 replies on “Here’s 25 essential historical novels set in New York City. Help me expand the list to 50 titles!”

This may be stretching the definition of historical fiction and entering the realm of fantasy (though no more so than Fortress of Solitude), but The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay?

Great list!

The Amazing Adventure of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon would be a fantastic addition! I recently read it and absolutely loved it. (Although it was published in 2000 with the plot starting in 1939 and spanning a few decades, so I’m not sure it meets your criteria)

◦ Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Truman Capote (written in late ’50’s set in 1940’s. Maybe this belongs to the The Great Gatsby and Catcher in the Rye category.)
◦ Underworld, Don Delillo (homeboy, represent)
◦ The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Michael Chabon
◦ Ten Thousand Saints, by Eleanor Henderson (recent–2011–set in the 1980’s)
◦ Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates (written in 1961 but set in the NY in the 1950s. Maybe this too belongs in the The Great Gatsby and Catcher in the Rye category)
◦ The Godfather, Mario Puzo (written in the 1960’s, set in mid 1940’s – mid ’50’s)
◦ The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen
◦ Last Days of Summer, Steve Kluger (40’s Brooklyn, published 1990s)
◦ Zone One by Colson Whitehead (future(ical) fiction?)
◦ I know she’s already represented, but Edith Wharton’s Old New York

Great books and selection, nonetheless.

Two Brooklyn-centric choices which I recommend:

“The Pale Blonde of Sands Street” by William Chapman White and “The Amboy Dukes” by Irving Shulman. Both books are set in neighborhoods (Brownsville and the Navy Yard) which have completely changed since they were written; and, they offer excellent glimpses into a long gone past. Neither are “historical” novels per your definition; although, since most people reading your blog have never read either, they can be considered as such if read today.

A recent novel: The Virgin Cure by Ami McKay.

My first thought was Winter’s Tale, but I see you’ve got that!

Right now I’m also reading The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker. It is set in 1899 in New York City.

If no one said “Carlito’s Way” and “After Hours” by Edwin Torres, they are from long enough ago to historical at this point. Also, “The Celebrant” by Eric Rolfe Greenburg and “The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love” by Oscar Hijüelos.

The rest of the Beverly Swerling and Kevin Baker books. The Mevrouw Who Saved Manhattan. Knickerbocker’s History of New York. Homer & Langley.

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