Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Women in history, women in mystery

THE WINNERS OF THE FREE BOOKS are Carol, Julie, Nancy, Caryn, and Jane. Send your full names and addresses to me at and I'll put your books in the mail!

Sandra Parshall

History books are filled with heroes -- the men who led nations, waged war, made most of the scientific and technological advances -- but heroines are scarce. Only a few women broke through the cultural barriers to become major figures. In recent decades, women’s studies have given us more insight into the lives of women of the past, but history is still largely about men, both the exceptional and the ordinary. Historical mysteries, though, offer us a legion of strong heroines who take control of their own lives, fight the social constraints of their time, and risk everything in a quest for justice.

Two of my favorite historical mystery heroines are written by Anne Perry. Hester Latterly is a nurse who
worked with Florence Nightingale on the Crimean battlefield and returned to England filled with progressive ideas about patient care, only to run into the brick wall of ignorance erected by male doctors. In partnership with policeman turned private detective William Monk, Hester uses her stubbornness and intelligence to solve crimes. In Victorian England 35 years later, Perry’s heroine Charlotte Pitt goes about crime-solving in a very different way. Charlotte is from an upper class family but has done the unthinkable in marrying a common policeman, Thomas Pitt, and accepting a far lower social status. Charlotte is invaluable to Pitt when he’s investigating crime among the aristocracy, because she can move in and out of that circle with ease. Charlotte is always a lady. She almost always does what is considered socially acceptable. And she’s a heck of a good spy for the cops.

Perry’s deep characterizations and attention to detail set a high standard, but many other writers are creating their own memorable female sleuths in historical settings. I’ll mention just a few you might want to look for.

Rose Melikan began her mystery writing career with The Blackstone Key (Touchstone, 2008), set in 1795 England and featuring Mary Finch, a young woman longing for adventure and dreading a future of teaching at Mrs. Bunbury’s school for young ladies. Europe is at war, England is threatened with invasion, and Mary finds herself embroiled in a deadly plot involving smugglers, secret codes, spies and traitors. Melikan is an American, but since 1993 she has been a Fellow of St. Catherine’s College, Cambridge, focusing her academic research on British political history in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Her historical details are impeccable, and she has a style that beautifully presents the sensibilities of a lively young woman of the period. An interview with the author and a list of discussion questions at the back of the book will be useful to reader groups.

Victoria Thompson’s Gaslight Mysteries feature Sarah Brandt, who grew up in a wealthy home but now works as a midwife in the dreary tenements of 1890s New York. She witnesses poverty, crime, and violence, and together with Detective Sergeant Frank Malloy, she seeks justice for the less fortunate. In the latest book, Murder on Bank Street (Berkley Prime Crime, 2008), Malloy sets out to solve the murder of Sarah’s husband, Dr. Tom Brandt, four years in the past. What he discovers is devastating to Sarah and may destroy any
chance Malloy has for a future with her.

In the Ursula Marlow Mysteries, written by Clare Langley-Hawthorne, a headstrong (and beautiful, of course) young heiress in Edwardian England struggles to keep control of her father’s textile empire. This series has been compared favorably with Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs books. In the second installment, The Serpent and the Scorpion (Penguin, 2008), Ursula is off on a business trip to Egypt, where a new friend is murdered and the friend’s sister dies in a fire at one of Ursula’s factories. Back home in England, Ursula discovers possible links between a former suitor and the murdered women, at the same time she fends off Lord Wrotham’s marital overtures.

Emily Brightwell’s long series of Mrs. Jeffries mysteries should suit those who have read all the Miss Marple novels and long for more of the same. Mrs. Jeffries keeps house for Inspector Witherspoon – and serves as his secret weapon in crime detection. The latest, Mrs. Jeffries in the Nick of Time (Berkley Prime Crime, 2009), has the cunning housekeeper back in action, solving the baffling murder of a train enthusiast who died upstairs while a gaggle of friends and relatives sipped tea downstairs.

Suzanne Arruda, whom I interviewed here recently, places Jade del Cameron in a place and time where adventurous women probably had more freedom than anywhere else on earth: colonial Africa during the 1920s. Jade leads safaris, shoots, flies a plane, and solves murders. In the latest book, The Leopard’s Prey (Obsidian, 2009), Jade has to clear her lover’s name when he is suspected of murder.

Do you read historical mysteries? Which series is your favorite, and who is your favorite heroine?

Want to try one of the mysteries mentioned above? Leave a comment and tell me which book you’d most like to read – The Leopard’s Prey, The Blackstone Key, The Serpent and the Scorpion, Murder on Bank Street, or Mrs. Jeffries in the Nick of Time – and why. I’ll choose a winner for a free copy of each book. Check back tomorrow to find out if you won. Scroll down through Liz Zelvin’s Thursday blog (only after reading it, of course!) and you’ll find the names of the winners added at the top of my blog.


Kay said...

I do read historical mysteries and have loved Anne Perry's books for many years. Charlotte and Hester are two of my favorite historical characters. The Victorian era is probably my favorite for historicals. However, I do love Daisy Dalrymple, Maisie Dobbs, and dear Miss Marple to name a few. My lastest favorite Victorian heroine is probably Lady Emily Ashton in the series created by Tasha Alexander (again, Victorian).

I have at least one book in my to-be-read stacks from all the series you have offered except for Rose Melikan's. That series would be my choice therefore. I love to share new-to-me authors with my mystery book group and having extra interview and reading group info included in the book is helpful in that regard. Plus I just love discovering a new series.

Thanks for offering this opportunity and thanks for highlighting historical series featuring strong, capable women. It is much appreciated!

Helen K said...

My current favorite historical mystery series is the Daisy Dalrymple series by Carola Dunn. I have a Molly Murphy book by Rhys Bowen on my MBR pile.

Of the books you are offering my two favorites are The Blackstone Key because I like accurate historical detail and Murder on Bank Street because I like stories about midwives. It was hard to narrow my choice to even two much less one.

Thanks for reviewing & sponsoring a drawing for this great selection of books.

Euro Crime said...

My favourite historical mystery series is the Amelia Peabody series by Elizabeth Peters, thus the one that appeals the most from the list is The Serpent and the Scorpion, which also has the Egyptian setting and is set in the same or similar era :). I'd love to find more authors who write like Elizabeth Peters...

Bridget said...

I like all things Egyptian, so I'd most like to read The Serpent and the Scorpion, but I'd be happy to read any of the books. I love mysteries with strong female characters.

Jane said...

I've enjoyed most of the authors you discuss, but the title I've been waiting for is Suzanne Arruda's, The Leopard's Prey. I fell in love with the series when I discovered it last year and hope it has a long and successful life.

caryn said...

I guess I'd go for the Mrs. Jeffries. She is a major comfort read for me.
I read a lot of historical fiction in general because it allows me to travel to places and times I would otherwise miss.
I just finished The Commoner by John Schwartz about the first commoner to marry into the Imperial family of Japan. It closely shadows the life of Empress Michiko (until the end). It's not a mystery though.
My favorite historical mysteries are:
Anne Perry's Charlotte and Thomas Pitt books
The Victoria Thompson books
Beverle Graves Myers Tito books
Amelia Peabody by Elizabeth Peters and the Mrs Jeffries series.
I like them all for different reasons.
I really loved Dianna Day's Fremont Jones and also a series that took place in Seneca, New York...I can't seem to come up with the author's name..something Monfredo I think, but those series both ended. DRAT.
I really liked Sharan Newman's The Shanghai Tunnel but when talking with her last year I got the feeling it was not going to be a series. Double DRAT.
Caryn in positively springy St. Louis

BousMama said...

What a great contest! I would LOVE to read Murder on Bank Street. I haven't read a good historical for a long time and this one sounds really interesting.

Anonymous said...

Haven't got anything to offer, but I'm mightily intrigued by most of these books. Thanks for the info. I think my TBR pile is going to teeter a little more....

Susan D said...

That last comment wasn't Anonymous. It was me. Blogger went and submitted it of its own accord before I was finished.

Julie said...

Enjoyed your post. I, too, love both of Anne Perry's series.

Thanks for having the book drawing. They all sound interesting, but the Egyptian setting of Secret and the Scorpion is really intriguing.

Joyce said...

I'd love to read The Serpent and the Scorpion. I read Consequences of Sin last year, and I hoped then that Clare Langley-Hawthorne would continue the series right away. Egypt has interested me since I was in sixth grade (a very long time ago). In fact, I became quite notorious at my elementary school for reading a book deemed "too old" for me. It was Mika Waltari's The Egyptian.

Lonnie Cruse said...

I'm a huge Anne Perry fan, have been for years, so it was a real treat to meet her in person the last time I attended Love Is Murder in Chicago. Great writer, great person. I'll have to check out some of the others you listed, Sandy. Great post.

Anonymous said...

My mom and I have both read all of Anne Perry's books. I think that Charlotte is my favorite of the two main heroines, though.

Of the books that are listed, I think I would like to read either of the first two, but especially Murder on Bank Street, as I haven't read anything by that author yet. It's always fun to find a new author to enjoy!

pennyt said...

I love historical mysteries, particularly those set in the late 1800s and early 1900. Like many of those who have commented, I'm a fan of Rhys Bowen and Carola Dunn. I've read most of Victoria Thompson's books and would very much like to win a copy of Murder on Bank Street. Thanks for the opportunity to increase my TBR pile.

Carol said...

I love Anne Perry's books! I've read a lot of them and will keep buying them until I have them all. I also like Maisie Dobbs. I would read any of the books that are being given away but my first choice would be Murder on Bank Street.
Carol M
mittens0831 AT

Nancy A. said...

I love historical mysteries, and it's hard to narrow down the list of favorites to just one. There's Sharan Newman's Medieval series with Catherine LeVendeur, set in 12th-century (I think) France, Laurie King's Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes novels, and of course the wonderful Amelia Peabody series by Elizabeth Peters.

It's hard to narrow my choices among those you're offering, but I'd probably go for Rose Melikan's since it's the first in the series. The elements of spies and smuggling also sound appealing: I love a good adventure!

Thanks for offering the free books, Sandy, and thanks for highlighting the historical mystery genre. There are so many good ones out there. What better way to escape the winter blues and transport yourself to another time and place?

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

It wouldn't be fair for me to be in the contest, but I just read Ariana Franklin's Mistress of the Art of Death and found it absolutely delightful. One blurb compared it to historical novelist Judith Tarr's books about the period of the Crusades, and I thought it had something of that flavor--with murder, of course. And the "art of death" is pathology.

Leslie Budewitz said...

I love historicals, although my taste has varied over the years. The only current series on my must-keep-up list is Margaret Frazer's Dame Frevisse series. And while I'm not stuck in the medieval period, I also highly recommend Jeri Westerson's debut, Veil of Lies.

Of the 5 mentioned, the one that most intrigues me is The Leopard's Prey.