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