To me at least the phenomenon of historical fiction which features somewhat feisty females is easily understandable. If you read much actual history, including contemporary primary sources from just about any time before the 20th Century (and a good deal of the stuff written after 1900 too) women don’t appear all that often. When we do we’re generally in the background being demure (if we’re lucky) or being traded like chattel and abused in every way imaginable (when fortune does not smile so kindly upon us). So it doesn’t surprise me that female crime writers enjoy creating imaginary worlds of times gone by in which women participate more equitably in world affairs than reality might have allowed.
One of my recent, and newly favourite, discoveries in this genre is Ariana Franklin who was introduced to me by Norman from Crime Scraps Review (who single-handedly reignited my interest in historical fiction after I’d abandoned the genre many years ago). Franklin is a pseudonym for journalist and writer Diana Norman who sadly passed away earlier this year. So far I’ve read three of the four adventures set in medieval England in which a woman, the rather magnificent Adelia Aguilar, shines. She is part of a team sought out by King Henry II to investigate a gruesome death which is being blamed on the Jewish population whom Henry is sick of offering protection because while he is doing so they’re not out earning money with which to pay him taxes. Adelia is said to be able to ‘read bodies’ which is the skill she brings to the table.
The basic facts of Adelia’s character, including her being trained as a doctor in Italy, are allowed for by historical record according to the Ariana Franklin website. And who knows…the other aspects of her unconventional character such her forwardness, eschewing of romance and disdain for organised religion might well have appeared in real women of the 12th century though we’ll probably never know because they do not make copious appearances in the few contemporary sources remaining. But it’s pretty difficult to imagine that there haven’t always been at least a few women wanting something more than a life of slavery and playing second-fiddle to men.
But the books do not only offer a marvellous protagonist, they are first and foremost tales of adventure and derring-do, with intricate plots and of loads of period detail to become absorbed in. In order the series books are
- Mistress of the Art of Death
- The Serpent’s Tale
- Relics of the Dead (also published as Grave Goods)
- A Murderous Procession (which I own but as it is the last one I’m saving it)
Franklin also wrote a standalone novel called City of Shadows which purports to tell the tale of the last living granddaughter of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia. I do own this one but haven’t read it yet either.
There are a plethora of historical fiction series written by women and many are similarly packed with strong female protagonists, though I have to admit I don’t like them all equally (and one or two have been the subject of a rant). Three I do enjoy and think share Franklin’s attention to period detail, ability to create warm and intelligent characters and willingness to have a little fun and display a sense of humour are
Elizabeth Peters whose novels featuring wealthy heiress Amelia Peabody and her implausible but delightful adventures in the archaeological digs of 1880’s Egypt are a treat I still enjoy. The first book, Crocodile on the Sandbank, was released in 1975 and the 19th book in the series was released last year. Of course Amelia is just a little over the top but I can’t help but get swept up in her various escapades, helped along by the exotic locations and Peters’ attention to detail.
Imogen Robertson whose novel Instruments of Darkness I read last year and thoroughly enjoyed. It’s set in England in 1780 and features as one of two investigators Mrs Harriet Westerman who runs her family estate while her husband is off at sea with the Navy. She does what has to be done and stands up for those less able, even when it gets dangerous for her to do so.
Victoria Thompson whose first mystery set at the very end of the 19th Century and featuring a New York midwife, Sarah Brandt, was called Murder on Astor Place. Sarah, who has been widowed before the book begins, is estranged from her wealthy family and so has to stand on her own two feet from the outset when she alone tackles an investigation into the murder of a young girl (after trying and failing to get either the police or the girl’s parents interested). I somehow lost track of this series but realise there are now 14 books to try, all seemingly named after famous New York streets.
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To celebrate the 25th anniversary of Sisters in Crime (US) author, blogger and current Sisters in Crime board member Barbara Fister issued book bloggers the challenge of writing about women’s contribution to crime fiction. There are three levels of the challenge and I’m aiming for the expert level which requires me to write ten blog posts about works of crime fiction by a woman author and, for each, mention three similar women authors whose works I would recommend. Though I am taking Barbara at her word and using the “whenever” deadline as a concrete goal, so it may take me a while to do all ten posts. And it turns out I might find it hard to stick to recommending just 4 authors per post. Even if you only occasionally blog about crime fiction why not join in the challenge and help celebrate the women who write it? So far for this challenge I have written about: