Women in historical mysteries

Even in the sub-genre of historical mystery there are specialists. Some focus on one country such as Italy, Greece or Egypt. Others look only at real people as sleuths. With a few exceptions, I read stories set outside the United States and prior to 1900. One very interesting, and growing, specialty is women detectives. The people behind the Women in World History web site have compiled an excellent list of over 100 titles with women characters in historical mysteries. The titles are arranged by geographical area and then by time period with about two-thirds of the books being set outside the United States. Each title is given a brief review with details about both the plot of the book and the principal female character. Included are well-known sleuths such as Carola Dunn’s Daisy Dalrymple and Kathy Lynn Emerson’s Lady Susanna Appleton, but also some less well-known such as Barbara Cherne’s Giuditta. When dealing with a book series, the site authors have wisely chosen the first book of the series to review. The overall mission of the site is to promote their educational curriculum and the selection of books and the reviews reflect this goal. Relatively recent titles, such as Barbara Cleverly’s The Tomb of Zeus, indicate that the list is still being updated. However, I did not see last year’s My Lady Judge by Cora Harrison featuring the character of Mara, Brehon of the Burren.

Given that women’s rights and freedoms, especially universal suffrage and property ownership, are relatively modern phenomenons, one might be surprised by the number of different characters on this list. As the site owners point out, “Some writers feature female sleuths as a conscious way to revise stereotypes about women. They bring attention to the fact that there always have been strong women in the past. . . . We often find that many of the female characters we’ve reviewed in surprising ways have access to a variety of life styles and can pass between social classes at will.” Still, many of the characters reviewed come from the ecclesiastical ranks or have upper class backgrounds and the resulting degrees of literacy, education, freedom of movement, and wealth are advantages in their detective work. Less surprising is the fact that the vast majority of authors are women given the demographics of both new authors and the book-buying public. For fans of female detectives or just fans of historical mysteries, this is a valuable resource.

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