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Exploring Diverse Representation of Women in Historical Mysteries

Exploring Diverse Representation of Women in Historical Mysteries

It’s no secret I love historical mysteries. I spent my childhood reading Nancy Drew, The Famous Five and Secret Seven, progressing to Agatha Christie in my teenage and adult years. I rejoiced when the genre moved away from bumbling women who solved mysteries purely by luck to strong, interesting and diverse characters solving crimes through pluck, grit and intelligence in a variety of settings, with a motley crew of supporting characters. In the real world during these time periods, women would have been confined to strictly domestic roles, but in the realm of historical fiction, they emerge as powerful figures, breaking free from patriarchal constraints and asserting their agency in male-dominated spaces.

While the upper class and titled gentry still reign supreme (pun intended) within the historical mystery genre, there are plenty of unique and interesting settings and characters to keep the most mystery addicted reader engaged.

In my new release, The Mayfair Dagger, Albertine is unusual in that she was raised by a scientifically minded father who prided himself on educating Albertine and her brother as equals, however upon his death, due to the inheritance laws of the time, she finds her utterly untrustworthy cousin named as her ‘guardian’. So, she does what any self respecting woman would do – she steals a dogcart and travels to London with her friend-cum-maid and sets herself up as a lady detective hoping to earn her own money, and gaining control over her life, with hilarious results (none of them money making results, much to her chagrin).

Female detectives in historical mysteries highlight the resilience, intelligence, and resourcefulness of women in the face of adversity. These strong and unique women serve as inspiring role models for readers, as they often fight against wider social injustices and help shape readers’ understanding of historical events and women’s roles throughout history, as well as supporting readers to develop empathy and understanding for people from different backgrounds. 

Take Sherry Thomas’ Lady Sherlock series – Charlotte Holmes ruins herself (scandalous!) to remove herself from the oppressive upper class society she lives in. Pretending to be a man ensures she can earn money as a detective and is able to dedicate herself to solving the most puzzling of crimes. The greatest riddle for her though, is emotion. Described by Thomas as “on the very high-functioning end of the autism spectrum” we have front row seats to Charlotte’s internal dialogue as she struggles to understand her friends and family, and show love in a manner that is understood and received by the ‘Neurotypicals’ in her life. And who isn’t a sucker for the ol’ dressed as a man going adventuring trope?!

Laura Joh Rowland’s Victorian Mystery series, beginning with The Ripper’s Shadow, is another outstanding example. Set in Victorian England, this series follows Sarah Bain, a photographer of risqué images of, ahem, ladies of the night, she hunts for Jack the Ripper with a diverse bunch of friends including a street urchin, a gay aristocrat, a Jewish butcher and his wife. Where does one find friends like this, one asks oneself? I’d sign up immediately!

The Harlem Renaissance Mystery Series by Nekesa Afia follows Louise Lloyd, a Black journalist in the 1920s Harlem, as she becomes embroiled in murder investigations while navigating the vibrant cultural scene of the Harlem Renaissance. Think shimmery gowns, dancing, bootleg alcohol and a serial killer hunting young girls…ok, ok, you got me. Nekesa Afia’s own promotional copy beats anything I could write: “if you want a jazz age murder mystery starring a tiny, tired lesbian, look no further than DEAD DEAD GIRLS.”

The recently published The Mayor of Maxwell Street by Avery Cunningham is a delicious addition to the historical mystery genre. Wealthy (albeit newly minted, but one can’t have it all) debutante Nelly Sawyer works secretly undercover as an investigative journalist, who becomes embroiled in a hunt for, you guessed it, the missing mayor. Cunningham does a magnificent job at placing us in 1920’s Prohibition-era Chicago, and the cast of characters include a speakeasy manager, not one but two love interests for Nelly and ALL the fashion.

Sujata Massey writes historical mysteries set in Asia, with her most recent – The Mistress of Bhatia House – gives us India in 1922. Featuring an amateur detective in the form of Bombay’s only female solicitor, Perveen Mistry, grapples with class divisions, sexism, and complex family dynamics. Massey shows beautifully what a complicated country India was at that time, colonised by the British as it was and does an excellent job of defining the social issues in an entertaining and intriguing way.

These characters, among many others, represent the diverse and dynamic portrayal of women in historical mysteries, where strong, dynamic protagonists challenge convention and shape the genre. From Victorian England to 1920s Harlem and beyond, these characters defy societal norms, navigate complex social landscapes, and pursue justice with unwavering determination. Through their stories, readers gain insight into the resilience, intelligence, and resourcefulness of women throughout history, while also confronting important social issues and expanding their understanding of the world. As we immerse ourselves in the rich tapestry of historical mysteries, we celebrate the diversity of women’s experiences and the enduring legacy of their courage and strength.

Now, pour me a gin darling, I’ve got some books to read!