I’ve been gathering research for a stand alone mystery set in 1926, for writing next year, while at the same time working on getting the third Trudy Genova Manhattan Mystery, Death in the Orchard, ready to print in the spring. Such is the life of a writer, juggling multiple balls and plot lines, and now, eras.
It’s my first foray into a non-contemporary novel, with the challenges of getting those period details, customs, social mores right, giving me even more increased respect for the historical writers I enjoy reading. It feels like wading into a different world, where things like cell phones and the internet didn’t exist, and the language and slang are different.
Historicals with women leads show their strength and independence, as they battle against societal expectations for women in their era. Here are a few of my personal favorites, characters whose authors have gotten it right:
Sujata Massey was born in England to parents from India and Germany, and has always been interested in international affairs. After writing a long series set in Japan, she created Perveen Mistry, a 1920s lawyer who is Bombay’s first female solicitor, and who works in the esteemed firm of her father, but is unable in 1921 to appear independently in court.
There are other considerations, too, of a social nature that Massey teaches us as we learn of the constraints of a working woman in 1920s India, finding her place within a traditional family. With an assured and evocative sense of place, wrapped within a challenging mystery, these are all winners that open a window onto what women of varied social strata faced.
The first Perveen Mistry novel, The Widows of Malabar Hill, won the Agatha, Macavity, and Mary Higgins Clark Awards. The fourth and newest in the series, out now, is The Mistress of Bhatia House.
Deanna Raybourn’s Veronica Speedwell series feature a main character based on a real butterfly hunter from Victorian times.
As a lepidopterologist, the orphaned Veronica travels the world while maintaining a foot in what society expects of her. Financially independent, she finds herself embroiled in handsome men and fascinating mysteries.
A Curious Beginning starts this much read and loved series. Number nine in the series, A Grave Robbery, will be out in 2024.
I’ve spoken before of my fondness for the Josephine Tey series Nicola Upson writes, which has taken us to Mont St. Michel in Cornwall, to Suffolk and the Mystery of the Red Barn, to the theatre world Tey inhabited as the author of plays under the pen name Gordon Daviot.
Using the crime novelist’s pen name for the character she’s created, Upson brings Josephine through a series of British crimes in different settings in the UK. It helps that her good friend is Scotland Yard detective Archie Penrose.
The previous books have all been set in the UK until now, when Upson takes Josephine across the pond in 1939 so we experience a transatlantic crossing, to train west to Hollywood, where Alfred Hitchcock’s filming of Rebecca is in progress.
A murder investigation back in England has ties to the cast and crew of the filming. Upson’s meticulous research imbues the book with details of the filming of Daphne Du Maurier’s famous gothic novel. If you haven’t discovered this series of eleven books yet, the first is An Expert in Murder.
We jump to post World War II, where Iris Sparks and Gwendolyn Bainbridge have started The Right Sort Marriage Bureau to assure their own income and remain independent.
This readable series has it all, from the pressures brought on Gwen as a war widow from an upper class family, to the very modern Iris, with her complicated past work for the government and her romantic entanglements.
Each of the seven in the series lead the two friends to call on their prior experiences for a twisted mystery. Details of postwar London plus their interesting backstories of both women add to these well-plotted mysteries, that often revolve around clients who’ve come to their agency seeking a partner.
There are seven in the series by Allison Montclair, with Murder at the White Palace due in 2024.
You know you are in talented hands when an eleven-year-old girl can lead a series through eleven books and remain a constant character of interest.
Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce series starts in 1950, and is a startling twisted mystery, full of the complicated chemistry that so delights and fascinates the precocious Flavia, and her dysfunctional family still grieving the loss of their matriarch.
Throw in a couple of older sisters, and a staff who love and support Flavia’s eccentricities, and you have a recipe for a delightful read that also has moments of sorrow. It’s an assured hand that can travel these roads, throw in complications, and retain a delicious mystery that a young girl can solve.
These will appeal to YA readers but the bulk of Flavia’s devotees are adult readers. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie starts this series, which won multiple awards with good reason.
These are my top historical that feature strong women protagonists. Who are yours?