Five of the Best Historical Heroines
Think “historical mystery” and your brain most likely leaps to a flawlessly mustachioed Poirot or sociopathic-yet-dashing Sherlock. While I’m the last one to deny the appeal of a well-placed deerstalker, my own soft spot is for the genre’s clever, determined females.
Maybe it’s the notion of scouting a gruesome murder scene in silk skirts or beating back assailants with an artfully wielded parasol, but it seems like my favorite historical mystery heroines are simply a heck of a lot more fun than their male counterparts. Ellie Mallory, the heroine of my debut thriller, The Smoke Hunter, definitely owes her existence to some of these sleuthing women, even though I decided to give her a mysterious lost city to contend with instead of a dead body.
The following is an entirely arbitrary, not-at-all definitive list of my favorites. Let’s hear it for the ladies.
Amelia Peabody (Egypt, 1884)
If there’s one thing Amelia Peabody would like to teach us, it’s that it pays to be prepared. If one never knows when one might run into murderous villains, one had best go about equipped with pistol, rope, matches, brandy, scissors, and a first-aid kit, among other things. Over the course of her several decades of adventures, this fervent suffragist heroine gets herself out of (and, to be fair, into) countless scrapes, aided on both counts by her marvelously strange family: her force-of-nature husband, Emerson, her incorrigibly brilliant trouble-magnet son, Ramses, and her compassionate and clever adopted daughter, Nefret.
Start with The Mummy Case
Lady Julia Grey (London, 1886)
Lady Julia Grey stumbles into sleuthing alongside the enticingly surly Nicholas Brisbane, whom she meets over the not-quite-dead-yet body of her husband, Sir Edward. As a member of the notorious and aptly named March clan, Julia has rebelled against her family’s unapologetic eccentricity by marrying normal and playing the part of an unremarkable society lady. Edward’s death plunges her into a different world, one that gradually liberates her to embrace her true nature. Julia is a perceptive heroine with a razor-sharp sense of humor, but it’s her good taste in surrounding herself with a fabulously odd set of supporting characters that really makes her tales shine.
Start with Silent in the Grave
Lady Georgiana Rannoch (London, 1932)
Meet the least glamorous aristocrat in literature: Lady Georgiana Rannoch, sister of the Duke of Rannoch. Georgie is thirty-fourth in line to the throne and dead broke, trying to make her way in a world where she can’t get a regular job without raising the ire of her royal relatives. In between avoiding being coerced into marrying repugnant European princes and figuring out how to light a fire and make her own sandwiches, Georgie displays her talents for uncovering killers, often with the help of the charming and aptly named Darcy O’Mara.
Start with Her Royal Spyness
Flavia de Luce (Bishop’s Lacy, England, 1950)
An eleven-year-old prodigy with an astonishing mind for chemistry and a particular interest in poisons, Flavia de Luce has little to occupy her time in the crumbling manor house she calls home and is reduced to using her talent to wreak revenge against her bullying older sisters. (Ever wonder if you could infuse lipstick with poison ivy?) But when the quaint English village of Bishop’s Lacy starts conveniently coming up corpses, Flavia turns her skills to solving crimes. Whizzing about on her trusty bicycle, Gladys, she collects clues, tracks suspects, and irritates the local law enforcement.
Start with The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie
Ellison Russell (Kansas City, Missouri, 1974)
When Ellison Russell unwittingly swims into the corpse of her husband’s mistress, the wealthy socialite and painter is dragged into a regular cluster of kink and blackmail. As a sleuth, she’s admittedly a bit short on detective skills, but she makes up the difference with sarcasm, networking, and sheer blind luck (most of it bad). It’s almost more fun watching her keep on the good side of her harpy of a mother, dodging gossipy women wielding bundt cakes, and generally negotiating the ridiculous social jungle hiding behind Kansas City’s perfectly manicured lawns than it is seeing her catch a killer.
Start with The Deep End
Jacquelyn Benson studied anthropology in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and married a man from Dublin, New Hampshire. She wrote a thesis on paranormal investigators and spent four years living in a museum. When not writing, you may find her turning flowers into wine, herding an unruly toddler, or hiding under a blanket devouring genre fiction. Her debut novel, The Smoke Hunter, will be released on September 13, 2016.