Both of these historical mysteries focus on women with strong professional lives. But one of them works much better than the other.
Reflecting changes in society, mystery writers have expanded their venues from the days when books cast female protagonists as teachers or nurses. Now, it seems, the sky is the limit.
In The Midwife’s Tale
, by Sam Thomas (Minotaur), widowed Lady Bridget Hodgson is a midwife in mid-17th-century York, England. Hers is a traditional woman’s occupation, but one that comes with obligations unheard of today. For example, midwives of that period were required by law to forcibly examine any unmarried woman if someone thought she was pregnant. And if the woman didn’t reveal the name of the father, she was subject to whipping. There’s more--and it’s not pretty. It’s clear that midwifery is a tough job, both emotionally and physically.
Bridget’s friend Esther Cooper is accused, and then quickly convicted, of poisoning her husband. However, Bridget is convinced of her innocence. Unfortunately, her attempts to free her friend bring her into conflict with the local political establishment.
Since this tale takes place during an era of civil unrest
involving the conflict between the Parliament and the King of England, there is a
strong historical subtext that wraps around the main, fictional yarn. We learn something of the political turmoil, but it’s done with a light hand, and it never overpowers the story.
Meanwhile, in Lady of Ashes
, by Christine Trent (Kensington), we find Violet Morgan, an undertaker in Victorian-era London. She was trained by her husband in a field where women are unheard of. When she investigates a series of suspicious deaths, there is someone to stymie her at every turn. What’s more, her husband develops serious social ambitions that come between them.
My main problem with Trent’s novel is that you might mistake it for a primer on Victorian funeral practices. There’s a fine line between verisimilitude and a textbook, and Trent crosses it.
Then, late in its progression, the story starts to read like part of a romance novel. That doesn’t help.
The pleasure of a historical novel is that it lets you visit a time and place that is probably unfamiliar. You shouldn’t have to worry that there might be a quiz on the material. ◊
Roberta Alexander is an editor and mystery reviewer in the San Francisco Bay Area, as well as a member of the National Book Critics Circle.
Labels: crime fiction, Roberta Alexander