Over the winter I began gathering books from our local public library for my wife's reading. Why didn't she do so herself? Well, I'm retired and she's still working, the library was closed for browsing (only curbside pick-up) which meant browsing was relegated to online catalog search, and I enjoy browsing (whether online or eyeballing the shelves). I also like to do nice things for my wife. What I discovered in my browsing is that there is an entire sub-genre out there of women mysteries. This is nothing new for me to discover, of course. After all, Agatha Christie is one of the best-selling novelists of all time, and she wrote stories that included not only male detective Hercule Poirot but also strong female sleuths. One BBC writer affirmed that Christie "fought Victorian literary conventions, which saw women painted as frivolous and focused on men, to bring the public gutsy females with great minds," listing four heroines that made Christie "an unlikely feminist icon."
What my wife and I have been noticing and appreciating in our current reading is that "feminist historical mysteries" include some very good reads. Anna Lee Huber is one writer who is currently publishing intelligent, adept mysteries that include strong female protagonists.
Why attach the word "feminist" to her books? Huber is publishing two mystery series, the Lady Darby mysteries, set in the early 1800s, and the Verity Kent series of mysteries, set in the World War I era. Both women protagonists are intelligent "inquiry agents," yet also have to work within a melieu that severely defines and restricts the "appropriate" behavior of women. These women protagonists also are paired with love and work partners who are more open to having equal relationships with women. The result of Huber's characterizations is that not only are the gender limitations of past eras seen but the challenges that face our current times are also illustrated. I like, though, how Huber characterizes the success of the couples as being based in mutual respect and honesty. The main characters are developed in a balanced manner so that gender depictions don't skew into stereotypes.
Huber applies the "mystery" of these feminist historical mysteries with a deft hand. The clues arrive with due diligence, and the suspects are sufficient to keep us guessing. I honestly didn't know who the real culprit was in many of the novels until the very last few pages. As each series progresses, the protagonists become more skilled in their inquiry skills; in addition, the working relationship between the protagonists and their partners deepens. This provides not only the satisfaction of following the trail of bread crumbs the sleuths have to follow but also the engaging in the increasing richness of the relationships as they evolve. The Verity Kent series also adds the mystery "pearl" of a Moriarty-like character to the series. Just as Sherlock Holmes and Watson had their arch-villain rival in Moriarty, so Verity and Sidney Kent have their evil plotter--who shall remain unnamed to avoid spoiling the fun of discovery.
One standard I use to determine an author's skill is whether or not that author is able to credibly develop characters, no matter what gender. Do those characters seem real? Do they come alive on the page? The ability to create believable and relatable characters is one of Anna Lee Huber's strengths as a writer. I've come to realize she's just one of many women writers who have tapped into the interest in "feminist historical fiction." Huber and other writers tap into that fascination by readers that Mark Twain tapped into with his novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Author's Court. Beyond Twain's satire is just the simple allure of a character displaced in time with special knowledge and abilities. Huber has created her women protagonists to have skills, abilities, and predilections that are more modern than the times in which her stories are set. The struggles of these characters--and their partners--to find fulfillment in their lives are not so different than our own (except possibly multiplied by an "x" factor), and that is one secret of Huber's success as a mystery novelist. Because we want to prevail, we want her wily main characters to prevail. If they can do it, then maybe so can we.