Readers, my love of strong literary heroines is no secret. (I did named my blog Modern Mrs. Darcy after the inimitable Elizabeth Bennet.) A great heroine is strong in her convictions, often ahead of her time, and isn’t afraid to take charge (and occasionally take names).
One of my favorite genres, chock-full of amazing heroines to root for, is historical mystery. Historical settings showcase a heroine’s gumption and independence as she shirks expectations for women of her era. Mysteries provide a reason for our heroines to engage in traditionally “male pursuits” like investigation, education, or crime-fighting.
In the Modern Mrs. Darcy Book Club Community, we kicked off our Autumn Reading season with one such heroine: Veronica Speedwell from Deanna Raybourn’s fantastic book A Curious Beginning. According to Raybourn, Veronica “lives to suit herself and is not overly fussed about whether anyone else likes it.” Her character is based on Margaret Fountaine, a butterfly hunter from the Victorian era. Lepidopterology was considered a genteel occupation, so Margaret could make a living hunting insects but still be considered a lady in polite society. Margaret traveled the world, remained unmarried, and pursued a fulfilling life in her own way. Like Margaret, Veronica Speedwell keeps one foot in “proper society” and another in worldwide adventure. But her balancing act becomes difficult to manage as she finds herself in the middle of a mystery.
Raybourn says that, for her, the best mysteries have a good puzzle and strong characterization. A well-plotted puzzle makes you turn the page, but wonderful characters make you careabout what happens next. (She also claims that if the FBI ever gets ahold of her internet search history, she is so going to jail.) You can bet I’m bringing up that last point during my live book club chat with Deanna on September 26th. If you aren’t signed up for the Modern Mrs. Darcy Book Club, you can do that here and mark your calendars for the event. (And yes, we always record these so you can watch later if you can’t make it live.)
My recent return to Veronica Speedwell has me thinking of other historical heroines that carry their own books (and often, as you’ll see, their own series) … so today I’m sharing 20 feisty female protagonists who epitomize strong characterization. Some are brash, bold, and bossy. Others are quiet, cerebral, and strong. Most of them drink copious amounts of tea, and all of them are absolute badasses.
Bonus recommendation: Our September book flight pick is Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye. It isn’t exactly a mystery, but it IS dark, suspenseful, and fun. If you love these feisty heroines, then you’ll adore Jane Steele.
Meet Maisie Dobbs as she trades wartime nursing for her own private investigation practice at the end of WWI. Her first case appears to be run-of-the-mill infidelity, but something tells her to look deeper. When she finds disturbing secrets connected to the Great War, she is forced to confront her own trauma in order to solve the case. Maisie’s strong empathy and nurse’s training make her uniquely suited to detective work, and learning more about her is just as delightful as following the mystery. Note: this series is excellent on audio. More info →
This is our September Book Club pick. Veronica Speedwell travels the world hunting beautiful butterfly specimens and the occasional romantic dalliance. When her guardian dies, the orphaned Veronica expects to embark on a grand scientific adventure. But Veronica quickly realizes that with her guardian's death, she is no longer safe—and she begins to unravel the mystery of why she poses a threat to dangerous men. More info →
Clever, daring, and ahead-of-her-time, Constance Kopp has no interest in being traditional. Family secrets have kept her isolated from the world until an unfortunate buggy accident brings trouble to her doorstep. When a gang-member threatens her sisters and the family farm, she teams up with local law enforcement to take down the criminals. I love the way Stewart brings her leading lady to life in this mostly-true story about America’s first female sheriff. More info →
This YA novel features a top-secret, all-female investigative unit in Victorian London. After being saved from the gallows, Mary Quinn is sent to Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls, where she learns high society manners and how to spy. When Mary turns 17, she is ready to test her mettle. Disguised as a lady’s maid in a rich merchant’s home, she uses her skills to trace the merchant’s missing cargo ships. Danger follows her around every corner as she finds herself in a house filled with secrets. Add some witty dialogue, a little bit of romance, and you have a fast-paced spy novel that appeals to adult readers, too. More info →
This gender-bending Sherlock Holmes series is completely clever. Charlotte Holmes has never been comfortable with high society’s expectations for well-bred women, so she hatches an escape plan. By posing as Sherlock Holmes, Charlotte uses her incredible intellect to solve mysteries and secures the freedom to live as she pleases. When her family falls under suspicion for a series of London murders, Charlotte puts her skills to work to find the real killer and gathers new friends, and enemies, along the way. More info →
Pinkerton detective Kate Warne risks danger and reputation by performing undercover operations on the seedy side of Chicago. She can disguise herself as a lady of the night, a wealthy society woman, or an unnoticeable young maid, depending on her assignment. As Pinkerton’s first female operative, Kate fights for respect at every turn. While the entire country is on the brink of the Civil War, Kate works her way up the ranks and becomes an essential part of American history. Based on a true story, this book follows her dangerous exploits and forgotten contributions with snappy dialogue and a memorable cast of characters. More info →
I adored this one so much, it made the Minimalist Summer Reading Guide in 2018. Perveen Mistry is Bombay’s first female solicitor, employed by her father’s respected firm. When her father’s Muslim client dies, he is tasked with executing the will, but the three devout widows “stay behind the veil,” and must not be seen by men. When the duo discover irregularities in the estate documents, Perveen resolves to speak with the widows, because—as a woman—she’s the only one who can. Perveen understands the cruelty women can endure under the law and vows to protect the widows. Toss in a murder investigation, and you get a tightly-crafted mystery, a vividly-drawn multicultural setting, and a plucky heroine fiercely taking on the challenges of her time. More info →
This steampunk suspense is first in the Parasol Protectorate series, which combines mystery, romance, and the supernatural in a vivid Victorian setting. Alexia Tarabotti is a soulless (literally) spinster with supernatural abilities. When society blames her for disappearing vampires, she sets out to find the real culprit (and drinks plenty of tea whilst doing so). Alexia’s quick wit and wicked parasol-wielding will have you laughing as you speed through the pages. More info →
In her author’s note, Alyssa Cole shares that while she always wanted to write historical romance, she’d “never want to write about THAT. The Civil War, that is.” But after reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’s blog post on the Civil War in The Atlantic, Cole was deeply influenced to bring that time period and its remarkable Black historical figures to life. The heroine, Elle Burns, is based on Mary Bowser, a former slave with an eidetic memory, who spied for the Union. Elle joins forces with another undercover agent—Pinkerton detective Malcolm McCall. Sparks fly as they take on the Confederate Army and risk their lives, and love, for justice. (Note: this one includes open-door romance).More info →
When Molly Murphy arrives in New York in 1901, she breathes a sigh of relief; her dark past is behind her. However, when a man is murdered on Ellis Island, Molly quickly becomes the prime suspect as she was seen arguing with him just before his death. Molly faces jail time if she sets foot back in Ireland, so returning home is out of the question. Instead, she employs her Irish charm and a whole lot of gumption to cross New York City in search of the true killer. Rich historical detail provides the perfect backdrop for this fierce, spunky heroine. More info →
1830’s Scotland lends a deliciously moody setting for this mystery. After a scandal involving her anatomist husband comes to light, Lady Keira Darby seeks refuge at her sister’s country estate. With her artistic talents and knowledge of human anatomy, Keira becomes both detective and suspect when a fellow houseguest is murdered. Despite rumors and threats, Keira presses on in order to protect her family and find the murderer. More info →
Ruby Proulx travels alongside her salesman father, reading cards while he cons people with his “medical miracles.” When his latest stunt goes awry, Ruby finds refuge at the Hotel Belden, a seaside home for Spiritualists owned by her Aunt Honoria. Just as she starts to feel safe, a series of murders near the hotel threatens her new life. In order to protect her secrets and her aunt’s hotel, Ruby launches her own investigation and uses newfound talents to find the killer. More info →
Capability “Kitty” Weeks dreams of reporting on 1915 global politics but resigns herself to write fluff pieces for the Ladies’ Page. Her luck changes when a man is murdered at a high society party, and she’s there to get the scoop. Kitty follows her journalistic instincts to find the killer and winds up uncovering a much bigger conspiracy. Radha Vatsal based Kitty Weeks on early 1910s action film heroines, and Vatsal’s knowledge of the time period will impress even the most avid historical fiction readers. More info →
When you’ve had your fill of Victorian London, visit 1907 Los Angeles, its corrupt police department, and a young woman determined to serve justice. Socialite Anna Blanc wants to be the next Sherlock Holmes. While she has the skill set, her social position prevents her from achieving her dream, so she pays off her chaperone, adopts an alias, and becomes a police matron for the LAPD. When she discovers that the police are covering up several brothel murders, she takes on the investigation and plunges into danger. Add in a dash of romance, and you have a perfectly page-turning mystery. More info →
The Alaskan Territory is no place for a woman on her own, but suffragette and intrepid journalist Charlotte Brody pays no heed to such warnings. She needs a fresh start and travels to Cordova, the frontier town where her brother practices medicine. When a local prostitute is found murdered, Charlotte is the only one willing to investigate. As she digs into the case, Charlotte learns that the woman’s past is not unlike her own. Dangers posed by the Alaskan wilderness are nothing compared to a killer on the loose. More info →
This mystery boasts a dynamic heroine duo and a clever premise. After WWII, Iris Sparks and Gwendolyn Bainbridge open “The Right Sort Marriage Bureau” in order to bring some light and life to London’s citizens, as well as achieve independence for themselves. When their new client is found murdered by the man they paired her with, Iris and Gwendolyn face losing their business before it even gets off the ground. In order to save the Bureau’s reputation, the pair must use their skills and life experience to investigate the murder themselves. This proves to be much riskier than a new business venture. More info →
This Regency mystery series is inspired by our patron saint of feisty protagonists, Jane Austen. Avoiding ruination after a family scandal, Rosalind Thorne makes herself indispensable to London’s most popular ladies as a personal secretary. Her insider connections and discretion prove useful when an aristocrat is found dead in Almack’s ballroom, and the list of suspects includes powerful lords and ladies. When her former suitor falls under suspicion, Rosalind must guard her heart. More info →
Emily didn’t love her husband; theirs was a marriage of convenience, or so she thought. Upon his death, Emily reads his journals and discovers a new, scholarly side to him--and a deep, abiding love for her. Intrigued, she decides to study all things Greco-Roman as a way to connect with the man she lost. After countless trips to the British Museum and hours of studying, Emily discovers a dark secret involving stolen artifacts. She trades her intellectual pursuits for sleuthing, and learns more about herself along the way. More info →
This cozy small-town mystery is perfect for fans of Louise Penny. After serving as a British intelligence officer in WWII, Lane Winslow craves a fresh start. She settles down in British Columbia, in a cozy small town filled with characters who make her feel safe. Of course, her comfort won’t last long. When a body is discovered, and murder suspected, Lane uses her background to help local investigators find the killer. However, she unwittingly casts herself as a suspect and must unravel the mystery without revealing her own secrets. More info →
Widowed and estranged from her wealthy family, Sarah Brandt serves as a midwife in Gilded Age New York. After delivering a baby at a boarding house, she learns that another boarder was found murdered. Sarah agrees to search the young woman’s room for the police and finds an unwelcome connection to her own past. The victim belongs to one of New York’s wealthiest families, whom Sarah knows from her past life. Fearing scandal, they refuse an investigation, but Sarah is unable to rest until the killer is found. More info →
Are you a historical mystery fan? Who are YOUR favorite feisty female protagonists? Please tell us all about your faves in comments!