Most of my blogs in this series have been about non-fiction books, but occasionally I write about fiction, most often mysteries. I have lately discovered a mystery sub-genre that is set in 1920s or 1930s Great Britain and features lone female detectives. Two different examples of this genre are Rhys Bowen’s series of “Royal Spyness” novels and Jacqueline Winspear’s “Maisie Dobbs” series. The heroines in these two series come from opposite ends of the British social spectrum with one series featuring humor while the other is more serious. Joining these two authors, Ashley Weaver, a Louisiana librarian, has published Murder at the Brightwell, the first book in a new series in this type of mystery.
Bowen’s heroine, Lady Victoria Georgiana Charlotte Eugenie, the sister of the impoverished Duke of Atholl and Rannoch, a penniless Scottish family, is a second cousin to George V and is 34th in the line for the throne. Using her, the Rannoch family, and her friends, Bowen pokes fun at the British aristocracy. At the outset of the series, Georgiana moves into the family town house in London to get away from the Rannoch’s drafty Scottish castle and her sister-in-law, whom she detests. Through most of the series, Georgiana lives in London with no servants and little money, thanks to her father gambling away his fortune in the French Riviera casinos and then committing suicide, leaving Georgiana’s brother with expensive death duties to pay. On the other side of her family, Lady Georgiana’s mother is an actress, the daughter of a retired Cockney policeman. The series is populated with real people including King George V and Queen Mary, their eldest son David (who became Edward VIII) and the love of his life, Wallis Simpson. In fact, Queen Mary encourages Georgiana to spy on David and his inappropriate American lover. Her adventures include showing London to a German princess, whose knowledge of English comes from American gangster movies, helping her sister-in-law entertain a castle full of obnoxious guests, including the Prince of Wales’ favorite American, Wallis Simpson, representing the Royal Family at a wedding in Transylvania, retrieving a snuff box belonging to Queen Mary from a shady British earl, etc. In the latest episode, she accompanies her mother to Reno, Nevada to get a quickie divorce from her Texas millionaire step-father. Georgiana has a habit of showing up where murders are taking place, so not surprisingly, she becomes a suspect, especially when she is abroad.
Maisie Dobbs comes from a similar background to Georgiana’s mother. Maisie’s mother dies when Maisie is thirteen, so her father, a cockney costermonger, persuades one of his rich customers to take Maisie into service as a maid. When the lady of the house discovers Maisie reading in their library early one morning, she recognises her young servant has above average intelligence and decides to see to her education. Eventually Maisie is accepted into the women’s college at Oxford, but World War I interrupts her education. She enlists as a nurse and is sent to France, where she meets a doctor and falls in love. Tragedy strikes when their aide station is hit by an artillery shell, seriously injuring Maisie and the doctor. Returning to England, Maisie continues her education and then fulfills her ambition to be a private detective. Although the war is long since over, Maisie carries external and internal scars that influence her life and the cases she investigates. The series is full of characters, like Maisie, who have to deal with physical and psychological effects from their experiences in the war. Her assistant, Billy Beale, is one of these. The doctor she served with in the war is another. In the latest episode, Maisie finds herself in Gibraltar, on the southern tip of the Iberian peninsula, with the Spanish Civil War raging close by on the other side of the border. She is drawn into intrigue that puts her life in danger.
Set in England in the same time period as the other two series, Ashley Weaver’s Murder at the Brightwell falls between the satire of the “Spyness” novels and serious themes of the “Maisie Dobbs” stories. The main character, Amory Ame,s is a wealthy young woman married to a playboy who would rather travel the globe than stay home with his wife. Amory lets a former fiancee talk her into going to a ritzy hotel on England’s south coast to help talk his sister out of a bad marriage. Of course, murder rears its ugly head. Amory finds herself a suspect, but then her wandering husband shows up and they solve the case together. Amory will appear in the second book in the series, Death Wears a Mask, due to be published in October this year.