Friday, April 21, 2023

Historical Mystery and the Amateur Sleuth — Perfect Partners! Guest post by Dianne Freeman

When I began the Countess of Harleigh mysteries, all I knew for certain was that I wanted my protagonist to be one of the Dollar Princesses from the late 19th century. These women fascinated me; American heiresses who could not break into “good” society in the U.S.—often due to the way their fathers made their fortunes. Without access to upper-crust families, there was no chance for them to make an advantageous marriage, which was needed to raise the social status of the whole family. Faced with a choice of never marrying or marrying a man from their fathers’ business, many of them chose a third option and decided to hunt for husbands among the aristocracy of Europe—sometimes with the family’s blessing and sometimes with their insistence. 

The more I learned about these women, the more I admired their courage and audacity. They were well educated, well-traveled, and very well polished. They took those traits, and a large dowry, and traded them for a title and entrée to British society. Their families, who were now invited to even the most exclusive drawing rooms, thought it a great deal. But what about the young woman? 

Results varied. 
My protagonist, Frances, married the self-centered heir to the Earl of Harleigh, who took her money, dropped her off at the country manor, and continued to live the life of a bachelor. He did bring her to London for the season once a year, where she made several good connections and a few close friends. Frances became Countess of Harleigh when his father died. And they did have a daughter together. Still, she wasn’t exactly grief stricken when, nine years after the wedding, her husband died—in the bed of his latest lover. 

I began Frances’ story a year later, right at the end of her mourning period. In my opinion, I had a fascinating protagonist, but here’s the problem—I wanted to write a mystery. How could the Countess of Harleigh be a sleuth? What would someone like her have to do with crime or crime solving? It wasn’t until I did a great deal more research that I learned how perfectly the amateur sleuth fits into historical fiction. 

First of all, while police in 1899 were indeed professionals, they weren’t armed with all the tools investigators of today have. CSI and GPS were just letters of the alphabet. Though they brought cameras to a crime scene to document the scene and any suspicious items, there were no security cameras and no footage that might show them a glimpse of a suspect. Even fingerprint identification was still a couple of years off. There were tests to identify the presence of some poisons in the deceased, but there were more toxins available than tests. Basically, once they were called to a crime scene, the police relied on keen observation, interviews with witnesses and other related people, and instinct that comes from experience. 

Coincidentally, those were all traits an amateur could develop. Aha! Maybe Frances as a sleuth could work after all. 

But there’s more. Though policing was well out of its infancy by 1899, the idea of police investigating a crime was still relatively young. People didn’t like the idea of someone in a uniform having the authority to question them, but they were particularly averse to detectives in plain clothes having that authority. That might have stemmed from a scandal twenty years earlier that revealed deep corruption in Scotland Yard. 

The average Londoner may have distrusted police investigators, but generally, they had to tolerate them. The aristocracy didn’t. If they chose not to speak to the police, there was little the officer could do other than attempt to obtain a warrant, which was time consuming and often led to a rejection. 

My amateur sleuth is already part of the aristocracy. She’s “one of them.” She has access to people and places the police may not. And, as an American living in England, she is something of a fish out of water, which makes her a keen observer. The social skills her mother drilled into her allow her to command and maneuver any conversation. Even if she’s a bit direct in her investigative conversation, few people in London society would want to offend a countess by refusing to answer. 

So far, every advantage for Frances would also be true of any man in her role, but as a woman, she has a couple more points in her favor. One of them is time. I don’t know how anyone other than a professional has the time to investigate a crime in a contemporary setting, but Frances has plenty of it. She has servants to run the house, a nanny to care for her child, and no actual job. In that era, most men did work at something. Even a gentleman had an estate to run or Parliamentary duties. Frances may have social obligations, but that’s a plus, since the crimes she investigates take place among society. 

By far her biggest advantage is just the fact that she’s an aristocratic woman. The average man of the day would never expect her to worry her pretty little head over something as ugly as murder. Nor would they expect her to have the intelligence for it. Fortunately, as long as men have been underestimating women, women have proved themselves to be up to any task. In this case, it’s the task of amateur sleuth in a historical mystery, and it’s such a perfect fit. 

Dianne Freeman is the acclaimed author of the Agatha and Lefty award winning Countess of Harleigh Mystery series and a finalist for the Mary Higgins Clark award. Her upcoming novel, A Newlywed’s Guide to Fortune and Murder will be available in June. Visit her at


Deborah Ortega said...

Love this series I cannot wait to read your latest story.

Shirley Landes said...

I recently binge read the entire series. Enjoyed them very much!



Dianne Freeman said...

Sorry, I don't know how to reply to you individually, so thank you both. I'm glad you're enjoying the series!

Anonymous said...

This article was fun background information. Thank you for sharing.

Pamela Ruth Meyer said...

I love this post, Dianne, and I am enthralled by this light and wonderful series you've gifted us. The term you taught us today that people used in the past for a wealthy woman seeking to trade fortune for a title... "DOLLAR PRINCESS" is so degrading that you just know it's one of those things that you can't make up-- if you know what I mean. And I enjoyed remembering your Countess of Harleigh origin story--PURE GOLD. I loved it all over again. Thanks.

Cynthia said...

How fun! Thanks for sharing your thinking behind this series. I am excited for the next book.