The further back in history they go, the more inventive mystery writers have to be if they want their sleuths to be women. After all, the crime-solving detectives must not only go down mean streets in search of evidence but also be able to deal with the sordid types they find there – and they’ve usually got to have at least some ability to invoke the rule of law. For most of human history, the vast majority of women in the vast majority of societies were just as powerless and brutalized as a smaller but stubbornly persistent majority of women are still today. They couldn’t vote or exercise power in their societies; they were quite often bartered and sold like chattel (and indeed legally designated as such); and in what could charitably be termed their private lives, they were, as Virginia Woolf has put it, “locked up, beaten, and flung about the room.”
But mystery writers are nothing if not inventive! They (and their readers) want their female sleuths, and they’ve come up with dozens and hundreds of creative ways around the constraints of history. They’ve given us queens and pharaohs and other very rare female rulers, and they’ve given us wives helping their doltish husbands behind the scenes, whispering advice in the marital bed. And they’ve taken a page from the history books and given us the type of woman who most often throughout the ages enjoyed at least some measure of socially-respected autonomy: widows – women who’ve done their duties as brides and wives, mourned in public when their husbands died, and now own the property and control the money and sometimes take on the respect of their late husbands.
We meet just such a formidable widow in the historical mysteries of Andrea Japp: strong-willed young Agnes de Souarcy, who rules a prosperous country manor in the France of 1304, when the Catholic Church and the King of France are struggling for temporal power, with the people and especially the landowners of the countryside of Normandy caught in the middle. Japp is a prolific mystery and thriller author, and Gallic Books has recently begun bringing out the Lady Agnes mysteries in English-language translations.
The volumes themselves are a bit odd. Japp wrote four novels in her La Dame sans terre series, and Gallic presents them in two thick paperbacks, each containing two novels – and yet the books themselves are called The Lady Agnes Mystery, singular, volumes 1 and 2 (it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that the “mystery” in the titles is simply a mistake that should be “mysteries”). The first volume combines The Season of the Beast and The Breath of the Rose (translated by Lorenza Garcia); the second volume combines The Divine Blood (translated by Lorenza Garcia) and Combat of Shadows (translated by Katherine Gregor), and these four mysteries begin with a series of dead bodies being found in the forest near Souarcy, their faces savaged as though by wild animals, and near them, enigmatic clues that seem to point the finger of suspicion at Lady Agnes herself.
Throughout these books, Japp does a very effective job of evoking the atmosphere of the late Middle Ages, and her translators in general do a good job conveying her skillful blend of colorful writing and forensic bluntness (Japp is Patricia Cornwell’s French translator):
How long had the body being [sic] lying in this tiny clearing over half a league from the nearest dwelling? It was difficult to tell, especially given the state of the shrivelled brown skin. Then again he saw no sign of any bluebottles, although it was the season for them. He circled the pitiful remains and crouched a few feet away. Through a tear in the linen shirt he glimpsed a large blister covering the small of the back that was filled with a yellow liquid. Aiming again with the end of the stick, he burst it, and turned his head just in time to avoid vomiting on his breeches. A small sea of maggots tumbled from the wound cavity. The bluebottles had had the time to lay their eggs, and the warm weather had favoured the larvae’s development. The man must have been dead for at least three weeks.
“Now, let us suppose that for some unknown reason I am a bloodthirsty monster. I do not know why, but I kill men. And I try to make my crimes look like the work of a wild beast. A bear perhaps; they are to be found in our forests. Would I really be so foolish as to simulate an attack by setting about the face and nothing else, not even the clothes? Why, any serf or huntsman would see through it immediately. Even your half-witted sergeant was not fooled! A five-year-old child could see that this was no animal. And this leads to my question: is the killer a simpleton, or much cleverer than you imagine?”
Such confrontations occur throughout these enjoyable novels, and they spread and multiply, since Japp is very skilled at fleshing out her large cast of secondary characters. Gallic Books could make worse decisions than to commission translations of more mysteries from this author.
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