Casting a Female Sleuth in a Historical Crime Series

As promised, I’m sharing with you the three guest posts I wrote for the recent Kate Clifford blog tour, knowing that many of you would not have seen them. Here is the second, which first appeared here.

I remember the day my new sleuth, Kate Clifford, auditioned for the role. I’d stepped away from the crime genre to write two novels about women in the court of King Edward III, Alice Perrers and Joan of Kent (The King’s Mistress, A Triple Knot). They’d first appeared as secondary characters in my crime novels, and I’d been so taken by them that I wanted to get to know them better. My research for their books took me down paths I had not yet explored, and I came away with a deep admiration for both women. But great frustration as well. I’d grown accustomed to writing about the women who surround and support Owen Archer, the sleuth in my original crime series. They were women of the merchant class—tradeswomen, innkeepers, apothecaries, and midwives, independent, pragmatic, wise. The women of the court did not lack wisdom or strength of character, but they were anything but independent—such is the nature of life in a royal court. I found myself wanting to shake them and point to the door—especially Alice, who had been brought up in the merchant community. Go back! Step out of the shackles! But I was not writing that sort of book—I was filling in the blanks in their biographies, not revising history.

For my next project, I wanted to return to fictional characters whose circumstances might be derived from the archives, but whose stories, whose fates were in my hands. Kate Clifford answered the casting call. She came striding down Stonegate in York, flanked by Irish wolfhounds, her step bold, her gown craftily hiding the small battle axe she wore for protection. She rounded the corner into High Petergate and entered a well-appointed house, received by an elderly couple with the respect due an employer. Curious, I invited her to stay awhile, tell me her story. Once I knew more about her, I couldn’t imagine anyone else in the role. Kate was my new sleuth.

Someone interviewing me about the new series commented that there would seem to be more scope in historical novels for male characters rather than female, and then asked, “do you prefer to write one sex or the other?” I answered that a male sleuth has a potentially wider range of activities in 14th-15th century England than a female sleuth, which is why I crafted Kate Clifford’s background with an eye toward making plausible the ways in which she seems unconventional. And strong. Kate’s background is a combination of women I’ve found in the records, women who took control of their lives and overcame adversity. They are there in the archives if you look; strong women aren’t a modern phenomenon. They took charge of manors and farms when their men went off to war, took over businesses when widowed, or when their husbands were imprisoned, away, incapacitated. Taking charge included defending those manors and businesses as well as managing them. Women knew how to use weapons; I’ve given Kate a childhood on the border with Scotland where that would have been a given.

So Kate’s responsibilities give her a wide scope in the city of York and beyond, where she and her family own property. That doesn’t mean she can plausibly ride off on adventures far afield, as my sleuth Owen Archer does on occasion. She’s more like Owen’s wife, Lucie Wilton, who remains in York when Owen rides off on adventures. She’s an apothecary with a clientele who count on her, and the mother of young children. So, yes, a male character has more geographic scope than a female character. But what I might lose in a variety of locations I gain in the richness of women’s social networks—which in the late middle ages meant humans communicating face to face. Where there’s a community, there’s plenty of material for a mystery writer. So which sex do I prefer writing? Depends on the story. At the moment, I’m enjoying Kate. And even in the Owen Archer mysteries, some of the most dynamic characters are the women in his life.


I must share this amazing statue in Beauvais because–well, she could be Kate, couldn’t she? According to Wikipedia: Jeanne Laisné (born 1456) was a French heroine known as Jeanne Fourquet and nicknamed Jeanne Hachette (‘Joan the Hatchet’). She was the daughter of a peasant. She is currently known for an act of heroism on 27 June 1472, when she prevented the capture of Beauvais by the troops of Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy. The town was defended by only 300 men-at-arms, commanded by Louis de Balagny. The Burgundians were making an assault, and one of their number had actually planted a flag upon the battlements, when Jeanne, axe in hand, flung herself upon him, hurled him into the moat, tore down the flag, and revived the drooping courage of the garrison. In gratitude for this heroic deed, Louis XI instituted a procession in Beauvais called the “Procession of the Assault”, and married Jeanne to her chosen lover Colin Pilon, loading them with favours. As of 1907, there was still an annual religious procession on 27 June through the streets of Beauvais to commemorate Jeanne’s deed. A statue of her was unveiled on July 6th, 1851.

3 Comments on “Casting a Female Sleuth in a Historical Crime Series

  1. Your Kate Clifford’s connection to the historical Jeanne is well done! The hardest part of historical writing, in fiction or non-fiction, is not imposing modern attitudes, working within the reality of earlier lives. You manage this extremely well with your female sleuths! As you point out, there WERE strong women, but they had to work within the world they inhabited, as your women so aptly do. Women have had to explore alternative paths to self-determination and independence for centuries. This is not new to women in any part of the world. It did not begin with the C19 women’s movement in the West. Crime novels set in the past or crime dramas on television or film often get this wrong, which is very frustrating! You give us a much needed alternative to that misguided perspective. Thank you!

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