The best female sleuths of the Gilded Age

Dianne Freeman Author Of A Lady's Guide to Etiquette and Murder
By Dianne Freeman

Who am I?

I’m the author of the Countess of Harleigh Mystery series. I’ve been fascinated by the Gilded Age/Victorian Era/Belle Epoque since reading my first Edith Wharton novel, The Buccaneers, which followed the lives of four American heiresses of the late 19th century, who crossed the Atlantic to marry British lords. Love and marriage almost never went together in Wharton’s world, but with all the loveless marriages, the social climbing, and the haves and have-nots, I find it makes an excellent setting for a mystery.

I wrote...

A Lady's Guide to Etiquette and Murder

By Dianne Freeman,

Book cover of A Lady's Guide to Etiquette and Murder

What is my book about?

This is the first book in the Countess of Harleigh mystery series, featuring amateur sleuth, Frances Wynn, Countess of Harleigh. Frances comes from Gilded Age New York and was one of the hundreds of American heiresses who crossed the Atlantic to marry a man who needed her fortune and had a title to trade. 

The series opens ten years after the wedding. Frances is now a widow and is eager to break with her in-laws, but the ghosts of the past follow her to her new home in Belgravia. Frances must unravel the truth about her husband’s death and unmask the killer in her midst before the season—and her life—comes to an unseemly end.

The books I picked & why

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What the Dead Leave Behind

By Rosemary Simpson,

Book cover of What the Dead Leave Behind

Why this book?

Frances lives in the Victorian Era in London, but in her hometown of New York, it’s the Gilded Age. This is her background in all its glittering and horrifying glory. 

Crime novels fit quite naturally in this era. I love a loathsome villain and Rosemary Simpson serves up some of the worst in her Gilded Age series. She uses actual events, like the great blizzard of 1888, as catalysts for some heinous crimes. If you needed to dispose of a body, what better place than a snowdrift? 

Prudence MacKenzie, the dead man’s fiancé and our sleuth, doesn’t seem to realize the danger she’s in. I spent the entire read on the edge of my seat wondering if she’d make it to the end of the book alive. This is historical noir in elegant Gilded Age style.

A Death of No Importance

By Mariah Fredericks,

Book cover of A Death of No Importance

Why this book?

I think Jane Prescot is the perfect sleuth for this story of old money versus new money in 1910 New York City. She is a ladies’ maid to the new money Benchley daughters and she’s determined to keep them out of trouble. Her task becomes more difficult when Charlotte Benchley’s brand new fiancée is murdered. 

Jane is uniquely positioned to move through the city streets as well as into the homes of the upper crust. She’s smart, resourceful, and tenacious, but it’s her loyalty to her not-so-nice employers that had me rooting for her to uncover the killer. It definitely gave me Upstairs, Downstairs as well as Downton Abby vibes.

Murder on Astor Place: A Gaslight Mystery

By Victoria Thompson,

Book cover of Murder on Astor Place: A Gaslight Mystery

Why this book?

This book begins a long-running mystery series featuring another unusual protagonist—midwife Sarah Brandt. This is one of the first historical mysteries I read, and it made me come back for more! It also fascinated me with details about policing in that era. It was more business than service. If someone wants a crime solved, they are offered a reward—or bribe. Policemen themselves had to pay to work their way up the department ladder. I love the chemistry between Sarah and police sergeant, Frank Malloy. She often serves as his conscience while he keeps her safe. 

Murder at Marble House

By Alyssa Maxwell,

Book cover of Murder at Marble House

Why this book?

This series is actually set in Newport, Rhode Island but New York’s elite had to have somewhere to go when the summer heat settled on the city. Reporting on all the Newport society news is Emma Cross, second cousin to Cornelius Vanderbilt. I have to admit that I’m fascinated by the lives of these uber-wealthy characters. Their homes, wardrobes, and entertainments are almost shocking in their opulence. I love that many of the characters are real people. In this book, Alva Vanderbilt loses any hope of winning the Mother-of-the-Year award as she browbeats her daughter Consuelo into marrying heir to the Duke of Marlborough. If money can’t buy happiness, maybe a title will.

A Deadly Fortune

By Stacie Murphy,

Book cover of A Deadly Fortune

Why this book?

This novel embraces all the darkest elements of the Gilded Age—the occult, greed, cruelty, and the notorious asylum for the insane on Blackwell’s Island and I’m here for all of it! The sleuth is Amelia Matthews, a psychic who suffered a head injury that both expanded her psychic ability and landed her in Blackwell Asylum. She is not insane, but neither are many of the other women locked up with her—at least not when they first arrived. It’s chilling to know that this really happened to women who were betrayed by their nearest and dearest. Stacie Murphy made me feel like her characters were real, and I wanted justice for them! 

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