Midwife Mysteries

Midwives are known for delivering babies, but as mystery writers well know, they are also keepers of secrets. Their job takes them from the echelons of society to the truly desperate, which makes them excellently placed to suss out the truth of a crime. All of the books I mention in this post are just as good if you like historical fiction over mystery, so they have crossover appeal.

Called to Justice by Edith Maxwell takes place in a Massachusetts factory town in 1888. While at the Fourth of July festivities, a mill girl confides to Rose Carroll, a midwife, that she is pregnant out of wedlock and feels compelled to keep the name of the father secret. Rose agrees to help her, but before anything can be done, the mill girl is shot dead during the fireworks display. In between her duties as a midwife Rose looks into the case, especially when a fellow Quaker is arrested for the crime, almost entirely because of his African heritage. This is a cozy with fine period detail, including descriptions of the midwife's trade. The finely drawn characterizations also recommend it. While the Society of Friends is much different from the Amish, the out-of-the-mainstream religious beliefs may appeal to those who like books about the Plain Folk.

Margaret Lawrence's Hearts and Bones is situated also in New England, but 1786 Maine. Hannah Rufford is a midwife and healer in her small town, and when she walks in on a murder scene of a young mother. A letter purportedly written by this victim accuses three separate men of raping and then killing her, but the victim was known to be illiterate. One of the accused happens to be Hannah's married lover, so she's on the case. Lawrence does an excellent job of creating Hannah's world, with the wounds of the Revolutionary War still fresh and the consequences of teaching women to be subservient in everything having their own deleterious effects.

Victoria Thompson writes the long-running Gaslight mysteries, of which Murder in the Bowery is the latest. Set near the turn of the last century in New York City, midwife Sarah Brandt and her friend, the ambitious policeman Frank Malloy, are caught up in the investigation of a newsboy's death. The newsboy's brother has a tale to tell of a risk-taking debutante, which implicates several members of her family and beyond.  Thompson's books are notable for their descriptions of Old New York and their focus on social issues of the time.

And finally, we go across the pond to Oliver Cromwell's England for Samuel S. Thompson's The Midwife and the Assassin. Bridget Hodgson is a gentlewoman midwife who, after receiving a mysterious letter, heads to London from the English countryside with her assistant, Martha. Roped into spying for Cromwell's government, Bridget and Martha insinuate themselves into a group known as the Levelers, who are suspected of plotting against the new rulers. Bridget befriends Katherine, a leader in the group, and when Katherine's husband is killed, Bridget and Martha investigate. As they do so, the list of suspects grows exponentially, and when another murder occurs, Bridget and Martha realize they have someone bent on treason and chaos on their hands. This series hews very closely to actual historical events and the breathless era it inhabits.

Got more midwives' tales? Tell us about them in the comments.

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