Hijinks with History: Abigail Adams as Detective?

I recently discovered that one of my favorite authors, Barbara Hambly, had written a couple of historical mysteries using the pseudonym Barbara Hamilton.  They’re titled The Ninth Daughter (2009) and A Marked Man (2010).  So far as I’ve been able to determine, there’s a third book in the series, Sup with the Devil, to be released in late 2011.

I really love Hambly’s Benjamin January series, which is also historical mystery.  I was a little worried, though, because the detective in these two “Barbara Hamilton” books was Abigail Adams.  Yes, Abigail Smith Adams, wife of the second president of the United States.  I was dubious.  I know there are numerous mysteries featuring historical figures as detectives, from Peter Heck’s Mark Twain to Rosemary Stevens’ Beau Brummell to Stephanie Barron’s Jane Austen series.  I just haven’t been able to bring myself to read any of them; I wasn’t that interested, because I didn’t think the concept could work.

I didn’t want to read about historical figures whose lives had to be bent out of shape to serve a plot.  After all, those were busy people!  When did they have time to solve mysteries?  And what about secondary characters?  Are the sidekicks historical figures as well, or created characters?  How does that add to the factuality of the world in the book?  With a “real person” detective, I thought I wouldn’t be able to suspend my disbelief, because I would be constantly checking my factual knowledge against the events of the novel.  That wouldn’t help me to enjoy it.  That was my excuse, anyway. . . I think I also had an unacknowledged bias, something to the effect of, “why can’t you make up your own character?”

However, I’ve been reading Hambly since I was in college.  She’s one of my favorite authors.  I decided I trusted her.  I sat down with The Ninth Daughter on a weekend…and you can likely predict the rest of the story.  On Monday, I ordered A Marked Man.  After I finished reading it, I started thinking about why I’d liked these books so very much.

First, I loved the view into pre-Revolutionary War Boston.  Hambly/Hamilton is very skilled when it comes to historical fiction, and knows just how to keep things interesting by mingling big events (The Boston Tea Party) with everyday details (like carrying a box of hot coals with you to church).  

Because the story was built around events I knew well, the made-up details of the murder, and the way Abigail went about solving it, didn’t seem as far-fetched.  I think this is because I slid into the mindset I use for reading science fiction and fantasy.  Accepting the reality of the world I was reading, because of its many realistic details, my subconscious decided I was reading an alternate world fantasy.  Thus, I was able to accept the historical figures (Abigail, John Adams, Sam Adams, Paul Revere, etc.) as characters who were sort-of but not quite the “real” people.

Plus, Hambly/Hamilton doesn’t just present events, she presents her interpretation, in her voice.  Hambly is very good at showing the people and events that are, in most histories, hidden or at best underrepresented—for instance, in these two books, she makes a point of having characters who are slaves, reminding the reader that yes, slavery used to be legal in Boston, and even Sam Adams owned a slave.  In using a known historical figure as her heroine, Hambly was able to illuminate what the day-to-day life of that personage was like, and by extension, everyone’s life in that time.  It certainly wasn’t all Boston Tea Parties!  Hambly makes a point of emphasizing just how much work a colonial woman dealt with on a daily, even hourly, basis.  It’s amazing anyone had time to rebel, given how much housework there was to do.

So, with a historical figure whom I find interesting, and a writer I trust, I’m totally there for Abigail Adams, detective.


Victoria Janssen is the author of three erotic novels and numerous short stories.  Her latest novel is The Duke and The Pirate Queen from Harlequin Spice.  Follow her on Twitter:  @victoriajanssen or find out more at victoriajanssen.com.

Comments

  1. ScottDParker

    Really good to read this review as I never knew about one of my favorite First Ladies. As a history major, I enjoy reading all sorts of historical mysteries mainly to see if they got the history right. Sounds like Hambly did. And, when it came time for me to write my first book, I did the same thing: put Harry Truman in a mystery setting. It’s rather fun as an author to put words in the mouths of famous people. I am definately seeking out these books. Thanks.

  2. ScottDParker

    Really good to read this review as I never knew about one of my favorite First Ladies. As a history major, I enjoy reading all sorts of historical mysteries mainly to see if they got the history right. Sounds like Hambly did. And, when it came time for me to write my first book, I did the same thing: put Harry Truman in a mystery setting. It’s rather fun as an author to put words in the mouths of famous people. I am definately seeking out these books. Thanks.

  3. Victoria Janssen

    @ScottDParker, I especuially like the little bits of history she included in the stories.

  4. Megan Frampton

    I have the first book in this series, and I love Hambly and historical mysteries, so it’s no wonder why I bought it. Haven’t read it yet, but it’s on the bureau waiting…and waiting. Thanks for confirming that I will love it.

  5. Victoria Janssen

    @MFrampton, let me know what you think!

  6. Terrie Farley Moran

    Victoria, thanks for bringing the Abigail Adams mysteries to our attention. John Adams has always been my favorite president (although Harry Truman gives him a run for the money) so I know I would enjoy this series, particularly if, as you say, the author immerses us in the time and place of the stories.

  7. Victoria Janssen

    @Terrie, I think they’re definitely worth a look!

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