The dashing detective Phyrne Fisher now has a rival for my literary affections. It was the Women Writers Through the Ages group that introduced me to her rival, Nell Bray, fittingly, since this character's defining characteristic is that she's a suffragette – she works for the Women's Political and Social Union.
In the first book featuring Gillian Linscot's hero that I read, Blood on the Wood, in that role she's sent down to the countryside to collect a valuable painting that has been left to the Union in the will of a rich but politically radical woman. It is nothing more than a slightly embarrassing errand for Nell, until she gets back to London and finds the painting she's been given is a copy.
Returning, Nell has to deal not only with the husband, caught up in a family crisis, but with a group of leftist radicals camping on the farm, among whom is a poor, abused woman who the son of the family has decided to rescue in the Edwardian way, by marriage. Soon, however, there's a body.
We're not talking particularly gory here, or fiendishly complicated plots: Linscot's books, like those of Kerry Greenwood, Phyrne's creator, belong to a growing genre that I'd class as "feminist historical cozy". The women are independent-minded and tough, and they look out for themselves – often with more than a nod towards Dorothy L. Sayer's Harriet Vane.
The focus is chiefly on character rather than plot, on women making their way in a man's world, ignoring convention and coming up trumps. For Nell it is much more so, in Dead Man Riding we go back to the start of her career, when she's a student at Oxford, in the last year of Queen Victoria's reign. Student, but not headed for a degree, for women are not yet allowed such things, and the plot here centres around the adventures of a mixed group of students – shock horror, the university authorities must not find out or the women will be sent down – who go for what is essentially an innocent intellectual trip to the Lake district.
There's also for both heroes a carefully researched background that takes you into the period without every making you feel like you're reading a textbook: the background in Dead Man Riding is the controversy over the Boer War (which has distinct echoes with Iraq); Phyrne strides the landmark streets of Melbourne or takes to the controls of a Tiger Moth with equal detail.
Yet on balance, I still have to class Phyrne as my favourite, not because of better writing, plot or research, but because she lives in an age closer to our own. Phyrne is happily, comfortably sexual and openly defiant of convention – even if I don't share her interest in frocks. The First World War has destroyed the restrictive frame within which the Edwardian Nell must operate. Still, I'll be visiting with Nell again, even if I will be frustrated by the social restrictions that also frustrate her.