Of the first two Sarah Tolerance novels I wrote on this site
Miss Sarah Tolerance elopes with her brother’s fencing instructor from Regency England to the continent, and when he dies returns home. Cast off by her family, she determines to make her way in the world without falling into prostitution, the usual fallback of the Fallen Woman, and instead sets herself up as an Agent of Inquiry. Setting, plot and especially character are all excellent in Point of Honor and Petty Treason by Madeleine E. Robins. Trust me, you will believe a woman can be a PI in England in 1810.
The Sleeping Partner, the third in the series, may be the best yet. Take the first paragraph.
No one who had seen Miss Sarah Brereton as a child would have taken her for a heroine. She was a well-behaved girl, affectionate and active, given to rolling hoops and running races with the gardener’s children. Her upbringing was neither intellectual or revolutionary, being designed to make her what she was destined to be: the well-bred wife of a gentleman of means. That she had failed to achieve this goal was not the fault of her family but derived from some flaw in her character: at sixteen, Miss Brereton had fallen in love with her brother’s fencing master and eloped, ruining forever her chances at respectability and marriage. Seeking to contain the damage, Sir William Brereton disowned his daughter and forbade to have her name mentioned. With the girl as good as dead, the honor of the Breretons was restored to a near-unsullied state. The family went on much as before.
No wonder Sarah changed her name, and no wonder what she changed it to. Editors give authors hell over backstory in series novels, and they’re right to do so because first timers to the series need to know what’s going on. That first paragraph is an exemplar of craft, placing the main character precisely in her place and time, and fun to read besides. Impossible not to turn the page, where not very much farther on in the narrative Sarah uses her sword to spank a bully with a club. Heroine, it turns out, was exactly the right word.
By now Sarah is well-established as an Agent of Inquiry, and is approached at her club, Tarsio’s, by a potential client.
…Corton appeared beside her and murmured that a lady was inquiring for her.
“What sort of lady?” She would see her visitor regardless, but often found the porter’s impressions useful.
“A real lady, miss. A bit anxious about the eyes.”
A real lady in a state of anxiety bode well for business and thus for Miss Tolerance’s pocket-book. She directed Corton to bring the visitor up.
The anxious lady’s sister is missing and she hires Sarah to find her, and Sarah is plunged in to a maelstrom of betrayal, theft, treason and murder that threatens her physically and emotionally, and which drags her willy-nilly back into her family, that same family which booted her out so unceremoniously so many years before. In the course of events we meet old friends
Joshua Glebb’s head, bald, with a long fringe of yellowed hair circling the back, shone in the dusty light from the far window. His entire being appeared to be in the process of succumbing slowly to gravity; his mouth turned down, and his chin, shoulders and gut all looked to be making a slow progress downward until they would puddle around his boot-sole. Until that should happen, Mr. Glebb resembled a fussy and dyspeptic head clerk, respectably dressed and sour of expression. His mouth attained–not a smile, but an absence of frown–when he looked up at Miss Tolerance, and his shrewd eyes lit.
and make new ones, like the missing girl’s governess, Miss Nottingale.
“…That morning, in fact, she was reading a political essay Mr. John Thorpe had given her.” She paused. “Lord Lyne did not like it.”
“What was the essay?”
“A Vindication of the Rights of Women, by Mrs. Godwin.”
“And she was reading this at breakfast?” That seemed to Miss Tolerance enough to put anyone off their meal.
Oh yes, we’ll meet Mrs. Godwin, aka Mary Wollstonecraft, later. Sir Walter Mandif, magistrate, returns, too
“I confess I am enjoying the sight of you within my walls without bandages.”
Highly recommended, all three of them, and my fingers are crossed for more.