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Where Did You Get That Character?

Miss Fisher meets Downton Abbey in A Secret Never Told, the fourth installment in the critically acclaimed mystery series from New York Times bestselling author Shelley Noble.

Shelley joins us on the blog today to talk about where she gets the ideas for her characters!


As a mystery writer, I’ve written many fictional amateur sleuths, both contemporary and historical. My characters are generally compassionate, serious seekers of justice in their own non-professional, and sometimes bumbling ways. I try to leaven my mysteries with at least one character with a sense of humor, but murder is serious business. In a small town or big city, friends, family, neighbors, even strangers are irrevocably changed by the actual death and by the distrust caused by not knowing who is the murderer in their midst.

Amateur detectives have come a long way from Miss Marple and even Miss Fisher. These days, our female sleuths tend to be more independent, more decisive, more physically able, more like …Wonder Woman.

So when I decided to write the Lady Dunbridge series about a widowed young countess who comes to America to make her fortune without having to remarry, I dropped her firmly into 1907 and the culture of the “Modern Woman.” And I looked for my inspiration in the Dime Novel characters of the time.

I found a watershed of female characters, from accomplished young ladies fallen on hard times to the lowliest street urchin on her way to a better life. And though often overshadowed by a male colleague—after all, these stories and characters were all written by men—these “lady” detectives made their mark on the reading public.

Their potential grew and flourished and though the dime novel went through the cyclical whims of the reading public, there’s no doubt that our current super heroes and heroines have a distant, tiny beginning in this group of intrepid detectives of the late 1800s.

There were plenty to chose from: 

Lady Kate Edwards (Lady Kate, The Dashing Female Detective by Harlan P. Halsey, The Old Sleuth). Born an orphan, Kate ran away from the orphan asylum and raised herself in New York, becoming a self-made woman and detective. She possesses “nearly” the same skills, intelligence and strength of her male counterparts.

Kate Goelet (The Great Bond Robbery -1885) “a rare beauty, with a most graceful figure, a sweet, pleasant voice, and at three and twenty, is possessed of the courage, cunning, patience and endurance and sagacity of the most experienced officer on the whole detective team.” She is also a master of disguise, skilled in tailing suspects, and a proficient burglar. 

Cad Metti (Cad Metti, The Female Detective Strategist Or Dudie Dunne Again in the Field -1895) is relegated to the role of sidekick for most of her career, but “She can sing or dance, she can fence or wrestle like a man. Her strength is extraordinary, and as a pistol shot she is the champion woman of the world.”

Hilda Serene (The Actress Detective or The Invisible Hand: The Romance of an Implacable Mission (1889) is a twenty five year old actress, adept with both pistol and eight inch bowie knife as well as good with her fists. She isn’t squeamish, she can run after culprits, drink without getting drunk, and can see in the dark like a cat. She overpowers the criminals, “though she is a woman.”

Loveday Brooke (The Experiences of Loveday Brooke, Lady Detective -1894) is a well-read but poor young woman who becomes a detective rather than be tied to more acceptable work as a governess or lady’s companion. Like the others, she is a genius at disguises and can analyze clues and make brilliant deductions from her analysis.

But I don’t want to give the heroes short shrift.

Nick Carter, the private detective appearing first in 1886 (Four Scraps of Paper, A Dangerous Woman) had a hundred year career. He is a smart, methodical sleuth who uses his brains as well as his fists and is an upright upholder of justice.

Old King Brady (The Mystery of the River Steamer, A House in the Swamp) an investigator who started out as a police detective, who solves crimes through a lot of doggedness and legwork, is not the best shot, not very adept at disguise and isn’t even handsome. And yet he carved himself a space in the pantheon of dime novel detectives.

Character types abound in these novels: boy wonders like Frank Merriweather and his daring feats; inventors of fantastic things a la Frank Reade. Outlaws and cowboys, pirates and working girls. The stories were fun and affordable and filled the newsstands and piled up on nightstands across the country.

There was even a Mr. X. who I use shamelessly in the Lady Dunbridge series.

And who was this enigmatic Mr. X? Only The Shadow Knows.

Pre-order a Copy of A Secret Never Told—available November 23rd!

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