Saturday, September 22, 2007

Harriette Wilson - Detective?

I love historical mysteries. Just the idea of what it was like to solve a crime without our modern forensics intrigues me, makes me think. Of course, the greatest of all historical detectives is Sherlock Holmes (although at the time that Conan Doyle was writing, he was a contemporary detective).

Whenever I see a new historical mystery, I have to buy it. Nowadays, there are so many, I can't believe it. Everything from Ancient Rome to turn of the century New York has been featured in a mystery novel. Some have been great like Anne Perry's Thomas and Charlotte Pitt series, some have not been so great (I won't name names). For a long time, I've been toying with the idea of writing a historical mystery series of my own.

But who would be the detective? Well a good friend of mine once said, "If you want to know where the bodies are buried, ask a whore!" And who was the most famous courtesan of the Regency period? Harriette Wilson according to my friend. He was actually the one who suggested that Harriette would be perfect as the heroine of a series of Regency mystery novels.

There's only one problem, Harriette was a blackmailer, when she wasn't whoring. Not the most attractive quality to have in a detective. See, she would threaten to name names in her future memoirs unless the client paid up. Some like the Duke of Wellington told her to "publish and be damned." Others paid up several times.

Who was Harriette Wilson? Well, she was born the daughter of a Swiss clockmaker, and was working as a prostitute by the age of 12. By 15, she was courtesan. It was something of a family industry, both her sisters were also courtesans, her sister Sophia actually married into the aristocracy.

Harriette's usual modus operandi was to seduce a lover, and then write him an intriguing letter. Then after they were lovers, she would threaten him with exposure unless he paid up. This practice eventually led to her downfall.

I suppose I could get around the whole blackmailing thing by having it that Harriette was actually working for the government. Or the whole first mystery could be Harriette working to clear her name after one of her lovers is found murdered and she's a suspect. I suppose if Jane Austen can be a detective, then a courtesan like Harriette Wilson could as well.

The question is would anyone want to read a mystery series about a detective/whore?


1 comment:

Chris said...

Interesting idea - but why would her propensity for blackmail be such a problem? I think it would make her a more interesting detective, a'la film noir, being more interested in her self than justice. The British justice system at the time was pretty corrupt anyway.