(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Antonia Fraser grew up in an England bound by class distinctions from which she benefited. Her mother, Lady Longford, has stated that Fraser was the most precocious of all her children, showing an early interest in history, biography, and genealogy. It was Lady Longford who provided the early support and model for all her children, most of whom are writers. Fraser’s brother, Thomas, has written that in a large family of talkers and few listeners it is not surprising that writing should provide an outlet. Family members made their first impression on England in politics, but their greatest accomplishment has been in the literary field.

Fraser and her mother have often served as each other’s critics, and Fraser dedicated The Weaker Vessel (1984) to her mother, calling her a most excellent heroine. Critics respect both women for their impressive research and readable style, although Fraser’s primary strength lies in her narrative skill. This has sometimes been criticized as a storybook approach to history, but it also assures the popularity of her biographies. She seems to be at her best when writing on subjects to which she has some personal commitment, as may be seen in Mary, Queen of Scots and The Weaker Vessel as well as in her earlier children’s writings and anthologies.

Jemima Shore

In 1975, when Fraser left her marriage for a new relationship with Pinter, she also began working in a new literary genre, the mystery. Despite the changes, however, Fraser’s narrative style and research methods have not been abandoned. The free-spirited Jemima Shore, a kind of fantasy figure, first appeared in Quiet as a Nun (1977). In her first appearance, Shore was in her early thirties, stylish and intelligent, and had carved out a niche for herself as an investigative reporter for the British Megalith Television after wartime schooling in a convent and at Oxford. It is tempting to see much of Fraser’s own life reflected in her heroine. The locales are familiar; for example, Fraser’s own convent education at St. Mary’s in Berkshire is drawn on in this first full-length mystery novel, and her experience with British television serves her well in her portrayal of Shore’s career.

For English audiences, the heroine’s name itself has some interest; Jemima rings of Puritan virtue, while Shore reminds one of a king’s mistress. Here is a verbal mixture of the traditional and modern virtues and vices. To the American reader, however, the names produce images of the South and popular entertainers. Nevertheless, despite the varying reaction to the name, the television adaptation in 1978 popularized Jemima Shore on both sides of the Atlantic.

Fraser has followed the example of such eminent writers as Sayers and James. It is also tempting to think of a young Miss Jane Marple in some of the situations in which Jemima Shore finds herself. Sayers believed that detectives should follow clues, not love, but an unmarried Jemima Shore finds time to fit love in with her investigations. Often, the love subplot seems to reflect the post-World War II generation’s disillusionment, making Jemima Shore very much a contemporary figure.

The unmarried Jemima Shore has a greater freedom of action, reflecting some of the same freedoms discovered after World War I, but she does not have to be elderly or a widow to gain...

(The entire section is 1391 words.)