Wednesday, April 12, 2023

A Questionable Death and Other Historical Quaker Midwife Stories by Edith Maxwell: Reading Room Review


Call the Midwife is a British television show on PBS that viewers are wild about.  We love to watch this show set in the 1960s in England about the hard work of the midwives at Nonnatus House, how they are part of the fabric of the community.  They work towards social and medical advances as they help mothers deliver their babies and families become whole.  The mother is seldom considered in isolation to the rest of her family; the midwives often must involve themselves in the environment the new baby is coming into.  Edith Maxwell’s Agatha Award winning Quaker Midwife book series (seven in total) and this short story collection, A Questionable Death and Other Historical Quaker Midwife Stories, are set in the 1880s and focus on midwife Rose Carroll, who faces the same challenges of taking care of her clients, the pregnant women, while ensuring the baby’s environment is a welcoming and safe one.  She must often gain the trust of the father, as the men are especially skeptical of a woman having the skills of a male doctor in the 19th century.  Of course, Rose has the additional challenge of finding a murderer in her stories. 


Rose Carroll has a gift for and enjoyment of detection, as well as midwifery, and in a highly unusual show of acceptance of a woman’s help during those times, Detective Kevin Donovan works with Rose in solving murders.  Actually, Rose’s midwifery aids in the detection, as she is privy to local gossip and rumors on her rounds, and she’s an excellent listener.  Rose must also deal with women’s issues that are still being dealt with today. The police are adamant that they won’t interfere in domestic situations, such as a husband abusing his wife, but Rose can’t ignore the safety of a mother-to-be and her baby.  In “A Questionable Death,” nominated for the 2015 Agatha Short Story Award, Rose works with her friend Bertie to aid one of Rose’s clients who is having difficulties with her husband.  The story “The Unfortunate Death of Mrs. Edna Fog” involves the murder of a suffragette thirty years before women gain the right to vote.  Being a Quaker helps Rose to deal calmly with what she encounters, but she is a strong, passionate advocate for her clients. There’s nothing didactic about the threads of women’s issues and other history that run through the stories, as Edith Maxwell is wholly proficient at creating great plots into which history is seamlessly woven.                                   


One of the best things about this collection of stories is that readers have a timeline of Rose and the Quaker Midwife book series all in one place.  The story “A Fire in Carriagetown” is the first story Edith Maxwell wrote about the Amesbury, Massachusetts community, before Rose was appointed the main character, and it’s narrated by and features Faith Bailey, Rose’s niece.  In “In Pursuit of Justice” we see Rose as an apprentice midwife to eighty-four-year-old Orpha Perkins.   When Rose has gained some experience and has become the midwife for Amesbury, she herself takes on an apprentice, Annie Beaumont, and in “An Ominous Silence” Rose and Annie find themselves stuck in the snow on a train, where a closed room murder takes place.  In “The Mayor and the Midwife,” when the mayor of New Orleans comes to Amesbury, Massachusetts in 1888, Quaker midwife Rose Carroll solves the mystery of his son-in-law’s death and delivers a baby. This story was nominated for a 2016 Agatha award for Best Short Story.  And, the author ends this selection of stories with a real treat for readers, as “The Management of Secrets” takes place ten years after the last book in the series (A Changing Light).  Rose is settled in a life of her own and no longer detecting, but Kevin Donovan asks for her help one more time.


Short stories are an art form all in themselves.  I have just started reading more short stories, and I now realize there’s a daunting challenge for an author to bring characters and setting to life in a hugely shortened amount of time and place them in a plot that must quickly capture a reader’s attention.  Edith Maxwell accomplishes that in each of these short stories.  I felt great satisfaction after finishing each one.  Getting to know the main character of Rose is fairly easy, as she is pretty much front and center in all but one story.  The more you see a character, the more invested in their outcome you are. The supporting cast of characters in these stories must make themselves known, too, and add to the story.  Again, Maxwell has this task in hand, and the supporting characters in the world of Rose Carroll are so interesting and add such richness to Rose’s life and the stories.  A real-life people character who lived in Amesbury at this time is John Greenleaf Whittier, the famous poet who is a fellow Quaker of Rose’s and in their local Quaker group.  He is the first person to recognize and encourage Rose in her gift for detection.  Rose’s best friend Bertie Winslow is the postmistress of the town, a progressive step for women in a country where male postmasters were the norm and women couldn’t vote.  Both Bertie and Rose are forward thinkers, and they need each other’s support in a world that hasn’t opened its mind yet.  Kevin, the policeman, who is in a job where women are not welcome, comes to understand that Rose has a gift for helping to uncover clues and solve murders.  He overcomes his prejudices about what a woman’s place is and values Rose’s insights.  The characters that come and go in the different stories are all remarkably well-developed in a short amount of time, too.                       


Each story in this collection is complete and enjoyable by itself, but don’t be surprised if you want to read the seven books in the Quaker Midwife series after reading the short stories.  Edith Maxwell does an outstanding job of pulling the reader into each story and into the lives of the characters, and that’s quite a challenge when time is shortened; however, the stories never feel rushed or truncated.  I have a whole new appreciation for the short story now.  Of course, Edith Maxwell and her nom-de-plume Maddie Day have plenty of novels in series to keep readers engaged for hours and hours.  But, there are so many times and places a reader needs a shorter read, and I can wholeheartedly recommend A Questionable Death and Other Historical Quaker Midwife Stories collection of stories to fill that need.





A Questionable Death and Other Historical Quaker Midwife Stories is published by Crippen and Landru, a small publishing house I’ve recently become aware of because of my increased interest in short stories.  The description of their publishing company on the web site is as follows.  “Offering the best single-author, short mystery fiction available, Crippen and Landru have been seeking out and publishing stories that range from the beginnings of mystery fiction to the award-winning stories of today.”


Full disclosure: I received an advanced copy of A Questionable Death and Other Historical Quaker Midwife Stories, which is never a factor in the honesty of my reviews. 






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