Thursday, May 31, 2012

Thrilling Midwives



by Samuel Thomas

When you picture your typical protagonist for a thriller, a few professions come to mind. You have your detectives, police officers, lawyers, and spies, of course. Occasionally you’ll get a doctor, or a reporter thrown in there, but there is a “type.” Historically speaking they’re usually men, and they are usually in the business of figuring things out. Problems arise when a nefarious person, government agency, or criminal organization (did I repeat myself?), wants to keep them from figuring it out.

In light of this, my decision to write thrillers about a midwife seems brilliantly iconoclastic, right? What less likely protagonist could there be, except a nun? (Shout out to ITW member Nancy Bilyeau, whose recent thriller The Crown is about a nun. It’s excellent and you should read it.) In truth, I started with the midwife, and found myself writing a thriller as if it were the most natural thing in the world. How did this happen?

To answer this question, you have to think a bit more about midwives. Thrillers are about secrets, and who has more intimate knowledge of their clients’ secrets than midwives? (You could say, “Lawyers, detectives, and doctors!” but you’ll also notice that they made it onto the list of “usual” professions.) Added to this is that I write about a midwife during England’s Civil Wars, which stretched roughly from 1642-49, and culminated in the execution of King Charles I.

At this time midwives didn’t just deliver babies. They were part and parcel of the criminal justice system. If an infant died under suspicious circumstances, you called a midwife to lead the investigation. Looking for a witch? You’ll have to find a midwife first, because she will be the one to search the suspect’s body for the witch’s mark, where Satan’s familiar sucked her blood. Midwives also worked with women who’d been condemned to death, questioned women accused of bearing illegitimate children (which was a crime), and investigated rape accusations. In short, if a woman ran into trouble with the law – either as victim or perpetrator – a midwife would be there to track down the bad guy and see him (or her) to the gallows.

So the next time you run into your neighborhood midwife, show a little respect. She could be on her way to deliver a child, but she also may be unraveling a series of brutal murders, or trying to keep you safe from Satan’s machinations. It’s a busy job, but someone’s got to do it.

Samuel Thomas is the author of The Midwife’s Tale: A Mystery (Minotaur/St. Martins, 2013). He can be found on line at: or


Miranda Parker said...

Sam, thanks for this great post. I never thought about a midwife as a sleuth. Now it makes sense!

Lydia Netzer said...

I totally saw my midwife as a psychiatrist! Especially right in the middle of labor.

jenny milchman said...

I could not agree more. Talk about a window into people's lives. Thanks for the post, Sam!

Lauren said...

Not a midwife, but a nun..."A Nun in the Closet" by Dorothy Gilman.