A nasty combination of work and flu has kept me from either reading or writing much lately. However, while my chronic case of fuzzy-brain may well keep me from wrapping up my one outstanding review this weekend, it hasn’t stopped me from a little mindless poking around amongst obscure novels – in the course, of which, I discovered something rather intriguing.
Back when I reviewed Wilkie Collins’ The Law And The Lady, we had some discussion about the fact that the novel’s heroine, Valeria Brinton Woodville Macallan, was quite widely regarded as the first female detective in literary history. That was in 1875. Further research on the subject indicates that although his Valeria is undoubtedly a remarkable creation, declaring her “the first” may have been giving Collins a bit too much credit.
Interestingly, the world’s first real female detective – Kate Warne, employed by Pinkerton’s in 1856 – pre-dates her fictional sisters by a good seven years. There’s is some confusion out there about who the “first” may have been. It is generally agreed that she is the heroine of a penny-dreadful written by “Edward Ellis” (almost certainly a pseudonym) called Ruth The Betrayer; or, The Female Spy, which was published in 51 (!) parts before being collected into a single volume early in 1863. However, different accounts have her as Ruth Traill and Ruth Dowling. In the former, she is an actual detective, “a sort of spy we use in the hanky-panky way when a man would be too clumsy”; in the latter, she is a British agent sent to entice state secrets out of the Kaiser (!). While there is some overlap here, these two versions of the story don’t seem to be talking about the same woman. Ruth Dowling, for one thing, is an aristocrat of whom you cannot imagine the expression “hanky-panky” being used…even if hanky-panky is, in fact, exactly what’s she’s up to. I wonder if there’s any chance of hunting down a copy and finding out for sure..?
The first female detective about whom there is no doubt appeared in a series of stories later collected as—appropriately enough—The Female Detective. Andrew Forrester Jr (a pseudonym for James Redding Ware, who also wrote under his own name), posing as merely his stories’ editor, recounts the adventures of a female police detective, some fifty years before women were actually admitted to the British police force in any capacity. The detective in question, who tells the stories in the first person, also operates under a pseudonym, calling herself both Miss and Mrs Gladden and refusing to reveal either her true identity or her marital status: separating the “the woman” from “the detective”. M/s Gladden’s methods are those of science and logic; rarely does her success depend on either her luck or her gender. Intriguingly, the one criminal who eludes her is also a woman—the detective knows she is guilty but cannot bring her to justice.
Six months after this saw the publication The Experiences Of A Lady Detective (also known as The Revelations Of A Lady Detective), by W. Stephens Hayward. These stories also a female police detective—and the last such fictional character for many, many years. This time our heroine is one Mrs Paschal, in whose world the female detective is rare but not unique, and who belongs to a certain British organisation which has followed the European example of employing female operatives. Mrs Paschal is newly widowed at the outset, and takes up her untraditional role both as a means of supporting herself, and as a way of putting to good use her “unusual common sense”. Like M/s Gladden before her, Mrs Paschal tells her stories in the first person. She relies more upon intuition than her predecessor in the solving of her cases, and once in the course of her adventures she faints—but only after the criminals have been apprehended. On the other hand, in one story she needs to climb into a drain to follow a lead, and promptly divests herself of her cumbersome petticoats in order to do so.
Sadly, these quite revolutionary works proved something of a dead end. It was fully ten years later before Wilkie Collins’ Valeria Brinton appeared on the scene, with another long gap in our history after that. The real breakthrough—at least in England—did not occur until 1894. Catherine Louisa Pirkis was a successful novelist in her day, but her works have not survived—except one: The Experiences Of Loveday Brooke: Lady Detective. Pirkis’ Miss Brooke is thirty and unmarried, but indifferently so: her focus is purely on the profession via which she supports herself after being left “penniless and all but friendless”. Her choice of career cuts her off from those few remaining friends, and allows her to be entirely autonomous.
Miss Brooke was followed three years later by Dorcas Dene: Detective, written by George R. Sims, and a year after that by Dora Myrl: Lady Detective, by M. McDonnell Bodkin. George Robert Sims was a journalist, a playwright and a poet as well as a novelist; he was a crime buff, a friend of Arthur Conan Doyle and, in some quarters, considered a likely Jack the Ripper. Matthias McDonnell Bodkin was an Irish nationalist and an MP, a barrister and a judge, a journalist and a novelist. His detective character, Paul Beck, is a gentleman amateur who has been described as “an Irish Sherlock Holmes”. One of the Beck stories featured Dora Myrl, who broke out to become a detective in her own right. Bodkin then achieved a first in the genre by marrying off his detectives (not so very Holmesian, then!), and having them produce a son, Paul Jr, who later carried on the family business. At the same time, sadly but probably inevitably, marriage and motherhood put paid to Dora’s own career.
It should be mentioned that Sims’ Dorcas Dene is married, too—but her husband is blind; detection is how she supports him, and is thus “acceptably” womanly. (Compare this situation with that of Collins’ Valeria, who also turns detective to help her husband.) Marital status, and the possible effects on marital status, was a knotty problem that authors continued to wrestle with even while their characters were getting a foot in the door in the realm of private detection. In 1910, Marie Connor Leighton, a prolific novelist, published Joan Mar, Detective: a work full of bewilderingly mixed messages, in which the final response to Joan’s brilliance as a detective is the fervent hope of another character (a conventional female to whom Joan has lost the man she loves) that she will, “Marry someone worthy of her who [will] make her happy.” It is probably not surprising, all things considered, that for many decades the most popular variety of woman detective was the spinster.
On the other side of the Atlantic, it was 1878 when Anna Katharine Green published the first detective novel written by a woman, The Leavenworth Case. It was a huge best-seller. Green continued writing mysteries for the next forty years. In her early works, her main detective is a police inspector called Ebenezer Gryce. In 1897’s That Affair Next Door, Gryce is assisted by a spinster called Amelia Butterworth, who appeared in two more of Green’s novels and is a clear forerunner to Miss Marple. (Agatha Christie admitted Green as an influence.) Towards the end of her career, Anna Katharine Green achieved another sort of breakthrough by writing a series of short stories featuring Miss Violet Strange, a society debutante with a taste for mysteries, who succeeds chiefly because no-one suspects her for a moment of being a detective.
In the meantime, throughout the early 1880s a private detective called Donald Dyke appeared in a series of popular stories in the Boston Globe. In 1883, however, Dyke was relegated to supporting character in a novel called Clarice Dyke, The Female Detective, in which Donald’s wife proves herself every inch her husband’s equal – if not his better – when he is abducted by a criminal gang. Clarice Dyke was published under the house name “Harry Rookwood”; no-one knows who wrote this novel, or the Donald Dyke stories – or even if they were written by the same person.
Another American, Mary Roberts Rinehart – possibly best known these days for creating “the Bat”, one of the inspirations for Batman – began publishing mysteries in 1908. The Circular Staircase features Rachel Innes, a maiden aunt who finds herself with a murder on her hands. Subsequently, Rinehart created Letitia Carberry, “Tish”, another spinster-detective, who became a staple of the Saturday Evening Post; and Hilda Adams, aka Miss Pinkerton, a nurse who collaborates with the police in several investigations. Adams, at thirty-eight, is the youngest of the bunch by a stretch – and even she is considered “middle-aged”.
The world’s most famous spinster-detective, Miss Jane Marple, appeared in 1926, to be followed two years later by Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Maud Silver. A reaction of sorts then took place, with Gladys Mitchell (for whom Agatha Christie was something of a “negative inspiration”, it seems) creating the twice-married Mrs Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley in 1929. Mrs Bradley does, however, fit the prevailing profile another way, being fifty-seven at the time of her debut. (Which did not stop her appearing in another sixty-odd novels over the next fifty-odd years.)
It seems to have been Agatha Christie who first followed Anna Katharine Green’s lead and bucked this trend, albeit tentatively, by having various young women involve themselves in crime – Prudence Beresford, Eileen Brent, Lady Frances Derwent. But the trend-buck to end all trend-bucks occurred in 1930, when the impossibly perfect sixteen-year-old detective Nancy Drew first appeared on stage. The evolution – and revisionism – of this character over the following decades constitutes a sociological case-study par excellence.
Of course, these are only the major headings. There were certainly other female detectives out there during all these years, in novels that have since fallen somewhat by the wayside, and not all of them middle-aged spinsters—at least, so we infer from Dorothy’s Sayers’ complaint about novels that featured females detectives who were “too young, too beautiful, too interested in marriage, and too often prone to walk into physically dangerous situations”. While there’s no doubt that at least in the early days, the female detective was often purely a novelty item, I suspect it’s also true that a chronological look at these works, with an examination of what these characters were and were not “allowed” to do, would be fascinatingly informative.