The Female Detective

“The Female Detective” by Andrew Forrester

On Wednesday, the British Library brought back into publication a book that has been out of print for almost 150 yearsAndrew Forrester’s The Female Detective, believed to be the first detective novel to star a woman.* The book only had a tiny print run (although some of the stories may have run in magazines before), and it’s extremely unlikely that, say, Agatha Christie read it before creating Miss Marple, so The Female Detective is really more of an interesting historical footnote as a prelude to things to come, rather than the dawn of a new genre. Still, how does the book – really a short story collection, rather than a novel – hold up on its own?

To give a non-spoilery review, all right! Some stories are good, some are not quite as good, some are rather dull, but unlike the curate’s egg, the good parts make up for the bad. The female detective in question, “Miss Gladden” or “G”, is an interesting character; she’s effectively the equivalent of a bounty hunter, freelancing for the police to solve the crimes that they cannot, but she has a strong moral code too, and the conflict between these three goals – money, justice and morality – drive her. Despite what you might expect from a book that calls itself The Female Detective, her gender doesn’t actually come up that often. Except for a few scenes where she pretends to be a friendly gossip to gain information, you could replace her character with a Victorian-era man and I doubt readers would be any the wiser. Whether that’s a good thing or not (is she strong, or lazily written?) is of course up to you.

Being a Victorian book, it’s kind of weird about race sometimes; one elderly man has “an extraordinarily sweet, loving expression of countenance—something like that of a very young and high-class Jewess” – even if you can picture a the sweet and loving face of a young and high-class Jewess, trying to transfer her face onto a old Christian Englishman is beyond the reaches of my imagination. Plus, of course, you do have to be willing to read long-winded 19-century sentences like “To curtail that portion of this instance of the but poor comprehended efficacy of the detective police which does not immediately bear upon the argument under consideration, it may be said in a few words that in the time which elapsed between the departure and arrival of the son, the house was very effectively stripped“, though it’s not necessarily any harder to understand than, say, Arthur Conan-Doyle is.

The Kindle version, which I read, was good, especially for an old, public domain book. It wasn’t just a lazy scan-and-publish job, it’s been properly typeset and the illustrations properly rendered. There are a few typos, but not many more than you’d see in a paper book.

The rest of this review contains spoilers, so be warned!

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