On Wednesday, the British Library brought back into publication a book that has been out of print for almost 150 years – Andrew 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!
The book starts with an introduction from G, where she explains how important her role is in society – the book was written at some time in the early 1860s, when the Metropolitan Police were 30 years old, and the detective branch little more than a decade (and both were widely known to be corrupt), and detectives were apparently loathed (although it must be said that this doesn’t seem to hinder her at all in the stories). She’s intentionally vague about herself – she claims to be either unmarried and childless, or widowed with children, and now retired from the force, but that is the limit of her detail. We never learn how old she was when these events happened, but my guess is that she is probably in her forties – the only detail that pins down a date is a mention that a character has attended Chartist meetings, which would put the action of at that story as being 15 to 25 years before the “present day” of 1864.
The book is set out like an officer’s casebook, under the pretence of having been written up from her notes. There doesn’t seem to be any particular order to them, and none mention any other (although they do drop tantalising hints of untold stories – I’d love to know the background behind the time she made a medical student her prisoner…). Not of them relate to things that happened to G – some are just stories told to her by other police officers. Still, the bulk of the book (about two thirds) is taken up by two stories, “Tenant for Life” and “The Unknown Weapon”. Conveniently, “Tenant for Life” is the first story (and probably the best), so let’s start there!
Tenant for Life
When a friend tells G about the time her husband bought and then sold a baby in strange circumstances, G goes to investigate and ultimately discovers an respectable family engaged in an inheritance scam devised to stop the estate falling into the hands of a drunken uncle.
The story begins and ends with rather strong coincidences – the plot only happens because G’s friend happens to mention, out of the blue, that time they bought a baby and then the baby died so they bought another baby but then someone ran after them and bought the baby off them for even more, and it ends suddenly when the uncle has a sudden heart attack – but the stuff in between is really interesting.
A lot of stories have the detective decide to let the accused off – so many that there’s a TV Tropes page about it – but it’s often pretty much a snap decision. The detective knows instantly which the more honourable option is. Here, it’s not clear. The baby was bought by a wealthy family because the owner of the house died in childbirth and her potential heir was stillborn. Pretending the baby was hers means that it stays in the hands of the husband and his sister, when by rights it should have gone to the woman’s uncle. However, the uncle is wasteful and profligate, while the husband uses the house for his philanthropic wheat-breeding exercise.
G mulls hard over whether or not to reveal the truth and, interesting, makes the wrong choice, with the last section of the story devoted to her trying to set right the mistake she made. Admittedly, a lot is solved because the uncle died of a random heart attack in a closed room (or perhaps G is covering up the fact he was killed to protect the estate? OMG UNRELIABLE NARRATOR), but it’s nice to have a fallible detective.
No detecting happens in this story. Instead, it’s the story of the time G didn’t notice her neighbour was a fraudster, even though he was a teenager from a poor house who went around wearing gold rings and expensive suits. Maybe detectives shouldn’t be this fallible. Since there’s no mystery, it’s just a tale of how Georgy committed his crimes (the answer: cheque fraud, petty theft and taking gold out of an unlocked safe).
The Unraveled Mystery
Another unsolved crime, although in this very short case, the fault lies not with G but with the police. A bag full of body parts are washed up in the Thames, and when the police can’t identify them, G makes her own forensic investigation (as you can guess, this story has quite a strong CSI: Victorian London vibe). Most of the case hinges on quite flimsy deduction – the body’s hairy so it must be a foreigner, so the murderer must be a spy who doesn’t have access to a basement – but as an insight into 19-century policing methods, it’s pretty interesting.
The Judgement of Conscience
Another one where G bumbles into the case more or less by accident. What does she do with her time? Probably the most realistic of the stories, hinging around an angry brother avenging his jilted sister. Enjoyable as a story as well as a nice glimpse into the life of the poor in London, against the background of the Chartist movement.
A Child Found Dead: Murder or No Murder?
Apparently this one is based on the Constance Kent case. Even G has doubts about whether this a good story – unsurprising, since it’s a story told to her by a friend based on speculation he was told by a doctor based on what the doctor had read in the newspaper about the brutal murder of a baby, and the doctor’s ultimate theory is that the nurse did it while sleepwalking because subconsciously all nurses want to kill their wards. The Constance Kent case has never been solved for certain, but the sleepwalking theory seems especially far fetched. The mini-mystery at the beginning, about some atrociously behaved schoolboys, is probably the story’s main redeeming feature, not least because it’s a reminder that schoolchildren have always had the potential to be cruel, foulmouthed snotrags.
The story ends abruptly, supposedly because that’s where G’s manuscript ends, so we never learn what happens when the doctor makes his theory public. Maybe that’s for the best.
The Unknown Weapon
The other long story, the Unknown Weapon tells the tale of a prodigal son (in every way) who one day turns up on his cheapskate father’s doorstep with an arrowhead in his chest. Again, an interesting story, and probably the one closest in format to a traditional mystery. G gets an apprentice for this one, an constable called Martha who goes undercover as a maid to help her solve the crime. I’d personally love a series of books where G and Martha team up, but alas, it’s not to be.
Check out that thrilling title! This story again is one G was told by someone else, and again it’s not especially interesting. A rich girl escapes from her locked bedroom to elope with her working-class boyfriend. How did she do it? She paid off the fire brigade.
Writing these synopses up, I’ve just realised something. There are seven stories in this book. In not one story do the detectives actually put the criminal behind bars. One is let off, two get away before the crime was discovered, one cannot be caught because searching the house of every foreigner in London would be a teensy bit illegal, one kills himself first, one murder was an accident, and in the last case there is no criminal, but the non-criminal escapes anyway.
Do you think this is just chance, or is there something deeper? Would having a woman arrest someone – especially a man – be too much for Victorian sensibilities to take? I’m not sure; there is that random mention of G once taking a medical student prisoner, but that’s it. Anyway, for a more detailed look at the gender politics of the book, The Woman Detective by Kathleen Klein has a few pages about it (although I wouldn’t necessarily agree with all her claims about the book – she deliberately ignores 4 of the 5 stories about G, making basing her arguments solely on “The Unknown Weapon”, which leads to overgeneralisations. For example, she claims that because the criminal is a woman in that story, and G fails to solve the case, this must mean the writer tried to dilute her character, ignoring the cases where the criminal is a man and where G succeeds in solving the crime).
* Although Wikipedia lists a couple of other possible firsts – the penny dreadful “Ruth the Betrayer; or, The Female Spy” and the book The Revelations of a Lady Detective (a.k.a. The Lady Detective, A Tale of Female Life and Adventure) by W. S. Hayward. The messy nature of publishing (especially for cheap serials) in the days before ISBNs means that it may never be clear which came first. Kathleen Klein in The Woman Detective claims that on investigating the book stamps in the British Library, she found The Female Detective came a few months before Revelations of a Lady Detective, so let’s go with that. Also, between The Female Spy, The Female Detective, A Lady Detective and The Woman Detective, I think book publishers need to start coming up with some more original titles.
** EINE MUTTER VERKAUFT IHR BABY