There is a not insignificant portion of the bookish world that seeks out the first instance of particular characters and genres. Because I am a trivia hound, I follow scholars who try to identify the first novel (probably The Tale of Genji, by Murasaki Shibiku, depending on how you define it), the first science fiction story (probably The Blazing World, by Margaret Cavendish), etc. etc. The first time I tried to chase down the first instance of something happened after reading “The Purloined Letter,” by Edgar Allan Poe. This story is one of the first recognizable detective stories that I know of, published in 1844. Andrew Forrester’s* The Female Detective is probably the first collection of stories featuring a woman who works as a professional detective. It was originally published 1863-1864. I’ve been eager to read it since I first spotted a reference to this collection a few months ago.
The eponymous female detective is Mrs. Gladden, or G., though she usually doesn’t use her name in her stories. The collection is written in retrospect, as G. looks back on her time working for (I think) London’s Metropolitan Police. G. is deliberately vague about the details of her position, perhaps because she spends so much concealing that she works for the police in order to get people to talk. Unlike most detective stories, G. shares only a few cases where she solved a crime and was a hero. Instead, she shares unsolved cases, ethically ambiguous cases, or cases in which the criminal got away with it. The stories are peppered with tricks of the trade—some of which are satirical.
“Tenant for Life” opens the collection. The case begins much like any other detective story. G. spots some irregularities about a child, purely by chance, that her sense of curiosity won’t leave alone. She asks questions and tracks down witnesses to figure out who the child is and why one woman would sell the child to a London cabbie and why a second woman would by that same child from that same cabbie for thirty pounds. The investigation leads G. to a sister and brother who are running a benign fraud. By the end of the case, G. has a crisis of conscience because the criminals are good people and the “wronged” man is absolutely horrible.
I’m not sure if “The Unravelled Mystery” is the author satirizing mid-nineteenth century police work or if G. seriously believes the wildly pseudoscientific chain of logic she and a doctor friend concoct to explain how a dismembered, headless corpse came to be tossed into the Thames. G. was not on the case, but she can’t help playing armchair detective. I want to believe this story is satirical because, if it’s not, then G. comes across as a) racist and b) too impressed with her own cleverness.
“The Judgment of Conscience” is my favorite story in the collection. G. is only tangentially connected with the case until an acquaintance of hers becomes a murder suspect. This is the grittiest story in the collection and G. is not very euphemistic about the sordid elements in this story. Unlike many of the other criminals in this collection, who are unambiguously bad people, this story relates how good people can go down bad roads because of their circumstances.
“The Unknown Weapon” is less concerned with questions of justice. This story is a solid puzzle. G. decides to investigate the strange death of the son of a country squire because the coroner’s inquest was a farce. The victim was found in the garden of his father’s country house, impaled on a barb that doesn’t look like any of the usual suspects of murder weapons. The victim’s father and his servants react oddly to the death and are clearly hiding something. G. has to figure out which of the clues are red herrings because nothing adds up at first (or second) look. The conclusion to this story is fantastic.
The Female Detective was published twenty years after “The Purloined Letter” and it’s amazing to see how the genre’s conventions had already become firmly established. That said, G. also subverts some of those conventions through her gender and her commentary on the practices of her profession. The Female Detective, in addition, sheds a bright light on the nascent British police force (though women did not officially join the police force until World War I). Many of the things that G. things and does are not kosher for modern police officers and her prejudices and assumptions had me rolling my eyes. This book is going to make a lot of literary critics and scholars happy because there’s so much to dig through.
I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 2 August 2016.
* Andrew Forrester is the pseudonym of James Redding Ware.