Review: “The Female Detective” by Andrew Forrester. Poisoned Pen Press

This is a most noteworthy book, due in good part to its significance in literary history. Written in 1864, we are told this is the first appearance of a female detective in the literature. It starts with abundant openers. First, a Foreword by Alexander McCall Smith, addresses the appeal of the female detective as a literary character. Smith has, of course, given us his own memorable example in the redoubtable Mma Precious Ramotswe. Then, the Introduction by Mike Ashley gives us a short but informative literature review of of notable appearances by female detectives.

Bu now feeling thoroughly introduced, we nonetheless encounter yet another introduction in the book’s first chapter, “The Female Detective: Introduction.” Here we meet the book’s narrator, an enigmatic, somewhat prickly person who declines to state her name, offer any personal particulars, or even the precise reason for her writing this volume in the first place. She does make a rather startling assertion that she knows that her trade is “despised.” She describes her role as “police spy” or “eavesdropper,” yet she proceeds with earnestness and near-evangelical zeal to inform us of the value of her profession. FD assumes a public role of dressmaker, and uses pseudonyms such as “Miss Gladden” or “G”. Very well, as she chooses to be so mysterious, I shall henceforth refer to her in this review as “FD”.

Well! Once through all that introductory material, what about the book itself? This is a loosely connected collection of stories, some told by FD, some told by others and provided to us by FD. This is surely a different world that FD reveals to us. The first story, and one of the book’s longest, “Tenant for Life” tells a tale of infants bought and sold for small sums, desperately unhappy and needy women, a substantial inheritance, and FD’s early discovery that things are not as they seem. FD finds herself with a dilemma–she seeks justice, but where, she wonders, is the real justice in the story as it unfolds? Her journey leads ultimately to a conclusion that “it all came right at last, and no man was punished in order to procure justice.”

 

The second story, “Georgy” is a character study of a charming teen-age sociopath. The third, “The Unraveled Mystery” presents FD’s step-by-step examination of a never-solved case, followed by her conclusions. The exhaustive logical process of this chapter in some respects presages the future exercises in deduction of the prodigiously perceptive Sherlock Holmes. “The Judgment of Conscience” relates the unhappy tale of a shoemaker, John Kamp, aged thirty. The theme of the following chapter, “A Child Found Dead: Murder or No Murder?” is well summarized in its title. This is an unfinished narrative given to FD, we are told, by a “medical man” of her acquaintance.

The penultimate chapter, “The Unknown Weapon,” relates FD’s experiences with the coroner’s case of avaricious Squire Petleigh. There is some effort made by the author to bring human interest to this tale, unlike the grey flatness that characterizes some earlier chapters. (In those stories I was irresistibly reminded of Jack Webb’s ”just the facts” character, Sgt. Joe Friday, in the 20th-century “Dragnet” series.) Here, we meet a central character, Mrs. Quinion, and Dinah Yarton, a witness subject to fits. Dinah’s testimony is portrayed in a near-incomprehensible dialect, while the busybody Mrs. Green, “the most incorrigible talker” ever encountered by FD, is described endearingly: “She was wonderful, this Mrs. Green.”

The last story, “The Mystery” is described by FD as a grotesque incident that she has consequently portrayed it in “a grotesque, maybe even an extravagant, form.” Be that as it may, what follows is perhaps the most entertaining chapter of the book. We meet 18-year-old Nelly, badgered by her father, Old Bang, to marry a wealthy man who is both unattractive and elderly. But the resourceful Nelly declines to do her father’s bidding–and thus our story begins. The author sees fit to inject humor into this tale by assigning odd quirks to certain characters, reminiscent of Dinah’s fits in an earlier chapter. Thus we encounter Mrs. Bang, who fears an attack of tic-doloreux when her anxiety is aroused, and her servant Mary, who is “subject to staggers.” I have no idea what “the staggers” might be in today’s terminology, unless we are to infer that Mary is over fond of strong spirits? But it seems doubtful that the excellent Mrs. Bang would countenance such unseemly behavior in a maidservant. In any case, the story has an “odd” outcome. Notably, at one point FD makes reference of case similarities to aspects of an Edgar Allen Poe story

 

So, with that quirky tale, the book ends. What did I think of all this? With all its worthiness and historical significance, it was for me a tedious and not very enjoyable read. FD often sounds like an old-time schoolmarm, and while reading the tales I sometimes felt I was being lectured. But I commend Poison Pen Press for bringing it to us. It is after all, quite enlightening to view this first effort of the genre.

 

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