I mentioned the British Library’s services to classic crime fiction a few weeks back, and they have been kind enough to send me some titles to include in Past Offences.
I opted to start with their latest title, Revelations of a Lady Detective, and I’m glad I did because it’s an absolute blast from beginning to end.
Mrs Paschal (Mr Paschal is unfortunately dead) is one of the ‘much-dreaded, but little-known people called Female Detectives’. She works for the bulging-foreheaded Colonel Warner of the Police, a man who really knows how to run a briefing session:
‘Very well,’ cried Colonel Warner, ‘the task I propose for you is to discover where, and in what way, Lady Vervaine obtains the funds which enable her to carry on a career, the splendour and the profuseness of which exceed that of a prince of the royal blood during the Augustan age of France, when Louis XIV set an example of extravagance which was pursued to ruination by the dissolute nobility, who surrounded the avenues of is places, and thronged the drawing-rooms of his country seats.’
Be careful out there. Thus fortified, Mrs Paschal sallies forth into the world of crime. Warner has every faith in her, and in fact she has no small opinion of herself:
‘My brain was vigorous and subtle … I was well born and well educated … nerve and strength … cunning and confidence.’
And she needs all these qualities, as she faces some real rotters in the course of her adventures. Her opponents are a bonkers mix of aristocratic bank robbers, conveniently-English-speaking Italian unificationists, evil nuns, live-rat-eating sideshow performers, the enormous wife of a pork-and-butter merchant, bent solicitors, evil twins, and larcenous postmen. She’s not afraid to get stuck in, adopting a take-no-prisoners approach reminiscent at times of Mike Hammer.
‘The Secret Band’ finds her tangling with an underground organisation of Italian exiles (such as appeared in Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White a few years earlier). She takes quite a shine to the boss, Zini, with his ‘kindling glance and quivering nostrils’, but despite her admiration for him, he has to go.
‘The Lost Diamonds’ sees her helping the Duke of Rustenburgh recover the Blo-y-nor Diamond (sounding more like it was discovered in a Welsh mine than bought from ‘the king of Delhi’), incidentally freeing an innocent man from false imprisonment. There’s a lot of false imprisonment about.
It’s not all action, though. The stories have their sentimental side:
Alfred Wriniker was beside himself with delight. Transported with joy he covered her with kisses utterly oblivious of the troublous times that were in store for him and the miserable girl whose heart he had carried by storm.
Mrs Paschal occasionally airs her opinions on a variety of matters. The aforementioned rat-eating sideshow performer appears in the story ‘Which is the Heir?’. Mrs Paschal has this to say:
I was told afterwards that this sort of amusement is very popular with the lower orders, who gloat over such scenes. Where are the officers of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals? I thought large sums are given them every year. Why do they not look at these atrocities?
Sometimes it sounds rather as though the author was getting something off his chest:
…above all things, never make the fatal mistake of relying upon innate worth or intrinsic merit. They will not obtain you a crust of bread and cheese – no, not if you were dying of hunger.
And sometimes Mrs Paschal displays a sly wit:
Thermopylae was not defended by men who lived upon the fat of the land, but by those who ate coarse bread and spring onions – rather objectionable in feminine eyes, but conducive to physical development.
If careful detection is your bag, don’t expect to find it here. If you can’t catch your criminal by dressing up as an out-of-work servant, Mrs Paschal isn’t interested. However, I’d recommend Revelations to fans of Victoriana, readers of history-mysteries, and crime fans interested in the early days of our genre.
I’ll leave the last word to someone foolish enough to mess with Mrs Paschal:
‘Oh! How egregiously I have been duped!’ cried the abbess, in despairing accents.
See also: The Woman in White
I am entering Revelations of a Lady Detective in the Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge, in the Wicked Women category, and also nominating it as a Friday’s Forgotten Book.
Past Offences by Rich Westwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.