After thoroughly enjoying the high-Victorian larks of Mrs Paschal the Lady Detective last month, I turned with some enthusiasm to the British Library’s other resurrected lady-sleuth The Female Detective. This came out a few months earlier in 1864 than Hayward’s book, and obviously has a very similar premise. However, it is quite different in tone – much more of a serious-minded consideration of the life of a crime fighter with polemics and thinly veiled sidesteps into true crime alongside the straight-forwardly fictional stories. Miss Gladden, our heroine (Gladden’s not her real name, and her friends think she is a dressmaker) shares a collection of tales from different stages of her career as a detective:
- ‘Tenant for Life’ is a relation of the step-by-step uncovering of an old mystery – why would somebody need to buy a baby in a hurry? (Note that it’s the hurry that’s the initially suspicious thing about the transaction, not the whole buying a child thing: ‘Children are not bought in the dark in the midst of fear and trembling, if all is clear and honest sailing.’).
- ‘Georgy’ is the story of a plausible young man’s bare-faced swindling of his careless employer (and his escape).
- ‘The Unravelled Mystery’ is another exercise in deduction, this time of the ‘armchair’ type, but is actually more focused on shortcomings in the structure and organisation of the English police. ‘I venture to assert that the detective forces as a body are weak; that they fail in the majority of the cases brought under their supervision;’
- ‘The Judgement of Conscience’ finds her unwillingly pursuing an admirable man she believes a murderer. ‘A man is your friend, but if he transgresses that law which it is your duty to see observed you have no right to spare him because he is so; for in doing this you admit, by implication, that you did not spare other men because they were no friends.’
- ‘Murder or No Murder’ is closely based on the real-life Road Hill Murder case, which also inspired The Suspicions of Mr Whicher (this story features another detective, Hardal, ‘the most eccentric barrister at the Bar’, who I would have liked to meet again).
- ‘The Unknown Weapon’ sees Miss Gladden solving the murder of the feckless son of miserly Squire Petleigh – killed with a strange piece of metal.
- ‘The Mystery’ is not of a piece with the others, being a semi-farcical tale of the elopement of a young couple.
One joy in this book is watching a detective at work painstakingly assembling clues and following leads. This process wouldn’t hold much water if judged by the standards of later puzzle mysteries, but they have a distinctly Victorian flavour that gives them charm. ‘The Unravelled Mystery’ applies Miss Gladden’s deductive prowess to a newspaper report and proceeds step-by-step to her conclusion (submitted to the authorities, but ignored):
DEDUCTION.–That a foreign man, of age, but not aging, was murdered by stabbing by the members of a secret foreign society of educated men which he had betrayed. That this murder was committed by lodgers and most probably on some other floor than the basement, and of a house situated in the Soho district.
I was particularly interested in the use of evidence. In ‘The Unknown Weapon’, she has recourse to a ‘Microscopic Chemist’ who identifies some fluff for her. In ‘The Judgement of Conscience’, a vital clue is a scrap of paper:
I refer to the wadding, or rather stopping, used to fix the charge in the barrel of the firearm. If this stopping is not a disc of pasteboard, or a material sold for charging purposes, it frequently happens that it is a piece of paper torn from a supply in the possession of the person using the firearm […] indeed there are cases on record where the rough line on the edge of the bit of half-burnt paper has agreed so certainly with another morsel found in the pocket if a suspected man…
Miss Gladden is a remarkable woman. There is humour in the book and a lot of it stems from her redoubtable character. She definitely speaks as she finds:
Arrived at Tram at once I found the constable, and I am constrained to say-a greater fool I never indeed did meet.
She was not pleasant to look upon, her jaw being so underhung as to give her at first sight that malevolent expression which is too suggestive of the bull-dog.
There are some lovely sidelights into her off-duty character. My favourite:
Even when I am engaged hot in a case, I am afraid I relax on a Sunday.
In summary, Miss Gladden is an implacable foe to the criminal, a proper deductrix (I may have made that word up), and a worthy ancestor of modern-day female detectives. The book isn’t as rambunctious as Revelations of a Lady Detective, but it is probably a more significant work in the history of the genre.
See also: Revelations of a Lady Detective
Also reviewed at: Pretty Sinister Books
I am entering The Female Detective in the Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge, in the Genuine Fakes category. The Introduction to this edition tells us that ‘Andrew Forrester’ was a nom de plume of James Redding Ware, who also wrote books on subjects as diverse as card games, dreams, famous centenarians, English slang and the Isle of Wight.
Past Offences by Rich Westwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.