Monday, November 5, 2012

The Penguin Book of Victorian Women in Crime: Review

It is very difficult for me to rate The Penguin Book of Victorian Women in Crime (edited by Michael Sims).  The stories represent a  nice selection of early detective fiction--particularly those that feature female protagonists.  They are all interesting and well-written.  And I certainly recommend the anthology to anyone interested in this era of detective fiction.  My difficulty?  Well, Michael Sims makes a point of saying that he has made an effort to include stories that have not been reprinted--or that have not been reprinted as much as other stories by the same authors.  It's odd then that of the eleven stories here, only four are new to me--I don't count the excerpt from Anna Katherine Green's longer work.  And I've read all of the others within the last two years.  I was looking forward to some fresh stories and I guess the disappointment of that expectation has somewhat colored my response to this anthology.  If you haven't read much of the early works of detective fiction, then you're in for a treat.  As for me, I'm giving the collection a solid three star rating.

Here's a run-down of the stories:

"The Mysterious Countess" (1864, possibly 1861) by W. S. Hayward.  This is the first story to feature a female professional detective--Mrs. Paschal.  She is adept at putting herself into any role requested.  In this one she poses as a servant so she might discover the source of the Countess of Vervaine's seemingly endless supply of money....despite the lack of visible signs of support.  Mrs. Paschal braves underground tunnels and has to track her quarry down in a distant village before she gets to the bottom of the mystery.

"The Unknown Weapon" (1864) by Andrew Forrester. It is about the death of the son of a miserly old man who is killed while apparently in the the process of breaking into his own father's house. He has been stabbed with a weapon that no seems to be able to identify. This story has the honor of being quite probably the first novel about the Metropolitan Police (formed in 1829) , the first modern detective novel, and the first novel featuring a professional female detective. She is absolutely unnamed in this particular outing, but in other stories by Forrester, she is referred to as Mrs. G---- of the Metropolitan Police. She makes reference to herself and another female officer as constables...and I find it interesting to have references to female constables at this early date. Mrs. G---- is a thoroughly scientific detective, reminding the reader of Holmes. Had she the advantages of his training at university, I'm sure she would have examined her own bits of fluff under the microscope rather than sending them off in a tin box and directing "it to the gentleman who is good enough to control these kind of investigations." She faithfully takes up every piece of evidence, giving it a more thorough going-over than the local constable, looks over the scene of the crime, and thinks the problem through with logic that Holmes could not fault. There is no "feminine intuition" at work; it is a thoughtful, orderly investigation. The grand finale is a bit of a let-down--but over all a very good early detective story.

"Drawn Daggers" by C. L. Pirkis (1893).   Starring Loveday Brooke--the first known female detective created by a female author. Miss Brooke is presented as not only an intelligent and independent young woman, but as a woman who has taken up the profession because she is good at it. She's not supporting a sister or a disabled husband. She's not ultra-feminine to make up for her brains. She's just a good detective.   I have long had The Experiences of Loveday Brooks, Lady Detective on my list of books to look for. "Daggers Drawn" pays homage to Sherlock Holmes and I find Miss Brooks' way of keeping clues to herself very much in the Holmes style. Very feminist characterization for the time period.

"The Long Arm" by Mary Wilkins (1895).  Not really a female detective.  Sarah Fairbanks finds herself suspected of her father's murder--because her father disapproved of the man she loved.  There are other suspects--and several clues, like where are her father's overalls and where did the yellow ribbon come from?

The Affair Next Door, Ch. 1 (1897) by Anna Katherine Green. I'm a bit disappointed with this one--not in the writing itself, but that our editor chose to include a chapter of a longer work.  It doesn't really give us a feel for Amelia Butterworth and since it's not a self-contained story, it leaves me unsatisfied.

"The Man with the Wild Eyes" by George Robert Sims (1897). Starring Dorcas Dene, a former actress who seems adept at assuming any role.  In this one she masquerades as a private nurse in order to find out why a man's daughter claims to have had a fainting fit when it's obvious she's been attacked--and nearly strangled at that.

"The Adventure of the Cantankerous Old Lady" by Grant Allen (1899). This one features Lois Cayley, a recent graduate of Girton College, and down to her last two pence.  She agrees to be the companion to a rather cantankerous old lady--saving the lady's jewelry in the process.  Not a strict mystery, but a lovely period piece showing the "New Woman" of the late Victorian era--and one of the few stories I hadn't encountered before.

"How He Cut His Stick" by M. McDonnell Bodkin (1900). Starring Dora Myrl, a glamorous professional detective known at the time her stories came out as "A Sherlock Holmes in petticoats."  She is no-nonsense and definitely know how the stick got cut in this tale of the missing 5,000 British pounds.  

"The Man Who Cut Off My Hair" by Richard Marsh [aka Richard Bernard Heldmann] (1912).  Judith Lee is a young girl who has the gift of reading lips.  This gift and her fierce anger when the man cuts off her hair allow her to help the police bring a gang of jewel and precious metal thieves to justice.

"The Man With Nine Lives' by Hugh C. Weir (1914). Madelyn Mack, an "ordinary working detective" who is very Holmes-like--complete with a faithful Watson in the form of a female reporter and an addiction of her own (to a cola stimulant that helps her go without sleep and almost without food while on a case).  A man sends a letter to Miss Mack claiming that eight attempts have been made on his life and he fears that a ninth will be made--successfully.  He begs her to hurry to aid him.  She does, but too late, and finds herself searching for an apparent madman as the culprit.

"The Second Bullet" by Anna Katherine Green (1915).  This one features Green's other female detective, Violet Strange.  Miss Strange is the most upper-crust of all the detectives in this anthology.  She is a society girl for the most part who takes on cases that suit her so she can earn money to help a sister who was unjustly disinherited.  "The Second Bullet" is the most tragic of the stories included...Miss Strange must prove that a woman's husband did not commit suicide--a death that resulted in the loss of her child as well.  To do so, she must discover what happened to the second bullet.

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