For those of us brought up to believe that Wilkie Collins wrote the first detective novel in English, it comes as a surprise to find he was actually beaten to the post by Andrew Forrester with The Female Detective. Published in 1864, four years earlier than The Moonstone, this has now been brought back into print as part of the British Library Classic Crime series.
Forrester’s detective is a Miss Gladden or G (though that’s not her real name) who often uses the guise of a dressmaker to unravel mysteries and track down killers. Sh’s rather shy about her identity and ambiguous about the reasons why she took up what, for a woman, would have been a highly unusual occupation.
Who am I? It can matter little who I am. It may be that I took to the trade, sufficiently comprehended in the title of this work without a word of it being read, because I had no other means of making a living; or it may be that for the work of detection I had a longing which I could not overcome. It may be that I am a widow working for my children – or I may be an unmarried woman, whose only care is herself.
Whatever her true identity, Miss G is a woman who is proud of her expertise and of the profession she adopted and fearless in her desire to right injustices. She has embarked on writing her memoirs as a way of documenting what she considers the highlights of her work. The Female Detective is in essence a set of short stories in which Miss G reviews cases in which she was involved plus a few that she heard about though did not personally have a role. Her motive for writing she declares is:
… to show in a small way, that the profession to which I belong is so useful that it should not be despised I am aware that the female detective may be regarded with even more aversion than her brother in profession. … But,without going into particulars, the reader will comprehend that the woman detective has far greater opportunities than a man of intimate watching, and of keeping her eyes upon matters near which a man could not conveniently play the eavesdropper..
Most of the stories are designed to show her methods and approaches. One of them ‘The Unravelled Mystery’ struck me as being rather in the vein of Sherlock Holmes’ methods. With a minimal of information about a headless corpse found in the River Thames she makes some startling deductions about his identity and the reasons for his death. But in the opening story Tenant for Life her desire to get to the truth meant a despicable wastral got to claim a fortune and an innocent young girl was left adrift. Along the way we get some digressions and comments about the particular merits of female detectives versus male and the failings of the English police force: ‘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.’
Ultimately I found these stories disappointing if not to say rather dull. Once I’d got beyond the novelty of the idea of a female detective and got into the cases themselves, the interest level waned significantly. I got halfway and simply decided I’d had enough.
The book isn’t entirely without merit. An introduction by Mike Ashley provides interesting context for the significance of this book – apparently there were no female police officers let alone detectives in the British force in 1864 and indeed they wouldn’t materialise for another 50 years. The Metropolitan Police Force was still rather in its infancy having been established only in 1829, Scotland Yard (the plain clothes detective branch wasn’t created until 1842) and the term detective didn’t actually pass into common usage until 1843. So by creating a protagonist with such an unusual role , Forrester was pushing the boundaries. What a pity he didn’t put as much effort into the plots of the stories related by Miss G as he clearly did in creating such an unusual figure.
First published in 1864, The Female Detective was written by Andrew Forrester, the nom de plume of James Redding Ware, a writer and editor who produced books on a diverse range of subjects from card games to dreams, famous centenarians, English slang and the Isle of Wight.
The Female Detective was re-issued by The British Library in conjunction with Poisoned Pen Press.
My copy was provided by the publishers via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.