The Female Detective

The consensus history of the detective story credits its natal coalescence to Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” appearing in 1841. So potent was the new fictional idiom, so suited to contemporary times, that in only a couple of decades mystery novels and short stories were a standardized form, although of course many refinements and milestones remained ahead. So in 1864 the appearance of Andrew Forrester’s The Female Detective, featuring the first gumshoe of her gender, was a logical but unprecedented landmark. (Some authorities give the groundbreaking credit, however, to Edward Ellis’s Ruth the Betrayer; or, The Female Spy, from 1863. In either case, the time seemed ripe for such a figure.)

True authorship of The Female Detective was hidden for a long while behind a penname, and the text itself was hard to procure. But this welcome fresh edition removes all those barriers to an enjoyment which is quite substantial, not just academic. Forrester’s well-wrought heroine emerges as a droll, unsentimental sleuth, and her cases remain intriguing.

The book begins with our dainty but tough-minded PI introducing herself and making the case for her chosen mode of employment. She exudes an almost Batman-style vibe by revealing that most people know her only by her innocent secret identity of Miss Gladden, dressmaker. Then she proposes to tell us several case histories.

The first is “Tenant for Life.” Learning of a poor unmarried woman who sold her child to a “regular lady,” she intuits some kind of scam and sets out to unravel it, without having a definite commission from any client, simply because “if there is one thing a detective — whether female or male — is less able to endure than another, it is a mystery.” Undaunted by the fact that the trail is five years old, she plunges into a maze of bribery and disguise, eventually unraveling a family scandal worthy of Ross Macdonald.

“Georgy” is the account of a sly and carefree young rakehell who embezzles three hundred pounds from his employer, steals a diamond ring from an acquaintance, then absconds scot-free for the Continent. “He got clean away [and] I am pretty certain of this, that he will be moderately happy wherever he goes, and will not be troubled overmuch with his conscience.” Shades of Patricia Highsmith and her Ripley!

Forrester and Miss Gladden deliver a pure CSI performance in “The Unraveled Mystery.” It’s one-hundred-percent ratiocination, as our detective sits in her study with a visiting doctor and between them they reason out the probable identity of a dissected murder victim found in a carpetbag on the shore of the Thames. Boldly enough, the tale ends with no ultimate verifiable solution.

“The Judgment of Conscience” involves shoemaker John Kamp, who accuses himself of a likely murder, but is ultimately proven innocent. That he is Miss Gladden’s friend only complicates the affair, as she struggles with the necessity of turning him in.

Facing a manner of locked-room mystery in “A Child Found Dead: Murder or No Murder,” our sleuth must deal in Holmesian fashion with a dog that didn’t bark, and the senseless mutilation of a juvenile corpse. Andrew Vachss would feel right at home.

“The Unknown Weapon” is perhaps the volume’s most substantial story. It starts, Perry Mason-style, with a long and inconclusive courtroom inquest into the death of young squire Petleigh under highly odd circumstances. Then Miss Gladden herself gets busy at the Petleigh estate in the manner of Inspector Maigret. This is the only instance in which she finds herself in bodily peril.

Finally, as a kind of comic relief, “The Mystery” briefly concerns two young lovers and how they circumvented an obstinate father.

Throughout all these adventures, Miss Gladden offers tips on detection and the traits of her peers, maxims on society and individual character, and pointed assertions of the superiority of the female sex when it comes to ferreting out nefariousness. “We police officers see so much of the worst side of humanity…that we believe all men to be thieves till we are certain they are honest people.” “As one hundred pound bank notes are not going begging every day of the week, we of the force look upon them with a considerable amount of respect.” “Let us leave despair alone, if we can only preach to it.” “I believe it is admitted that we women detectives are enabled to educate our five senses to a higher pitch than are our male competitors.” Unfazed by criminal actions, however macabre, she soldiers bravely and enthusiastically on.

What proves most astonishing about these very early tales is how closely they foreshadow what was to come in the mystery field, with regards to plot, characters, methods, tone and themes. Nearly every trope that still enlivens tales of detection is present here, and we recognize with a start that Miss Gladden is none other than Chandler’s incorruptible knight, with morals more complex and lofty than society’s conventions. Let us in homage bestow upon Forrester’s fine creation Chandler’s famous description of the Ur-detective, suitably altered.

“Down these mean streets a woman must go who is not herself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective must be a complete woman and a common woman and yet an unusual woman. She must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a woman of honor. She talks as the woman of her age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness.” Miss Gladden to a tee!

The Speculator

Paul Di Filippo’s column The Speculator appears monthly in the Barnes & Noble Review.  He is the author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, Neutrino Drag, and Fuzzy Dice.