The Female Detective, by Andrew Forrester

I requested Andrew Forrester’s The Female Detective from my library after a Twitter conversation with lawless about an obituary of Sue Grafton that implied she more or less invented the female private eye.

Forrester’s detective–whom I vaguely remembered from my dissertation-writing days, when I read up on Victorian detective fiction–is not a private eye; she’s a police detective, dreamed up in 1864, half a century before Britain had real-life female officers. This collection of stories isn’t great. G., the detective, doesn’t emerge as a fully-formed character, though that’s perhaps deliberate. The writing is frequently awkward. And many of the stories will seem odd to readers of modern detective fiction: G. doesn’t always appear in them, and many of the plots are unresolved.

But I did find it a really interesting precursor of the modern genre, and it made me want to go back and re-read some scholarly work on Victorian crime fiction. Here are some threads of thought that The Female Detective made me wish I had time to follow further.

One of the stories in the book is not-even-loosely based on the Road Hill murder, and made me want to re-read Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, which discusses the impact of that case on the public perception of detectives, on Victorian fiction generally, and on the development of detective fiction. (Marilyn Stasio’s review gives a good sense of what the book covers and how good it is).

I was particularly interested in the place of logic in these stories, and how it revealed Forrester’s interest in the nature of detection and the detective figure. Two of the stories, “A Child Found Dead” (the Road Hill story) and “The Unraveled Mystery,” are essentially just chains of logic. This might seem to forecast Sherlock Holmes, that “calculating machine,” but G. is far from Holmesian in her deductive powers. When she does solve a mystery, she often relies on luck and gossip rather than deduction. And G. tells us that detectives aren’t as clever as we think:

Because there are many capital cases on record in which the detective has been the mainspring, people generally come to the conclusion that the detective force is made up of individuals of more than the average power of intellect and sagacity.

Just as the successful man in any profession says nothing about his failures, and allows his successes to speak for themselves, so the detective force experiences no desire to publish its failures, while in reference to successes detectives are always ready to supply the reporter with the very latest particulars.

This passage comes at the start of “The Unraveled Mystery,” and G. goes on to explain how she would have approached a case her colleagues have failed to solve (like Holmes, her reasoning relies much more on stereotypes than she admits–on the assumption, for instance, that European men have wider hips and narrower shoulders than British men). She writes up her deductions and submits a report, but it is ignored–things weren’t so different for professional women back in 1864, perhaps.

I think this somewhat contradictory insistence that the police work on logic, but that they often aren’t very good or successful in doing so, reflects the contemporary anxiety about the role of police and detective figures, the ability of such lower-class men to penetrate middle-class domestic privacy and pry into its secrets (as in the real-life Road Hill murder).

In the longest and best (or most like modern detective fiction) of these stories, “Tenant for Life” and “The Unknown Weapon,” that’s exactly what G. does, passing herself off as a dressmaker or as someone inquiring about a servant. In the latter story, she plants a confederate as a maid in the house where the crime took place. Forrester anticipates the need for female police detectives precisely because they can go undercover in households of all classes more easily than men and gossip freely with housekeepers and landladies, as G. frequently does. (Yes, Forrester stereotypes women as inveterate gossips even as he presents G. as a professional respected by her colleagues).

In her introduction, G. writes that the purpose of her stories is

to show, in a small way, that the profession to which I belong is so useful that it should not be despised. . . .

My trade is a necessary one, but the world holds aloof from my order. Nor do I blame the world over much for its determination. I am quite aware that there is something peculiarly objectionable in the spy, but nevertheless it will be admitted that the spy is as peculiarly necessary as he or she is peculiarly objectionable.

I think the contradictory impulses in Forrester’s stories, and in G.’s narration–to insist on the detectives’ logic while showing their fallibility; to present G. as a respectable woman even as she works like a spy–both reflect and reinforce the shifting view of the detective and the police force at the time, from the thief-taker who often came from the “criminal classes” to a more professionalized, lower-middle-class figure.

I was reminded, reading The Female Detective, of something I read recently about Carpenter v. USa case involving cellphone data privacy that is now awaiting decision by the Supreme Court. (A Twitter thread, I think? I can’t track down my source). Anyway, the point this person made was that the Fourth Amendment was framed by men who worried about low-class agents of the state entering and searching the homes of respectable upper-class men like themselves. As the police have become more educated (more like judges), and the people they search more likely to be identified or imagined as lower class and criminal, judicial attitudes to the Fourth Amendment have shifted, and judges have become friendlier to arguments allowing more latitude for searches.

I hadn’t seen the argument framed in those specific class terms before; it makes sense, and I saw Forrester–along with other Victorian writers–as beginning the reimagining of the detective as a professional, respectable figure who could be trusted to protect middle-class values and property, rather than as a spy who threatened them. The stories’ contradictions–G.’s contradictory self-presentation as a respectable, professional spy–show just how preliminary that work was in 1864.

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8 Responses to The Female Detective, by Andrew Forrester

  1. Rohan Maitzen says:

    I’m so glad you read and wrote about this! It has been on my shelf for ages but I’ve never managed to get past the first few pages, but you bring out enough interesting aspects of it that I might be armed to try again. Your point about the context of increasing respectability makes a lot of sense. You see that with Sgt. Cuff in The Moonstone too.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I thought the two longest stories were the most enjoyable, but the short ones had interesting points. They might be less interesting to you since you teach and think about this stuff more regularly than I do!

  2. Janine Ballard says:

    Are there any other works of fiction that feature female sleuths (whether or not they were detectives) that were published in the Victorian (or even Edwardian) era and which you would recommend more highly? I’m not that familiar with crime fiction of the period but your post has whetted my curiosity.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I haven’t read any others (well, maybe a story in an anthology, years ago), in part because they used to be very hard to get ahold of. But that seems to be much less true now with digitization and renewed interest in studying genre fiction. You can read some of the Loveday Brooke, Lady Detective stories and Lady Molly of Sc Outland Yard stories (by Baroness Orczy of Scarlet Pimpernel fame) online and Penguin has a collection of Victorian Women in Crime. So I’m planning to check out some more—will report back!

      • Liz Mc2 says:

        Oh, and lawless recommended the American Anna Katherine Green’s Violet Strange stories. Hers are on Project Gutenberg or there’s a cheap Kindle book. The others I found on a UPenn site.

      • Janine Ballard says:

        Thanks! The Penguin compilation looks really interesting.

  3. Sunita says:

    I’m pretty sure that was Julian Sanchez talking about the 4th Amendment on Twitter; I remember reading that thread. I’m not sure I agree, or at least not fully. Sure, policemen were more uniformly lower-class, but so much of the Constitutional Convention participants’ attitudes was motivated by a general fear of government intrusion, of which the 4th was the perhaps the most literal manifestation. And it’s not as if policemen are highly educated now; more have college degrees, but I’d be curious to see if it’s a greater proportion than the general population. But it’s an interesting hypothesis and I’d love to find a way to test it.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Oh, thank you, that sounds right! Yes, I’m not sure I’d completely agree, and I’m certainly not an expert—and of course the context for an 1864 British book is different from colonial America—but I was surprised by how “relevant” this consideration of the place of the police could seem. Certainly the idea of the government spying on/surveilling you is!

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