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. US, a 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.