Mystery Women: Volume 1 (1860-1979)

Mystery Women: Volume 1 (1860-1979)

Edgar- and Agatha-nominated author Colleen Barnett here updates her essential reference for readers and writers of mystery, examining women who detect, women as sleuths, and the evolving roles of women ...

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Colleen Barnett

Colleen Barnett, a retired Wisconsin attorney, moved to Minnesota after the death of her husband John to be closer to ...

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Women Sleuths of the Victorian Era— 1860-1899

“Not only do…women suffer…ever-recurring indignities in daily life, but the literature of the world proclaims their inferiority and divinely decreed subjection in all history, sacred and profane, in science, philosophy, poetry and song.”

 Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and M.J. Cage, Eds., History of Women Suffrage II 1882, from Feminist Quotations, Voices of Rebels, Reformers, and Visionaries, compiled by Carol McPhee and Anne Fitzgerald, Thomas Y. Crowell, 1979

During the period when American women were struggling to achieve the right to hold property, make valid wills and contracts, retain the wages they earned outside of the home, and gain custody of their children at divorce, it is not surprising that few sought employment as investigators or used their leisure time to detect. Predictably, there would be few fictional women sleuths. Male authors had strong markets for heroic adventures, where women were portrayed as victims or villains. Women rarely played a significant role in determining outcomes. Female authors who wrote in the mystery genre often hid their gender under androgynous names or initials. They lacked Virginia Woolf ’s “room of their own” which would enable them to experiment, develop, and produce narratives to meet the needs of women readers.

Changes came slowly in the literary world, reflecting the social, political, and economic shifts in society. When a woman was featured as an investigator during this period, she was usually single, widowed, or in a few instances the sole support of a family. Female investigators were even less likely to appear in a series (defined as at least two). The happy solution for a heroine was to achieve marriage and a family, which could be accomplished in a single book. Once married, she was expected to conform to the role of wife and mother, eschewing work outside of her home.

Upper and middle class women were not encouraged to appear in public without an escort, certainly not in the evening. Single women lived under the protection of male relatives; wives, under the control of their husbands. Only with increased leisure and educational opportunities for women in the privileged classes did a readership develop for intrepid and adventurous females.

It is generally conceded that Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories published in the 1840’s initiated the mystery genre. Amelia Butterworth, the first woman to appear in a mystery series, was developed by an American in 1897. Amelia’s predecessors had been a mixed lot, often depending upon intuition, special psychic gifts, or such skills as lip reading to solve problems.

Amelia was a wealthy spinster, allied with a New York City police inspector. She narrated the books in which she appeared and had a significant role in solving the mysteries.


loveday brooke

Author: C. L. (Catherine Louisa) Pirkis

Loveday Brooke, an austere woman of thirty who worked as a private detective for the Lynch Court Detective Agency in London, appeared in seven short stories, collected as The Experiences of Loveday Brooke, Lady Detective (Hutchinson, 1894, reprinted in 1986 by Dover).

She set an excellent example, often solving cases when the authorities failed, unafraid of physical risks and painstaking in her work. Except for dressing in black and a habit of squinting when she concentrated, she appeared average in all aspects. This made it possible for her to go undercover to investigate instances of robbery, disappearance, and murder. Loveday indicated that she became a detective because of financial reverses, finding it one of the few jobs for which she had a talent. She preferred to work alone, calling on her employer only when it was time to contact the police. Even on vacation, she found herself intrigued by rumors of ghosts in homes, connecting them with disappearing checks.

Pirkis presumably used the initials to hide her gender, because few women wrote novels, much less mysteries, under their own names in this period.

Amelia Butterworth

Author: Anna Katharine Green aka A. K. Green

Amelia (christened Araminta) Butterworth, a member of upper class New York society, fit the acceptable pattern of a female sleuth at the turn of the century. Although a “stately” spinster, Amelia was one by choice, having rejected two suitors as possible fortune hunters. Even though she appeared as a secondary character in three Ebenezer Gryce books, she narrated and played significant roles in each. She was acerbic but compassionate; staid, but displayed a sense of humor.

In That Affair Next Door (Putnam, 1897), when Amelia noticed a young man bringing a woman to a supposedly empty house, she contacted the police. After the young woman was found dead, Amelia offered shelter to the two daughters of the house, who had just returned from Europe and were understandably reluctant to stay in their own home. Gryce, assigned to the case, recognized Amelia’s value as an observer, but allowed her to expand beyond that role, which she did by locating a valuable witness.

 By Lost Man’s Lane (Putnam, 1898), Gryce, now a close friend, consulted Amelia when four men disappeared from a small New York village. Amelia made an extended visit to personal friends in the area, noting the behavior of younger members of the family. Her information led first to the discovery of a corpse, then to the killer.

During The Circular Study (McClure, 1900, reprint by Garland in 1976), Gryce found a parasol belonging to Amelia at a crime scene. She had entered the house after she noticed suspicious behavior, and was again a witness to potential suspects. After identifying the young woman involved, Amelia learned that she was the victim of a family quarrel dating back to the Civil War. Although Gryce and Amelia discovered the killer, they agreed that she would never come to trial.

Lois Cayley

Author: Grant Allen

Lois Cayley, at 21, had crisp black hair, large dark eyes, and a swarthy complexion. A graduate of Girton, Cambridge, she behaved scandalously for a young woman of her class and time; i.e., serving as a maid for an elderly woman, riding an American-designed bicycle in a contest in which all other entrants were men, rescuing a suitor when he fell over a cliff.

During Miss Cayley’s Adventures (Putnam, 1899), she traveled through Europe; into Egypt, where she rode a camel and rescued a young Englishwoman from Arabs; and to India, where she hunted tigers from the back of an elephant. On her return to England, she and her fiancé, Harold, were accused of tampering with a will under which Harold inherited. They married in Scotland, with Harold returning to surrender to the authorities while Lois proved their innocence.

The novel was typical for the times, in that a fictional young woman was allowed considerable freedom before her marriage, particularly if her underlying purpose was noble.

Dorcas Dene

Author: George R. Sims

 Dorcas Dene entered private investigation only when she was sure that “it would not involve any sacrifice of her womanly instincts.” In her late twenties, she was described as having soft brown wavy hair and a light complexion. Her motives were financial. Her artist husband, Paul, had lost his sight, so she supported the London household, which also included her mother, and bulldog Toddleking. She had been an actress, which served her in good stead when she entered households undercover to gain information. At various times she disguised herself as a nurse, as an American tourist, and as an elderly German frau. Her next-door neighbor, a retired policeman, hired Dorcas to help in his investigations. When he retired, she took over the agency, working conscientiously to verify her conclusions by researching official records.

Dorcas Dene, Detective (White, 1897) was narrated by dramatist Mr. Saxon, who had known Dorcas when she was on stage, and admired her ability to use disguise and drama in her investigations. A second collection, Dorcas Dene, Detective, Second Series (White, 1898) followed, but was not available for review.

Mrs. G.

Author: Andrew W. Forrester, Jr.

Such formidable genre theorists as Ellery Queen and E. F. Bleiler identified Mrs. G. as the first fictional female investigator in The Female Detective (Ward, 1864). Her author, Andrew W. Forrester, Jr., gave few insights into her character or motives, but she presumably worked for the money. In The Lady Investigates by Patricia Craig and Mary Cadogan, it was reported that Mrs. G. did not disclose her work to her friends, but led them to believe she was a dressmaker. Nor did Forrester ever make it clear whether Mrs. G. was widowed or married, or did or did not have children. As a matter of fact, since the title “Mrs.” during that period was given to older women indiscriminately, she might have been single. Michelle Slung, in her preface to Crime on Her Mind, referred to Mrs. G. as likely to be single and working to support herself. In her first person narrative, Mrs. G. commented that she believed that women criminals were worse than men.

In 1978, Dover Publications included The Unknown Weapon by Forrester in Three Victorian Detective Novels, edited by E. F. Bleiler. In the narrative, Mrs. G. investigated the death of young Graham Petleigh at his father’s country estate. Although she determined how, why, and by whom the murder had been committed, she lacked proof for a conviction. She interviewed witnesses, had a woman assistant who went undercover at the estate, and searched the premises. She described her approach as believing “every man, a rogue till…we can only discover that he is an honest man.”

6 Mystery Women: An Encyclopedia of Leading Women Characters in Mystery Fiction

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