Mystery & Mayhem: “The Origins of the Girl Detective” by Katherine Woodfine
Mystery & Mayhem: Twelve Deliciously Intriguing Mysteries is a great anthology of twelve short stories, written by an all-female cast (‘The Crime Club’), which showcases the great sleuth writing we are lucky to have in this country right now. Contemporary stories side by side with historical ones, classic-inspired tales and original ideas, there is something for everyone in this book, and this variety makes incredibly entertaining reading. I have to admit a particular fondness for Clémentine Beauvais’ “The Mystery of the Green Room”; its intertextual links and homage to Gaston Leroux’s stories and more particularly The Mystery of the Yellow Room, brought back many happy memories of childhood reading.
The short story format fits the detective genre really well and is always a great asset both at school and home: children can read at their own pace, and it makes perfect reading aloud material with older children.
I always loved a good detective story as a child. I loved Nancy Drew (Alice in French) and another Stratemeyer Syndicate production under the Caroline Keen name, The Dana Girls (les soeurs Parker) but also another similar mystery series focusing on nurses solving mysteries (yep) called Les Jeunes Filles en Blanc by Suzanne Pairault. All of these had female leads, female detectives, which is why I am delighted to that Katherine Woodfine, who curated Mystery and Mayhew, chose to write about the origins of the girl detective as part of its blog tour.
The origins of the girl detective
by Katherine Woodfine
… Billy isn’t the only one who can behave like a proper detective. I get jolly tired of boys thinking they are the ones who do all the important things, as this story will soon show you.
– ‘The Mystery of the Purloined Pearls’
When I first sat down to write my story for Mystery & Mayhem, I knew I wanted it to be told in the first person. In The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow and The Mystery of the Jewelled Moth, I loved writing in the third person about an ensemble cast – telling the story of how Sophie, Lil and their friends solve mysteries together – but for this story, I wanted to do something different. Instead of a group of sleuths combining forces to solve a mystery, this story would be about one detective working solo – with chorus girl Lil taking on the role of the intrepid ‘girl detective’.
These days we’re used to seeing female detectives everywhere – from Miss Marple to Nancy Drew, Veronica Mars to Hazel and Daisy in the Murder Most Unladylike series, Jessica Fletcher to Jessica Jones. But back in the Edwardian era, when my story is set, at a time when female roles were limited and women were still not even allowed to vote, a girl detective would have been rather an unusual figure.
In fact, the first real-life female detective is generally considered to have been Kate Warne, a young woman employed by Allan Pinkerton’s famous detective agency some 50 years before Lil goes sleuthing in my story. ‘America’s first female PI’ was well known for her ability to go undercover. On one occasion she disguised herself as a fortune-teller to entice secrets from a suspect, in another she befriended the wife of a suspected murderer, and she even played a key role in foiling an assassination attempt upon the president, Abraham Lincoln.
Women like Kate Warne were the exception rather than the rule (it was not until 1915 that women were able to join the police force in the UK) but whilst real-life female detectives remained rare, they did begin to pop up in fiction in the late Victorian era. The Female Detective by Andrew Forrester, published in 1864, is one of the earliest examples. The stories in this book follow heroine Mrs Gladden (or ‘G’ as she is usually known) who employs Sherlock Holmes-style methods to track down her villains – examining crime scenes, searching for clues, and generally outsmarting the incompetent (male) police.
Meanwhile, Mrs Paschal, the heroine of W Stephens Hayward’s Revelations of a Lady Detective, is far from being your typical genteel Victorian lady – she carries a revolver, trails suspects and dons all manner of disguises in order to solve her cases. Across the pond, Kate Goelet was the heroine of Harlan P Halsley’s detective stories: a beautiful young New Yorker who creates her own James Bond-style weapons, including six-inch daggers that emerge from her sleeves.
But whilst stories featuring women detectives were becoming more common, and detective tales with boys as the heroes were also popular in the Victorian period, it wasn’t until the early 20th century that the teen girl detective first appeared.
One of the very first of these tales was The Golden Slipper and Other Problems for Violet Strange, written by Anna Katharine Green, an American friend of Arthur Conan Doyle. Published in 1915, this was the tale of wealthy debutante Violet, who led a secret life as a sleuth.
A year later, The Wizard of Oz author L Frank Baum (writing under the pseudonym ‘Edith Van Dyne’) also created his own girl detective, fifteen-year old Mary Louise, who saves her grandfather when he is wrongly accused of treason. Publishers initially worried that Mary Louise was too independent and unruly but the Bluebird Books, as the resulting series became known, went onto include ten books – later introducing a friend for Mary Louise, the tougher and less ladylike Josie, daughter of a secret agent. In 1930, the first books featuring brave teen sleuth Nancy Drew were published – and the ‘girl detective’ genre was born.
Today, we’re used to seeing fantastic teen girl detectives on all sides – and there are certainly plenty of brilliant examples in the pages of Mystery & Mayhem – from quick-thinking Angelica in Harriet Whitehorn’s ‘The Murder of Monsieur Pierre’ to capable young Emily Copperbole in Susie Day’s ‘Emily and the Detectives’.
In my own story, ‘The Mystery of the Purloined Pearls’, Lil takes on the task of solving the mystery of a theatre star’s missing necklace – but she soon finds there are a few obstacles in her way, when those around her aren’t inclined to believe that a teenage girl could really be a detective. I hope that Lil’s version of events will be fun to be fun to read, but as well as being an entertaining mystery, perhaps ‘The Mystery of the Purloined Pearls’ might remind us of the origins of the girl detective – and also that she wasn’t always the wonderfully familiar figure that she is today.
Thank you so much Katherine!
Mystery & Mayhew is out now and can be purchased here.