SHERLOCK’S SISTERS : STORIES FROM THE GOLDEN AGE OF THE FEMALE DETECTIVE
Edited and introduced by Nick Rennison
No Exit Press. 319 pages. £9.99. ISBN 978-0-85730-398-1
Reviewed by Jim Burns
Reviewing an earlier anthology edited by Nick Rennison (More Rivals of Sherlock Holmes, NRB, June 2019), I pointed to the context in which the stories had originally appeared in print. The late-Victorian and Edwardian periods saw a wide range of magazines and newspapers on sale. They were largely aimed at an audience which didn’t want highbrow literature and erudite essays. Entertainment, whether in the form of lively factual articles or popular fiction, was what the editors looked for on the whole. The number of magazines competing for attention on a regular basis meant that they weren’t all likely to be successful. Publications came and went. But there was a demand for material and writers could earn a reasonable income if they came up with enough stories to meet deadlines. This did mean that an air of “we don’t want it good, we want it Tuesday” was sometimes evident. Not every story – and there must have been thousands of them – was ever likely to warrant being considered a work-of-art, or destined to last beyond the week.
A case in point might be Elizabeth Burgoyne Corbett’s “Madame Duchesne’s Garden Party”, which features a female sleuth named Dora Bell. I think Rennison’s own summing up of this story might be useful in explaining why he considered it worthy of inclusion: “The Dora Bell stories are short and uncomplicated, ideally suited to the newspaper readership at which they were aimed. They win no prizes for great originality, but they remain entertaining and easy-to-read”. Some of the attraction for readers probably arose from the stories often being built around a particular detective. There were, It seems, several Dora Bell tales, though they don’t seem to have ever been published in book form after they’d graced the pages of the Leeds Mercury and The Adelaide Observer.
I’ve remarked elsewhere that the lives of the authors often seem as interesting as the stories they wrote, and Corbett (1846-1930) produced novels, one of which uses the basic theme of someone falling asleep and waking up in a different century. Corbett imagined a world where women are in control and lifespan has been extended to around five hundred years. Society is “fairer and less corrupt”, but a form of eugenics is practised. It was a subject in the air in the late-Victorian and Edwardian periods and aroused the curiosity of some prominent writers, and not just those who published what might be called fiction for the masses. I have to admit that the title of one of Corbett’s crime novels, “When the Sea Gives Up its Dead” is almost enough to make me start searching for a copy. But would I be disappointed if I read it?
I’d read Clarence Rook’s “The Stir Outside the Café Royal” before picking up Sherlock’s Sisters (it’s in Crime on Her Mind, edited by Michele B. Slung, Penguin, 1977), and it’s another story that is best described as routine. The interest might lie in its brief portrait of the scene around the entrance to the Café Royal. Rook (1862-1915) is remembered, if he is, for his book, The Hooligan Nights, which purported to be the authentic story of a young tearaway from Lambeth. Rennison suggests that Rook may not have strayed too far from his study when researching for his book, and that it might have been more than influenced by Arthur Morrison’s Tales of Mean Streets.
Mentioning Rook indicates that, although the stories have female detectives at their centre, not all of them were written by women. George R. Sims (1847-1922) created Dorcas Dene who solves the riddle of “The Haverstock Hill Murder”. Sims – “a journalist, novelist, dramatist and bohemian man-about-town” – was a prolific author, one of his creations being the poem, “Christmas Day in the Workhouse”. It’s often parodied (the wonderful Billy Bennett did a military-based version, “Christmas Day in the Cookhouse”, available on YouTube), but as Rennison makes clear, it was originally designed as “a biting critique of the Victorian poor laws”. There were twenty Dorcas Dene stories, according to Rennison, and they were pulled together in two volumes. They are now collectors’ items and when I checked the available copies were priced at just over £5,000 for the two.
I first encountered “The Redhill Sisterhood” by Catherine Louisa Pirkis (1839-1910) when Hugh Greene included it in Further Rivals of Sherlock Holmes (Penguin, 1976), but it was worth reading again. It features Loveday Brooke, one of the “most interesting and appealing of late Victorian female detectives”, who manages to operate successfully in a world largely dominated by men. She doesn’t resent them and has an eye for a good-looking chap. The story is intriguing for its period details and starts in London on a “dreary November morning, every gas jet in the Lynch Court office was alight, and a yellow curtain of outside fog draped its narrow windows”.
When Brooke is despatched to investigate some shady dealings they are in an area “known to the sanitary authorities for the past ten years as a regular fever nest”. Later, there are references to the introduction of electric lighting in more-prosperous locations, and its supposed effectiveness in deterring burglars “If electric lighting were generally in vogue it would save the police a lot of trouble on these dark winter nights”. At one point a policeman says of someone, “he has weathered me, after all”, presumably meaning that the man has spotted and/or recognised him. I can’t recall ever seeing “weathered” used in this way before.
It’s also possible to get a picture of Victorian life from a passage in Fergus Hume’s “The Fifth Customer and the Copper Key” when the detective, Hagar the Gypsy, enters a room “furnished in the ugly fashion of the early Victorian era……..Chairs and sofa were of mahogany and horsehair; a round table, with gilt-edged books lying thereon at regular intervals, occupied the centre of the apartment, and the gilt-framed mirror over the fireplace was swathed in green gauze. Copperplate prints of the Queen and the Prince Consort decorated the crudely-papered walls, and the well-worn carpet was of a dark green hue sprinkled with bouquets of red flowers”.
Hume (1859-19320) was the author of The Mystery of a Hansom Cab, said by Rennison to be “the most popular novel of the Victorian era”. He published it himself in Australia, when he lived there, and then sold the English rights for £50. When it became a best-seller he didn’t profit from it. But he went on to publish over 150 novels and collections of short stories.
I was intrigued by the occurrence of narcotics in a couple of the stories, and Madelyn Mack, the “most flamboyant and eccentric female detective”, was created by Hugh Cosgrove Weir (1884-1934) for “The Man with Nine Lives”. She chews cola berries as a stimulant when needing to consider the facts of a case. And the victim of a murder she’s looking into turns out to have been addicted to “Indian hemp or ‘hasheesh’ for some time”. The murderer finds a particularly clever way of ensuring that the man imbibes a lethal dose of the drug. Amusingly, this story really is one where “the butler did it”.
“The Dope Fiends” by Arthur B. Reeve (1880-1936) has Constance Dunlap tracking down a cooked doctor, a shady pharmacist, and a bent policeman engaged in supplying cocaine to, among others, members of the theatrical profession.. My thoughts were drawn back to Billy Bennett again. He had an amusing monologue about his mother being so worried that’s he may become a performer on stage that she gladly accepts his assurance that the powder on the shoulders of his suit is only cocaine and not make-up. But Reeves’s heroine has a more-serious purpose in mind and it is to save a young dancer from the grip of the drug. Reeve worked as journalist, a consultant in crime-prevention, and wrote serials for the early American cinema. I was curious about the date of his story and whether or not it fell strictly within the Victorian/Edwardian category. It seems to have been in a collection of his stories dating from 1916, but may have been published earlier in a magazine. But perhaps I’m niggling?
Another American writer, Anna Katharine Green (1846-1935) highlighted Violet Strange as the focus of some of her short stories. Strange was a rich man’s daughter and didn’t need to work, but liked to carry out investigations on behalf of a New York private detective agency. She doesn’t care to take on murder cases, but gets involved in one involving an elderly lady in a house, described as “of the olden times……it has a fanlight over the front door………and two old-fashioned strips of parti-coloured glass on either side…….and a knocker between its panels which may bring money some day”. The story has a somewhat contrived ending, but Rennison aptly sums it up as “well-written and entertaining”.
Green’s work included The Leavenworth Case, an 1878 novel said to be one of the earliest of all American detective novels. She wrote other novels which featured an investigator called Ebenezer Gryce, “one of the first series characters in detective fiction”.
One of the most intriguing and well-written stories in Sherlock’s Sisters is “The Long Arm” by Mary E.Wilkins (1852-1930). Rennison points out that Wilkins was not a crime writer and the woman at the centre of her story is not a detective in the accepted sense of the word. She is, instead, Sarah Fairbanks, a country schoolteacher twenty-nine years of age, who has been engaged for five years to a young man. But her father opposes the match. When he is murdered suspicion naturally falls on both her and her fiancé. He has an alibi to prove that he was elsewhere at the time of the murder, but she is arrested and charged. She is acquitted, but suspicion lingers, and she determines to discover the real killer. The story-telling does have some originality and flair, and if the ending is a little melodramatic the overall impression is effective.
Wilkins wrote stories based in New England and involving “marginalised characters struggling with the frustrations and constraints of their lives”. But Rennison says that although they “won her much praise” at the time of their publication, “today she is probably better known for her stories of ghosts and the supernatural”. I have to say I looked in vain for a reference to her in Malcolm Cowley’s New England Writers and Writing (University Press of New England, 1996), though I was perhaps expecting too much in thinking she might be there. Larzer Ziff does devote a few pages to her New England stories in The American 1890s: The Life and Times of a Lost Generation (Chatto & Windus, 1966).
There are other stories that are worthy of mention. “The Episode of the Needle that did not Match” by Grant Allen (1848-1899), has Hilda Wade exposing how ambition can overcome scruples, and professions are sometimes too willing to overlook the faults of the famous. Allen is yet another popular writer who is now almost forgotten. Likewise with Richard Marsh (1857-1915) whose “Eavesdropping at Interlaken” gives us Judith Lee, a young lady with an uncanny gift for lip-reading, even at a distance. It serves her in good stead when she is accused of stealing jewellery in a hotel where she is staying, and she is able to unmask the real thieves. I suppose there has to be a degree of suspending disbelief when reading a story like this – can she really be that gifted? – but it rolls along easily and it’s not hard to enjoy its light entertainment .
Sherlock’s Sisters is another excellent anthology from Nick Rennison. If one or two of the stories creak a little it’s still possible to consider them of some value, even if only for their period charm. And sometimes they offer insights into how words change their meaning or application as the years pass. A young man says he “whipped down the stairs” (meaning dashed down), in the Loveday Brooke story, and it’s not something I’ve heard recently, though I would have said it myself seventy and more years ago. But I’m sure someone will soon tell me that it’s still in use. And some readers might want to identify with an old lady in the Baroness Orczy (1865-1947) Lady Molly of Scotland Yard story, “the Woman in the Big Hat”, who says, “I hate all this modern smartness and fastness, which are only other words for what I call profligacy”. Somehow its relevance doesn’t really sound all that old.