Before Holmes, There Was Mrs. Glasser

The Female Detective: A British Library Crime Classic, by Andrew Forrester, (Poisoned Pen Press), 256 pages, release date 2 August, 2016

The Female Detective is a delightful piece of literary history. Originally published in May, 1864, it is believed to be the first book-length collection of detective stories featuring a female detective. The protagonist and narrator, who never tell us her name, but sometimes uses the aliases Mrs. Glasser or G, appeared at a time when women had not yet entered the ranks of British police, so in a sense these are not just detective stories, but alternate reality pieces as well. The fact that G lives in a world where other women work as police and as detectives adds to this alternate reality. She is exceptional in her skills, but not as exceptional in terms of her professional identity.

The quality of the narration—and of the mysteries themselves—varies, but always avoids tedium. Two of the tales included are novella-length; the remainder are more typical short stories. In addition to recounting specific cases, G  makes general observations about her profession: the detective’s habits of thought, the kinds of access to suspects and witnesses available to female detectives that is not available to their male peers. The prose can get turgid, but that is a marker of the time period more than a particular weakness of Andrew Forrester’s writing. In fact, most readers will find their vocabularies broadened by this reading, learning terms like defalcation, absquatulation, blague, doucer, and ukase. (For those who are interested, these are defined as embezzlement, an abrupt departure, nonsense, a bribe, and an arbitrary command.)

G has the tone of later hard-boiled detectives. She notes bribing an informant: “my acts being of course illustrated with several silver portraits of her majesty the Queen.” One local character is pitied in “a small-beer kind of way.” In a statement both cynical and feminine she tells us “the public see the right side only of the police embroidery, and have no idea what a complication of mistakes and broken threads there are on the wrong.”

Not surprisingly, class and nationality are frequently used to assess the reliability or worth of individuals. G tells us she will not reproduce the text of a suicide note “for it was badly spelt, and written in a highflown sentimental style, which might appear ridiculous to the more unthinking of my readers.” One story notes the “mutual candor” to be found among “men who have gone to school and been thrashed together.” A local police offices shows “rustic signs of impatience.”

Of particularly interesting note is one case that hinges, in part, on a dog who doesn’t bark—this some thirty years before Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes will solve the case of “Silver Blaze” using a similar clue.

The Female Detective is well worth a read for its own sake and for the perspectives it gives us on British life and gender roles in the mid-1800s. Poisoned Pen’s reissue of this title is a real gift to readers of detective fiction.

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