In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle applauds the 1890s short stories featuring an early female detective
The name Catherine Louisa Pirkis is relatively unknown now, but Pirkis left two legacies of interest. The first arose out of her animal charity work: with her husband, Pirkis was one of the founders of the National Canine Defence League in 1891. This is undoubtedly a worthwhile legacy in itself, but it’s the second legacy of C. L. Pirkis which concerns us here: her small but nonetheless notable contribution to detective fiction.
In 1893, C. L. Pirkis (1841-1910) wrote a series of short stories featuring a character who has been dubbed ‘the female Sherlock Holmes’, the lady detective Loveday Brooke. It was an opportune, if not out-and-out opportunistic, time to create a new fictional detective: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had just killed off his popular sleuth Sherlock Holmes, much to the nation’s outrage, although a huge financial incentive would persuade him to bring Holmes back a decade later. Like a fellow female ‘C. L.’ author, C. L. Moore, Pirkis was an innovator in an emerging genre for the short story, and took a male author’s male creation and then put her own stamp on it. (C. L. Moore did a similar thing with Robert E. Howard’s uber-masculine Conan the Cimmerian; her creation, Jirel of Jhoiry, is a sort of female response to Conan, and was similarly a product of American pulp fantasy fiction, much as both Pirkis and Doyle wrote their detective stories for the magazines of the day.)
A female detective possesses other advantages: as a character observes at the beginning of ‘The Redhill Sisterhood’, perhaps the best-crafted of the Loveday Brooke stories, ‘The idea seems gaining ground in manly quarters that in cases of mere suspicion, women detectives are more satisfactory than men, for they are less likely to attract attention.’ And it’s not just while she’s at work investigating the mysteries that Brooke is almost invisible: in these stories, Loveday Brooke very rarely takes the credit for having solved the mystery or crime. It’s tempting to see this as Victorian patriarchy at work, with detection as ‘an unsuitable job for a woman’ and one that Brooke felt unable to put her name to in the way that a male sleuth might have done. But this would be a misreading of this device, I think, which is more a nod to the tradition of the amateur sleuth (who takes on the case for the thrill of the puzzle, rather than the plaudits and rewards that come with solving it) than it is an example of the timid woman having to sign over the fruits of her intellectual effort to a male police force on account of her intrinsic femaleness. After all, Sherlock Holmes frequently and happily hands over all credit for the solving of a crime to Scotland Yard: for the amateur sleuth, the game is all.
I mentioned ‘The Redhill Sisterhood’ as the best of these stories, and it’s worth homing in on this as a case study for the Loveday Brooke stories and why, at their best, they work. A retired greengrocer named John Murray has bought two small houses in Redhill, with the intention of living in one and renting out the other. A nun named Sister Monica asks to rent the house and provides three months’ rent up front, in lieu of references. Monica and three other nuns move in, setting up the house as a ‘home for crippled orphans’. However, wherever these nuns travel in the district, a spate of attempted robberies at country houses in the area swiftly follow. Are the nuns responsible? Loveday Brooke goes to investigate. While she’s there, she is accosted by George White, a young man whose fiancée, upon discovering that her father (long presumed dead) is in prison, wrote to him to break off their engagement, before joining a mysterious sisterhood. (You can probably guess where this part is going.) Brooke tells White that he will find his ex-fiancée at the house where the nuns live, and she retires to where she is staying. White turns up later on to report that he has seen his sweetheart with the older sisters (two ugly sisters next to the beauty that is George’s former fiancée – not quite a fairy-tale setup, though), and Brooke becomes convinced that that very evening a robbery will be attempted at a nearby country house. I won’t say more than this, because of spoilers – but you can read ‘The Redhill Sisterhood’ (and the rest of the Loveday Brooke mysteries) here. Suffice to say that there is a nice twist in the tale.
Loveday Brooke is an interesting detective because, like Sherlock Holmes, she possesses an ability to penetrate the mystery and solve it. As the young George White says to her: ‘You do such wonderful things; everyone knows you do. It seems as if, when anything is wanted to be found out, you just walk into a place, look round you and, in a moment, everything becomes clear as noonday.’ These stories are good fun, if not quite belonging to the very front rank of Victorian detective fiction. Even if ‘the female Sherlock Holmes’ is slight hyperbole, Loveday Brooke is certainly worth a read. Wordsworth or another affordable paperback publisher needs to bring her back into print.
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.
Image: via Wikimedia Commons.