original 1930 UK edition
Recently I've been thinking about the history of female sleuths--at least of the literary variety. I'd assumed that the first had emerged in the "Golden Age of Detective Fiction" (the period between World War I and World War II, when many great fictional detectives emerged).
Certainly, two early female sleuths were gentle Miss Marple and the intrepid girl detective Nancy Drew, although neither was the first female detective.
Miss Marple first emerged in one of Agatha Christie's short stories ("The Tuesday Club Murders") in 1925, although she was not featured in a full-length novel until The Murder at the Vicarage was published in 1930 (Check out the original cover above. Anyone missing? Hmm...).
the chic 1930s detective
Interestingly, the first Nancy Drew mystery (The Secret of the Old Clock) was also published in 1930. (The authorship has been much contested, and the stories have been much revised, but the pseudonym "Carolyn Keene" is understood now to be the creation of Edward Stratemeyer and a series of ghostwriters, including Mildred Wirt).
In many ways, Nancy Drew and Miss Marple could not be more different. Miss Marple elicited friendships over tea, making sense of gossip, while Nancy listened at keyholes, regularly finding herself captured or bopped over the head. Miss Marple was a lively middle-aged "spinster" who demonstrated wit and wisdom, while Nancy was a titian-haired teenager, later college student, who was highly skilled at everything.
Yet, arguably, both sleuths were products of the Great War. Miss Marple had lost her fiance and chose to make her own way in the world. Nancy had benefited from the nascent women's rights movement in the U.S, believing without reservation that she could do anything that men could do, including catch criminals.
Loveday Brooke at work
With a little more digging, however, I found that the Victorians had actually produced the first female detectives. In 1864, Andrew J. Forrester Jr. introduced Mrs. G. in the Female Detective, and other female sleuths followed soon after. These women seem to have represented a different type of reformer--rather than those who sought to reform prisons, factories and mills, and schools, these female detectives seemed to be suggesting a reform of the police force.
The first female sleuth I could find that had been created by a female author was Loveday Brooke, in Catherine Louisa Perkis' The Experiences of Loveday Brooke, Lady Detective (1893). Loveday Brooke, destitute at 30 years old, had defied patriarchal convention to join a detective agency. Much like her better known contemporary, Sherlock Holmes, Loveday relied on her intellect and logical thinking to suss out her criminal adversaries. She offered a counterpoint to the widespread belief in the late nineteenth-century that women were emotional, hysterical, and incapable of logical reasoning.
In many ways, these sleuths seem to reflect something of their times. It makes me wonder, first, how my own amateur sleuth, Lucy Campion, might be a product of my experience? It also makes me wonder generally about more recent trends of female sleuths who have (more-or-less successful) crafts, businesses, and hobbies on the side, which inform their crime-solving capabilities.
Just curious: Do you think characters (sleuths or not) are still products of an author's time? And if you don't like that question: What sleuths or detectives (female or male!) do you enjoy? Why?
Historian. Mystery writer. Researcher. Teacher. Occasional blogger.