Initially, L. J. Hurst worked in the backrooms of the media industry. He now divides his time between work for an international scientific publisher and a rather more British independent bookseller. In years past he was a regular attendee at the Shots on the Page Festivals from whence Shots Mag sprung
Earlier this year, the British Library’s publishing wing released The Notting Hill Mystery, Charles Felix’s 1862 ground-breaker. Now they have followed up with Andrew Forrester’s The Female Detective, which first appeared in 1864. It comes with a brief, if irrelevant foreword by Alexander McCall Smith, and a five page detailed introduction by Mike Ashley.
Told in the first person, by a female detective who says that she uses the alias “Miss Gladden”, The Lady Detective gives us seven of her investigations, in stories of varying length. The two best are the two longest. The author had published one of these stories before the book’s original publication, and that is “A Child Found Dead”, a fictional examination or treatment of the Constance Kent case. Mike Ashley has not found that any of the other stories relates to reality, though their style is clearly realist.
“Tenant For Life” is the first of the long stories and follows an investigation of a house where a child has apparently been bought late at night on the highway, and the detective’s decision to investigate why a middle class woman would want to make such an impetuous purchase. It would be three-quarters of a century before George Simenon’s Inspector Maigret would take up a case based on so little. Perhaps the Inspector’s style was not so idiosyncratic and original after all. “Tenant For Life” is interesting in the detective’s insistence in following through on her case, following the law even though it would result in an obvious injustice – she is implacable.
The other long story, “The Unknown Weapon”, is a forerunner of the locked room/missing weapon genre in which unlucky coincidences mount without stretching credibility. It features a country house and a cash-strapped heir, which are both tropes that have provided later authors with many a motive. Meanwhile, “The Judgement of Conscience” investigating a death in a shoemaker’s room/home/workshop shows that the detective could work in a very different level of society.
Like many crime fans I had a copy of The Notting Hill Mystery in Maurice Richardson’s 1946 omnibus, Novels Of Mystery From The Victorian Age, but I was unaware of The Female Detective and I am glad that the British Library has made it available again. It reveals that not every Victorian woman need be portrayed as a struggling governess. Recommended reading.