Little reviews on little (and big!) books

The Female Detective by Andrew Forrester

on November 27, 2013

Continuing with the theme of female detectives, I thought I’d look at quite possibly the earliest lady in the profession. In fact, she only arrives 6 months before the Mrs. Paschal of Revelations of a Lady Detective (see earlier post). They were both published in 1864, which must have quite annoyed Hayward when he realised that Forrester had beaten him to it 😛 Forrester cites his Mrs. Gladden (or Mrs. G-) as ‘The Original Lady Detective, 1864’ on the front cover of his book of cases. The book is essentially Mrs. Gladden’s memoirs after she has retired from the detective force, and she sees it as her chance to document the best of her life’s work.

The book is split into cases which Mrs. Gladden has actually been involved in, and those where she is reporting about what she has read about a specific case, so in this way is not really the conventional detective story. Unfortunately, I found these extra cases where Mrs. Gladden was not involved to be unnecessary extras. Granted, they show that a detective isn’t always successful regardless of their gender, but this is also something we see in the later case, The Unknown Weapon, where Gladden plays an active part. I felt that these extra cases were shoehorned in, and could be removed without any impact on the rest of the cases. Perhaps the inclusion of Georgy and Murder or No Murder was Forrester’s attempt to add more pages to his book in order to rush to publish his text before Hayward’s – I suppose we’ll never know. Personally, I felt that there was really no need for them to be there – they are still well written, but the cases where Mrs. Gladden is present are far more engaging and exciting than those where she is missing.

Forrester creates one of the most ambiguous characters I have ever come across. We learn very little of her background or family life (in fact we never really learn exactly what her name is!) and this in turn is a deliberate plot device used by the author so that the reader focuses only on her professional skills as a detective. On the very first page, we are at once denied access to who Mrs. Gladden really is. She states:

‘Who am I? It can matter little who I am. It may be that I took to the trade, sufficiently comprehended in the title of this work without a word of it being read, because I had no other means of making a living; or it may be that for the work of detection I had a longing which I could not overcome. It may be that I am a widow working for my children – or I may be an unmarried woman, whose only care is herself.’

The reader is at once put on the back-foot – at least with Hayward’s Mrs. Paschal, we knew exactly what brought her to the profession. We’re so used to reading of characters we can relate to, where we learn of their circumstances and empathise with them, where we can build a picture of their personality, but here Forrester denies us this chance, instead choosing to write a casebook of simply a female detective, nothing more. She comes across as highly astute from the way she talks of her profession in the introduction. She acknowledges that since there are both male and female criminals, then there should be both male and female detectives to help catch them. She knows she is part of, as she refers to it, a ‘despised’ calling and that the female detective will always be treated with far more scepticism than her male counterpart, but quite rightly she notes that there is as much need for one as the other due to a woman’s ability to access certain environments and, for example, eavesdrop unsuspected.

The opening case, Tenant for Life, plays out the scene of the image we see on the front cover, so look out for that 🙂 My favourite has to be the penultimate case entitled The Unknown Weapon. Not only is it difficult for the reader to comprehend how the crime took place, but it is also difficult for Mrs. Gladden. It is also one of the examples she uses to show that there are times when a detective can work out exactly who committed the crime, but they are helpless at proving it and therefore have to admit defeat. I actually quite enjoyed this mix of success and failure as it seems more possible than a detective having constant success. I would certainly advise reading both this book and Hayward’s Revelations of a Lady Detective together in order to get a brief glimpse of two very different prototypes of the female detective in literature. I think you’ll agree they deserve to be in the limelight far more 🙂


4 responses to “The Female Detective by Andrew Forrester

  1. paginganovel says:

    Reblogged this on paginganovel.

  2. d3b01946 says:

    I loved this post, thank you for visiting my blog about new British novels, both protagonists are women, but both quite different. I love detective fiction and gallop through the Scandinavian ones now available in English, lots of feisty women there. Have you tried Asa Larsson, Yrsa Sigurdottir or Kjell Eriksson?

  3. Love it – hadn’t heard of it at all before! Thanks 😀

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