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Little reviews on little (and big!) books

The Experiences of Loveday Brooke, Lady Detective by Catherine Louisa Pirkis

on January 3, 2014

Published towards the end of the Victorian era in 1893, the creation of Loveday Brooke once more generated speculation over the suitability of a woman to such a role as detection. Of course, Pirkis both addresses and quashes these doubts in her book of cases, but she does so in a rather curious way. What astounded me most upon reading of Loveday’s adventures was the fact that she very rarely takes any credit for a case solved, instead leaving the spotlight to the professional men on the police force (something we certainly don’t see in any of the other novels on female detectives that I’ve blogged about). In some ways, I felt that Pirkis’s decision to do this essentially undermined all of the hard work and intelligence used by Loveday in order to come to a sound conclusion. I see it almost as if Pirkis is only letting her heroine go so far before she is once more forced into submission. It could be argued that this was intentional; perhaps she feels her job is done when she passes on her outcome to the police. Pirkis leaves us with a minimal character in that we never really learn much about Loveday. Again, this could be seen as a purposeful move, allowing us to truly appreciate her as a detective first and foremost rather than a woman who has taken on the role.

Near the beginning of the first of Loveday’s cases, The Black Bag Left on a Door-step, the reader is told briefly how she came to be a lady detective. Pirkis writes,

‘Some five or six years previously, by a jerk of Fortune’s wheel, Loveday had been thrown upon the world penniless and all but friendless. Marketable accomplishments she had found she had none, so she had forthwith defied convention, and had chosen for herself a career that had cut her off sharply from her former associates and her position in society.’

The choice to enter the detective profession, according to many critics I have read on the subject, was generally deemed to be fatal to the female’s reputation. By not taking on a respectable role such as a governess or shop-girl, the female detective was dismissed as unladylike and treated with a great deal of suspicion. The female detective associated with criminals and the lower orders – she simply could not be classed as a proper Victorian lady in the eyes of society. Despite ostracising herself by her choice of profession, Loveday shows expertly that her true vocation is detective work. Her boss, Ebenezer Dyer, ‘would at times wax eloquent over Miss Brooke’s qualifications for the profession she had chosen,’ and quickly snuffs any doubts voiced by anyone else. It is notable that Pirkis chooses to defend the concept of a woman detective through a male character – hugely significant as it is a male opinion of women’s skills. He states,

‘I don’t care twopence-halfpenny whether she is or is not a lady. I only know she is the most sensible and practical woman I ever met… she has the faculty – so rare among women – of carrying out orders to the very letter… and most important item of all, she has so much common sense that it amounts to genius.’

Dyer has real respect for Loveday’s abilities; he does not simply assume that because she is a woman, she will throw people off guard with the sight of a petticoat (when in fact, this is partly what happens anyway!) He understands how vital a woman’s presence can be at a crime scene to notice things that have been missed, or their ability to enter a house in disguise in order to converse with the servants and gain their trust. Loveday is not one of those women who uses feminine charms to get her own way – she functions perfectly fine without them.

Loveday Brooke is someone who is respected because of how well she does her job; a woman who rises above the weak female stereotype by venturing into detection; and a woman who shows the readership that a female detective can use the exact same skills as Holmes, but not need a constant companion, and of course can take her knowledge of domestic crime scenes to a different level than that of the male. In the case The Redhill Sisterhood, Loveday’s boss admits that ‘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.’ By not writing of the most attractive woman in the world, Pirkis uses her middle-aged female detective to bypass the eyes of men. To be unattractive was to be unnoticeable. To be unnoticeable gave women like Loveday Brooke the chance to complete their investigations. With nobody around to suspect the boringly-attired lady, she used the ultimate disguise of being a woman in order to solve her cases.

There are 7 cases in Pirkis’s book, each as exciting as the last! I highly recommend reading any one of them in order to be introduced to one of the greatest female detectives at the end of the 19th century 🙂

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