Women have come a long way in mystery and detective fiction, just as they have in society in general. During the late 1920’s, the distinguished mystery novelist Dorothy L. Sayers complained about the depictions of women detectives in fiction when she wrote her introduction to the first Omnibus of Crime (1928):There have . . . been a few women detectives, but on the whole, they have not been very successful. In order to justify their choice of sex, they are obliged to be so irritatingly intuitive as to destroy that quiet enjoyment of the logical which we look for in our detective reading.
Sayers also complained that most women detectives in fiction were too young, too beautiful, too interested in marriage, and too often prone to walk into physically dangerous situations and interfere with men trying to solve crimes. Although acknowledging some exceptions to these deficiencies, Sayers maintained that a “really brilliant woman detective” was yet to be created.
When Sayers wrote these words, women had been detecting in fiction more than sixty years. Although many fictional female detectives do exhibit the faults that Sayers noted, others have represented impressive achievements by their creators. In 1864, a little more than two decades after Edgar Allan Poe created the modern mystery form, the British writer Andrew Forrester, Jr., introduced the first female detective character, Mrs. Gladden, in The Experiences of a Lady Detective. Typical of the “casebooks” of its time, Forrester’s book collects seven cases narrated by Gladden, whose deductive methods and energetic approach anticipated those of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, who would first appear in 1887. Gladden even has abstruse areas of expertise, such as interpreting boot marks, which she says “have sent more men to the gallows . . . than any other proof whatever.” Indeed, she advises criminals to provide themselves with extra pairs of boots, adding that she will still hunt them down.
In the story titled “The Unknown Weapon,” Gladden becomes interested in events at Petleighcote that she learns about in a newspaper. A death has occurred, seemingly accidentally. Although solving the mystery will yield her only one hundred pounds, she is fascinated by “several peculiar circumstances.” A young man has been found dead outside his parents’ house; the cause of death is an arrowlike barb. Gladden visits the scene of the incident, talks to local people, and reads the report of the inquest. She also studies the contents of the dead man’s pockets. To examine the house without interference, she lures its housekeeper to London through a fake advertisement she places in The Times. Like Poe’s earlier C. Auguste Dupin and the later Holmes, Gladden regards the constabulary as less competent than her pet dog at solving crimes. Like her male counterparts, she eventually solves the...
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