Friday, 17 May 2013
"I Know Well That My Trade is Despised" - Miss Gladden, The Female Detective
Andrew Forrester's The Female Detective (1864) is a collection of seven separate cases with an introduction. All are told by a first person narrator (even if in the introduction she states that she will "tell the tales in what I believe is called the third person"). This case-book format follows a tradition of similar publications by male detectives both fictional and real. The Recollections of a Policeman by "Waters" appeared in 1852; Recollections of a Detective Police-Officer by William Russell (not a policeman) in 1856. The earliest of them all, Richmond, or, Scenes in the Life of a Bow Street Officer was published in 1827. By the time Andrew Forrester hit on this formula in 1863/4 it was an old hat. He produced The Revelations of a Private Detective in 1863 and Secret Service, or, Recollections of a City Detective in 1864, both before The Female Detective, as well as The Private Detective in 1868.
Andrew Forrester was a pseudonym of James Redding Ware (1832-1909) [In Mike Ashley's introduction to The Female Detective this discovery is attributed to Kate Summerscale.). Ware wrote stories and possibly edited the weekly magazine Grave and Gay, where most of them appeared. It is evident that some the stories featured in The Female Detective were published before Miss Gladden was created, including "A Child Found Dead: Murder or No Murder," which appeared in 1862 under the name J. Ware (hence the connection between the man and his pseudonym) as a pamphlet and with no mention of Miss Gladden.
This story "A Child Found Dead" is little more than a re-telling of the known facts relating to the famous Road House murder case of June 1860. Similarly, "The Unraveled Mystery" outlines a hypothetical solution to the 1857 Waterloo Carpet-Bag Mystery, which was never solved by the police. There is no room in these stories for Miss Gladden and on both occasions the narrative is handed to her by 'Doctor Y-,' a medical man who remains anonymous (detectives do not reveal their sources).
At first glance, the stories in The Female Detective are rubbish. They are predictable and read like pot-boilers, spewed out carelessly without much forethought or effort. Only three of the stories follow the course of criminal investigations by Miss Gladden or 'G' as she is known among her detective colleagues. The remaining four are shorter, anecdotal tales of clever crimes, the two based on true crimes suggesting only their hypothetical solutions.
These tales are not entirely without merit and interest, however. There are a couple of pleasingly melodramatic scenes and mildly sensational turns of events. Perversely, the best scenes for getting the reader to grip the edge of the seat are wasted and their potential thrown away unused. In "The Unknown Weapon," just as they have discovered a crucial, incriminating piece of evidence, Miss Gladden and a female detective colleague find themselves locked up in a burning house. There is plenty of scope for heroic action as they fight to save their lives. The narrative resolves this tense situation: "This tale is the story of the 'Unknown Weapon,' and therefore I cannot logically here go into any full explanation of our escape."
"Tenant for Life" introduces a marvelously melodramatic villain in Sir Nathaniel Shirley. He is a selfish, profligate, sensualist. When, armed with his own police officers, Sir Nathaniel comes to take everything away from the pure-hearted, beautiful Miss Shedleigh, we are on the brink of a sensational scene. Unfortunately, at this moment Miss Gladden decides to leave the room: "Then I left the room. What was said I never learnt." She only returns to the room after Sir Nathaniel has dropped dead.
The Lady Detective is clearly not interested in offering traditional melodramatic scenes of horror, suffering or romance. The narrative sets them up before our eyes and then shuts us out. There is always the possibility that Forrester just is not a very good writer. There is also the possibility that he is making a conscious choice. Instead of sensational thrills and shivers based on spine-tingling scenes of danger and villainy á la The Woman in White (1860) or Lady Audley's Secret (1862), Forrester is grasping for a specific kind of a cerebral and moral thrill: the science of detection and the ethical dilemmas it brings.
In her Introduction, Miss Gladden asks three important questions. It is part of her 'logical' style to ask questions and follow them with answers. She also likes to present numbered lists of items. First she asks "Who am I?" And she answers that it matters little, as long as we accept "that whatever may be the results of the practice of my profession in others, in me that profession has not led me towards hardheartedness." We have detective with a heart - capable of compassion and sound moral judgment. Then she asks, "For what reason do I write this book?" She writes in order to show that the profession of a detective "is so useful it should not be despised." Throughout the book Miss Gladden is painfully aware of the general dislike and distrust for the detective police: "I am quite aware that society looks upon the companionship of a spy as repulsive; but, nevertheless, we detectives are necessary, as scavengers are called for, and I therefore write this book to help show, by my experience, that the detective has some demand upon the gratitude of society." The same argument is repeated in "Tenant for Life" and "The Unknown Weapon." The Female Detective presents itself as an apologia for the detective police. Finally, Miss Gladden asks what will be the value of the record of her experiences. She hopes that it will show how successful detective work can be in exposing evil-doing and, what is much more interesting and important, "that there is much good to be found, even amongst criminals, and that it does not follow because a man breaks the law that he is therefore heartless."
Detectives are sensational. They spend their time dealing with low-life criminals, homicidal maniacs, fraudsters and thieves. What is worse, entering the homes of respectable people they bring an unwelcome whiff of this societal pestilence with them. They are experts in pulling skeletons out of the family closet. Detectives are "family-spies." Miss Gladden observes that "It had appeared as though the English detectives were in the habit of prying into private life, and as though no citizen were free from a system of spydom."
Women detectives are doubly sensational. Miss Gladden's friends think she is a dressmaker, her enemies think she is a prostitute. She hides her true profession. Detection, for so many reasons, is not lady-like. Forrester seeks to present the female detective as a sexy, sensational figure who is a consummate professional in her highly questionable field of expertise. There is a tension between the admiration for the detective's skills and a discomfort with these same skills of spying, deception and ferreting out secrets.
"I am aware that the female detective may be regarded with even more aversion that her brother in profession. But still it cannot be disproved that if there is a demand for men detectives there must also be one for female detective police spies. Criminals are both masculine and feminine - indeed my experience tells me that when a woman becomes a criminal she is far worse than the average of her male companions, and therefore it follows that the necessary detectives should be of both sexes."
At best, this argument by Miss Gladden sounds like a strike for gender equality and feminism. At least, it sounds like a plausible justification for the existence of The Female Detective. There are things, according to Miss Gladden, that female detectives can do better than male detectives. They "are enabled to educate our five senses to a higher pitch than are our male competitors." They have an element of surprise, with people unable to believe a woman can be a detective. In "The Unknown Weapon" the mind of a slow-witted local policeman, "could not grasp the idea of a police officer in petticoats." They can assume an occupation of a dressmaker or a milliner which gains them access into a house for a suitable period of time. There are fewer such male occupations. Miss Gladden observes that "it is the peculiar advantage of women detectives, and one which in many cases gives them an immeasurable value beyond that of their male friends, that they can get into house outside which the ordinary men-detective could barely stand without being suspected."
In The Female Detective Miss Gladden uses the latest forensic technology ('fluff' is sent to a "microscopic chemist" for analysis) and lectures us on the importance of boot prints for identifying culprits. She finds out when the rain started on the night of the murder to estimate the time of the crime. She uses official registers for births and marriages to track down people. She showcases all these professional tricks of the trade of detection. She also lies, pretends and misleads. This is all in a day of detective work: "as evil-doing is a kind of lie levelled at society, if it is to be conquered it must be met on the side of society, through its employees, by similar false action." She condones theft: "we police officers have sometimes to turn thieves - for the good of society of course."
The professionalism, the scientific approach to the detection of crime and the slight bending of the social, even legal, rules to achieve ultimate justice are all features we today recognize as belonging to detective heroes. The most controversial characteristic of the female detective, however, is her sense of justice. The job of the detective police, as Miss Gladden repeats several times, is to uphold the law and bring criminals to justice. But justice according to law is not always in accord with our sense of fairness and just desserts. This is the point Miss Gladden makes at the end of her introduction.
The Female Detective aims to be sensational and thrilling by using a woman detective with specialized knowledge and expertise in the technicalities of crime detection. It can also be argued that a female protagonist and narrator gives the author more scope to explore the moral dilemmas detective work creates. Compassion is one more thing female detectives do better than their male colleagues. In this way, a woman detective opens up new ground for the author to explore and a powerful way to engage his readers. Miss Gladden is placed in situations where the law pulls one way, her moral compass points the other way. "Tenant for Life" labours this point almost to death. It is the main theme in "The Judgment of Conscience," and it resurfaces in different forms elsewhere in the stories.
It is possible, even likely, that Forrester is a lousy writer churning out cheap tales of detection to earn a quick buck. Nevertheless, he has created an intriguing and engaging character: a woman detective who is independent, professional, even mercenary in the pursuit of her trade and at the same time struggling to reconcile the gap between the law she is paid to uphold and her natural sense of justice. Miss Gladden is a sensational heroine, even if the plots of her adventures are not.