Quick! Name the first fictional British detective that comes to mind.
Did you think of Sherlock Holmes? Hercule Poirot? Miss Marple?
Holmes is arguably the most famous of British sleuths. He’s certainly one of my favorites. I have multiple copies of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories and have enjoyed television and film versions of the famous deerstalker-capped investigator too. Jeremy Brett’s performance in the long-running British television series is one that I still go back and watch every once in awhile. He captured so many of the quintessential Sherlock traits, and the series adapted so many of the stories. For modern audiences, Benedict Cumberbatch in Sherlock and Jonny Lee Miller in Elementary have given the Victorian crime solver a modern flair. And a burst of popularity. Both shows have produced multiple seasons, and fans still clamor for more.
As a lover of all things Victorian, I know that Sherlock Holmes is a key part of the period’s history and the culture’s fascination with crime fiction. But he wasn’t the first fictional detective on the scene in the 19th century. Would you believe me if I told you there were lady detectives around, at least in fiction form, years before Sherlock appeared?
In 1864 two stories were released that featured professional female sleuths: Revelations of a Lady Detective by W. S. Hayward and The Female Detective by Andrew Forrester. Forrester’s Miss Gladden is a shadowy figure, known most often as simply “G.” She’s good at solving mysteries, but the reader learns very little about her past or personality, aside from her cleverness and determination. Hayward’s Mrs. Paschal is presented more familiarly. In fact, her story starts with an explanation of how she came to detective work in the first place. In short, her husband died and left her penniless.
Other lady detectives came later in the Victorian era, like the popular 1890’s stories of Loveday Brooke by Catherine Pirkis. Though Ms. Brooke works for a gentleman who owns a private detective agency, the stories focus squarely on her clever wiles and the cases she must solve. As with other female investigators, she uses all the wit and logical deduction skills of the Great Detective himself.
Nowadays, we’re blessed with a new plethora of interesting, well written, and completely engaging Victorian lady detectives. From Deanna Raybourn’s fabulous Lady Julia Grey series that I became addicted to in the early 2000’s, starting with the Silent in the Grave, to Tasha Alexander’s lushly written Lady Emily series, which I hope will have a few more volumes. My newest favorites are the Lady Darby mysteries by Anna Lee-Huber, featuring a clever young widow with a talent for art and her handsome, equally clever husband, Sebastian Gage. Set in Scotland in the 1830’s, the series always leaves me breathless for the next installment.
In my next book, A Study in Scoundrels, set to release on April 11, my heroine, Sophia Ruthven, admires the detectives of fiction and goes on a bit of a mystery adventure of her own. Not alone, of course. She’s paired with her brother’s scoundrel of a friend, infamous stage actor and secret aristocrat, Jasper Grey. I gave my novel a name that you might recognize as a play on the first Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet. My heroine is by no means a professional investigator, but she has a healthy curiosity—which gets her into trouble, of course—and a love of fictional detective stories. In fact, she’s in the process of writing one of her own, and excerpts are sprinkled across several chapter headings.
Have you read about a historical or modern fictional lady detective that you love? Let me know about her!