What an unusual idea. Perhaps in the midst of new Sherlock Holmes interest, Penguin decided to put out this unusual volume entitled, “The Penguin Book of Victorian Women in Crime: Forgotten Cops and Private Eyes From the Time of Sherlock Holmes.” It ended up in my mail after reviewing a collection of Holmes-inspired stories. It is a collection of stories with characters I was not familiar with, by authors, of whom just a few had some name recognition for me.
It is more scholarly work than one for the general reader. It is edited, and edited well, by Michael Sims, who has written a range of books, including ones touching on the offbeat works found in this collection. His introductions to the stories set strong contexts for both the stories and the authors. Most of authors are males, but several women represent their own characters in breaking new ground.
A common theme in many of these stories is a woman, forced by circumstances, to enter into a male-dominated profession. Quite often, the fact that they are women, or wealthy, or educated, allow them into situations in which a male detective could not make progress. In other words, many of the authors set up situations which allow their characters to enter into an non-female world with an excuse most readers could grant. Once in that world, their success comes from their own wits. It would have been nearly unheard of to actually have women working in these roles, so their appearance in fiction precedes their appearance in reality. As Sims notes in his introduction, “Whatever the progressive sensibilities of the author, the creation of a female detective instantly provided a number of narrative possibilities that were unavailable to male heroes.”
The range of stories also show the development of the detective story. Some show little real investigative work at all; instead, simple clarity allows a case to unfold. Others show the detectives doing the hard work of examining crime scenes or following a suspect, even to an underground cavern.
I say the work is more scholarly than a general read in that Sims includes stories which are justifiably forgotten, except by those wanting to know what was the publishing culture at that time. Mary Wilkin’s “The Long Arm,” has all the elements of a suspenseful plot, but the suspense is mainly missing and we wait patiently while she solves nothing — it is a visiting male detective who does most of the work outside of the story. However, these stories are balance by some excellent entries, including two by Anna Katherine Green.
This anthology will be enjoyed those with interests in the detective story, or women in literature, but it is not aimed at the general reader looking for just another good mystery.