Murder! Mayhem! Sword fights! Italian banditti! A severed head! Anarchists! Opium dens! Unnatural fathers! Dastardly uncles! Bad dialogue! Anthony P. Morris’s All ‘Round Kate, published in 1890, had it all: everything that sold dime novels to a reading public eager for sensationalism. And at the center of it all was Detective Kate, a legendary figure among the criminal underworld of Chicago.
Kate’s introduction is as dramatic as her persona. The notorious Little Trivet, partner in the detective firm of Caxton and Trivet, is tracking a mysterious steel box that he’s been hired to recover when the pavement gives way beneath his feet and he plunges into an underground trap, where he’s menaced by a knife-wielding assassin. He appears doomed — and not for the last time in this thrilling tale — when something interrupts the “terrible tableau”:
Now the trap was suddenly jerked open, and a form that was evidently stretched upon the stomach, and at full length, leaned over the edge. A pair of arms extended down, and in both hands gleamed revolvers that were leveled at the savage Italian.
“Hold on there, my man!” cried a woman’s voice. “I guess we’ll have to spoil this little stabbing-match. Down with the knife or I’ll down you. Hear?” (5)
This is Kate (a popular name for young women detectives in the sensation literature of the time), so famous that she doesn’t need a surname. We’re told simply: “Kate was a well-known assistant to the Chicago police detectives; she had figured in a remarkable drama some time before as a companion and ally of a famous detective named Old Bull’s Eye” (5). This reference serves the purpose of providing Kate’s bona fides, since Old Bull’s Eye was a popular detective in dime novels. And although she’s termed an “assistant,” she wears a badge pinned to the underside of her bodice and has full authority to make arrests. As if to cement her reputation, all of the criminals in the story are out to kill her.
In the story, Kate teams up with Trivet when they discover that their cases intersect. They’ve been hired by separate individuals to find a mysterious steel box, said to be impossible to open. Kate tells Trivet, who doesn’t know the contents of the box, that it contains a human head. All of the villains in the story are after the box, and every time it is within the grasp of the two detectives, it’s snatched away, usually in situations involving grave peril to one or the other or both of them. Luckily, they have established a method of communication so that one can appear at the last minute to effect a rescue of the other.
As in many stories involving women detectives, there are young women victims in the story who also need to be saved from dastardly men. This story is especially sensational because one villain orders his own daughter killed.
Kate is admirably suited to this work, not only because of her courage (not to mention her insouciance), but because of her skills. In addition to the revolvers that she handles with such aplomb, she is an expert swordswoman, as the abovementioned savage Italian learns to his cost:
Kate made a great bound, caught up the fallen sword, and quick as a flash, she had crossed blades with the savage intruder.
Another moment and Jim saw that the woman who so suddenly and formidably confronted him was an excellent swordswoman. (5)
Far from modest, Kate presses her psychological advantage, crying, “You have a master to deal with here!” Then we’re told, “Next instant her swordpoint was at his throat.” That the villain survives another 27 pages gives Kate ample scope for displaying her other advantages. In another confrontation with her Italian adversary, Kate’s revolver fails her, but readers need not be alarmed: “The exciting moment gave Kate another opportunity to display her wonderful muscle and endurance” (7). Indeed, in a later scene, Kate is called upon to haul the captured and bound Italian out of yet another pit:
If the wonderful muscle of this female detective had never been displayed before, it now showed itself with wonderful emphasis. She gradually but surely began to draw up the heavy form of the Italian, finally dragging him over the edge. (25)
She also hauls up the mysterious steel box, enabled to do so by her remarkable preparedness: “Kate always had little appliances ready for emergencies, and she produced a stout cord from somewhere about her clothing” (25). All ‘Round Kate, indeed!
As is true of most women detectives, Kate’s success depends upon her willingness to behave in ways condemned by her society as unfeminine. To plan their collaboration, she and Trivet retire to a saloon, one of several occasions in the story when she enters this space forbidden to respectable women. Her skill at disguise also helps her to move freely and tail the criminals on whom she is spying. At one point, she saves Trivet by appearing among a group of murderous anarchists disguised as a Frenchman; two pages later, she’s disguised as a laborer when she tails a villain. When Kate shows up in a saloon dressed as a “lumber shover” (don’t ask me) and Trivet asks, “Is it you, Kate?” she quips, “Don’t I look like myself?” (27). To save one threatened young woman, she impersonates her and confronts a would-be murderer. Kate’s own unladylike spying is justified by the crucial information women learn in this story by listening to what they aren’t supposed to hear and watching what they aren’t supposed to see — information that saves their lives. Even before we know the extent of one miscreant’s villainy, we are prepared to dislike him because he thinks, “Who can this woman be? A female detective, forsooth! She would better be darning stockings for some lover or husband, I think” (6). This villain will eventually be put to death by the poisoned sword of another woman (yes, reader, not one but two master swordswomen in this story), a satisfying conclusion that displaces the violence we may both wish and fear for Kate to inflict on him.
Given Kate’s character as it has been developed throughout, readers may be taken aback by a bet she makes with Trivet about whether he’ll catch the man they’re both after, “If he doesn’t tumble into your lap I’ll lose a box of cigars, and if he does, you owe me a box of Sunday gloves” (27). It’s an odd moment; we’re invited to speculate whether Kate has a pair of gloves secreted somewhere about her person and put to use when she attends church on Sundays in the guise of a proper young woman. Of course, by waiting where Kate has told him to wait, Trivet finds the missing man and Kate wins her gloves.
I should caution prospective readers that when I say this novel contains “everything that sold dime novels to a reading public eager for sensationalism,” that includes the racial stereotyping and cringeworthy dialect endemic to this genre. The evil Italian has his literary roots in the gothic novels of Anne Radcliffe, but he also has cultural roots, as do the villainous Chinaman and Negro in this story.
All ‘Round Kate is available online from the University of Minnesota’s digital collections here.