In Allan Arnold’s Belle Boyd, The Girl Detective, a dime novel published in the New York Detective Library in 1891, our heroine is a gun-toting, cross-dressing, larger-than-life crimefighter, a former Pinkerton who is described by one miscreant as “the boss detective of Chicago and the West” (4). Full disclosure: this is a ham-fisted potboiler of a novel, complete with ghosts, demonstrating all of the racial stereotyping typical of the dime novels. But it’s useful for our purposes in its portrait of the fearless girl detective.
In the first scene in the novel, 18-year-old Belle is dressed in men’s clothing, wields two revolvers, and talks the confident slangy talk of the streets, even though she will soon demonstrate in her speech the education of a middle-class young woman. We’re told that the setting is “a miserable room in one of those dark and threatening houses down among the slums” (2) and the hour is midnight, so she is where no respectable, or indeed sensible, young lady should be. As she confronts Sneaky Sim, one of the criminals she’s been tracking, with a revolver and tells him to drop his knife lest she be “necessitated to perforate yer” (2), the narrator informs us, “This Belle Boyd, who was at the date of which we are writing the most wonderful female detective in the world, had become the terror of the criminal class of Chicago” (2).
The crowded plot involves kidnapping, murder, forced marriage, and plunder (ships are lured to the rocks to be wrecked, their valuables taken and survivors killed), though the main thread with which we’re concerned is the chief villain’s scheme to discredit an heiress’s honorable suitor so that he can marry her himself, by force, if necessary. It’s interesting to note how often in these early stories a bold and accomplished girl detective is contrasted with a victimized, helpless young woman in whose cause she becomes enlisted (and that is not a plot that dies before Nancy Drew appears on the scene); these helpless women represent the likely fate of any woman, the girl detective included, who doesn’t train herself to resist, preferably with arms. Belle also resorts to chloroform and drugged whiskey when necessary, but she is a crack shot, at one point shooting down a telegraph line. In yet another scene, she catches a small dynamite shell in her bare hand (!). During the course of the case, Belle assumes many disguises, including that of “a young and handsome gentleman, dressed in the height of fashion, and wearing a little wax moustache” (6). As in the opening scene, these disguises allow her entry into places forbidden to most women.
But one of the main attractions for me is Belle’s sidekick, 10-year-old Billy, “a type of the shrewd street Arabs of Chicago” (5), whom Belle rescues in the opening scene and whose undying loyalty she wins. Billy calls her “Beller,” becomes her protégé, sometime rescuer and full-time cheerleader. Such sidekicks, treated by the girl detective as a younger brother and useful for tracking criminals, hiding in small spaces, and listening in, are not uncommon in the annals of girl detection, but Billy is one of my favorites.
SPOILER ALERT: Like other girl detectives, Belle has a Secret in the form of a—you guessed it—tragic love affair, ended, she believes, by the murder of her lover. But anything can happen in this novel. So in the end, the disgraced suitor’s reputation is restored and he is permitted to marry the heiress. Billy turns out to be the long-lost son of the disgraced suitor’s wealthy uncle, and, restored to his father, “was sent to college, and afterward became a first-class professional detective” (31). And one of the stout-hearted miners that the suitor has enlisted in their cause (are you following this?) turns out to be Belle’s long-lost lover, so yes, reader, she marries him.
Note: The real Belle Boyd (Isabella Maria Boyd), known as “the Cleopatra of the Secession” and “the siren of the Shenandoah,” was a pistol-wielding Confederate spy during the Civil War. Alan Pinkerton assigned three men to catch her, and in fact, she was arrested multiple times, but never brought to trial; at one point she was released in a prisoner exchange, at another because she had contracted typhoid fever. She married three times, the second ending in divorce, and earned a living as a stage actress after the war. She is an appropriate role model for the detective in this story, who takes her name; the detective’s real name is Mary Fogg.
Author Allan Arnold, pen name for H. K. Shackleford, primarily wrote boys’ adventure fiction. I was not able to find an online version of this novel.