In her landmark 1979 book Murderess Ink, Dilys Winn identifies Anna Katharine Green as one of the “founding mothers” of detective fiction, and notes that up until the rediscovery of Seeley Regester’s The Dead Letter (1867), Green was credited with writing the first cozy detective novel, The Leavenworth Case (1878), which introduced many of the characters and plot devices with which we’re familiar today. In two subsequent novels featuring the same detective, Ebenezer Gryce, The Affair …
Girl Detectives Blog
Dizzy Lark and her chums in Bayou City Burning inherit a long and distinguished legacy from more than a century of girl detectives who came before them—a history that began long before Nancy Drew first drove her “new, dark-blue convertible” onto the scene in 1930. In this blog, I’ll tell you about some of these spunky young women. For the purposes of my research and this blog, a “girl detective” is a single young woman in her teens or early twenties.
This figure first appears in the dime novels of the late nineteenth century, where the frequent inclusion of gothic elements links her to the courageous and curious gothic heroines of the mid- to late eighteenth centuries. In fact, the first gothic novel, Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764), featured two such heroines, who defy corrupt paternal and royal authority and explore forbidden spaces in the service of justice and self-defense. The type of the timid, fainting gothic heroine so deliciously spoofed by Jane Austen in her youth (Love and Freindship [sic], 1790) was less common than might be generally supposed. It’s true that Emily St. Aubert faints dead away in Anne Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), but she does so after defying the injunction against lifting the veil on an infamous veiled picture to see what lies beneath. When we consider that at the time, she’s been kidnapped and transported to a creepy moldering castle in a foreign country, we can applaud her determination and excuse a momentary weakness. And we shouldn’t be surprised that one of Anne Radcliffe’s early biographers, Clara Frances McIntyre, identified Radcliffe’s work as a forerunner of later detective fiction (Ann Radcliffe in Relation to Her Time, 1920).
In the second half of the nineteenth century, dime novels and story papers provided cheap thrills for the masses—and probably for many of their middle- and upper-class counterparts. Detective stories and westerns were two popular genres, and some stories crossed the boundaries between them. The need for publishers to fill these monthly papers and wrestle readers away from their competitors led writers to imagine a wide range of sleuths—the more sensational, the better—not just an Irish, Italian, French, or Yankee detective, say, but a “magic disguise” detective, a gypsy detective, a Wall Street detective, a ventriloquist detective, a “magic trick” detective, and a bicycle detective, to name a few. Lady detectives offered yet another oddity, and were presumably even more sensational if they, too, crossed categories, such as Italian or French or gypsy women detectives, the lady bicycle detective, and the lady barber detective (a western crossover).
I’m going to start here with one of my favorites from the dime novels, New York Nell.
In New York Nell, The Boy-Girl Detective: or, Old Blakesly’s Money (1880), by Edward L. Wheeler, the title character Nell Niblo swaggers onto the scene in the character of a newsboy selling papers on a street car in Philadelphia. We see her through the eyes of Redmond Blakesly, a bit of a rube who can be excused for his surprise at beholding this cross-dressed urchin at a time when cross-dressing was illegal. He strikes up an acquaintance with her to learn her story. She tells him she’s from New …