This story, which appeared in The New York Detective Library in 1892 (I won’t say “first appeared” because these stories were frequently published in several venues), is a prime example of the dime novel and a prime exhibition of the qualities that made these novels so popular. Therefore, its girl detective is a model of the young women who feature in this genre — a girl detective on steroids, if you will.
To give you a flavor of these novels, let me describe the first page. In the opening paragraphs, two slang-spouting miscreants seize hold of a woman who’s been following them and threaten her with a pistol and a knife. When they recognize her as “Laura Keen, the queen of detectives” (2), the one with the knife lunges for her throat, but after some verbal defiance, she trips the prospective knifer and:
Click! Like a flash a pistol appeared in Laura Keen’s hand.
Bang! the weapon was discharged.
Ring! the blade of the dirk-knife fell upon the pavement.
The wonderful shot had shattered the knife at the handle. (2)
Laura Keen’s clear, musical voice rang out in a mocking laugh, as she whipped out an immense bowie-knife, and while she kept “the drop” on the Englishman with her pistol, coolly picked her teeth with the point of the weapon. (2)
That was column one. Column two has Laura enjoining the villain to “give up your dreadful plot to ruin and blast the lives of innocent people, or I swear, in the sight of Heaven, here and now, that I will be a Nemesis upon your track to thwart you and hunt you to your doom” (2). Unfortunately, his sidekick takes a shot at her and ducks into a saloon. Undaunted, Laura steps into a nearby barber shop and changes her appearance from that of an Irish servant girl (in a red wig) to that of a fashionable lady (blonde wig) and follows the miscreant into the saloon, where she is again seized and de-wigged. Things are looking bad for Laura, despite a conspiratorial look exchanged with a small Negro bootblack, when she pulls a third (but who’s counting?) pistol “from some place of concealment upon her person” (2) and fires at the main villain, cutting off a lock of his hair. But then a woman (aptly named Jezebel) springs out from her hiding place and knocks her out with a slingshot. Thus endeth page 1.
The busy plot is pretty standard and involves various attempts by two criminal gangs to get their hands on a fortune by killing or marrying off the heiress against her will. The latter scheme entails framing her fiancé for the theft of some diamonds. Laura, recognized as the “detective queen” not only by the miscreants in the story but also by severable notable male detectives whose paths she crosses (she saves them or they save her), has been hired by the heiress to find her missing fiancé and clear him of the charges against him.
Laura, who is “about 22” and whose background is unrevealed in the story, displays many of the qualities common to girl detectives in the dime novels and after: she is fearless, determined, daring, cool, intelligent, courageous, and beautiful. She travels between New York and Baltimore, and even to Dakota, which introduces a Western setting so beloved of dime novel readers. Apart from her considerable skills at disguise and mimicry, she can pick a lock, row a boat, and climb a telegraph pole. And if you were impressed by the three pistols and one bowie knife she had secreted on her person, there’s more. Also stashed in her pocket are a small wireless set which she uses on two occasions to send and intercept telegraphs, and —wait for it! — a carrier pigeon. The latter is quite handy to a young woman who is captured and imprisoned as much as Laura is.
Even handier, however, are Laura’s sidekicks, who appear to be employees. In many ways, these two exhibit the racial and cultural stereotypes prevalent in the dime novels. Scud, most often referred to as “the little darky,” and Le Loup, the Dakota Indian, both speak in cringe-inducing dialect meant to provide comic relief. Yet both are portrayed as intelligent and quick-witted; Laura depends on them and gives both important assignments. In fact, Laura owes her life to their intelligence and courage on several occasions. Moreover, Le Loup has his own dramatic story and his own mission. Once that mission is accomplished, he disappears.
Another surprise is Kate Estabrook. Typically, these stories have room for only one heroine, and that’s the girl detective. The role of the female victim is to be victimized — to be terrorized, abducted, imprisoned, threatened, and rescued. Once Kate is rescued, however, she falls in with Laura’s plan for her to return to her house disguised as an Irish maid to spy on the man who is plotting her death, the man whom we presume to be her father. When she disappears again, we fear that she’s been recognized and recaptured, only to discover that she has set off for Dakota alone to free her real father from captivity.
It might be pleasant to speculate that the author of this novel, “C. Little,” might be a woman, but the Edward T. LeBlanc Memorial Dime Novel Bibliography identifies this pen name as one belonging to H(arvey) K(ing) Shackleford, who wrote under several names. As Allan Arnold, Shackleford had published four years before Laura Keen a dime novel entitled A Diamond Ear-ring; or Nina, the Female Detective, which has many features in common with its successor. The year previous to Laura Keen, he published Belle Boyd, which has already been chronicled in this blog.
I was unable to find a full-text version of this book online. If anyone knows of a source, please let me know and I’ll post it.