A Victorian Crime Wave

For the last few weeks, I have been indulging in my own mini crime wave, wallowing in two collections of short stories. The first anthology, The Oxford Book of English Detective Stories, which I brought back from a visit to mum in October, I don’t think I have ever read before. Once finished with that crime spree, I felt compelled to re-read my Victorian Tales of Mystery and Detection (OUP, 1992) bought and read in the year of publication but not looked at since. In addition to these short stories, I have been reading a couple of Maigret novels belonging to He Who Put The Shelves Up, but I will concentrate on the Victorian Tales anthology for this post.

Where do I begin the conversation about my rather guilty pleasure of detective over-indulgence? There is indeed a sense of a shameful, but delicious pleasure in reading just one more story, and then maybe one more very short one. Like eating one more chocolate from the selection box, you know you probably shouldn’t do it, but you do it anyway. I roved amongst the stories picking titles that grabbed my attention or choosing unfamiliar authors. I deliberately didn’t read the book cover to cover, but dipped in and out, reading whatever story my fancy lighted upon. Clearly, this upset the chronological structure of the book, designed to demonstrate the development of features in the detective story. I also kept popping back to read snippets of Michael Cox’s excellent introduction. However, finally the sad realisation dawned that I had finished the last story, no more left. On a more cheerful note, I have re-discovered stories and authors and created a few leads to follow up on (see the end of this piece).

I want to pick out a few female crime writers and detectives to talk about, continuing a theme that I have written about before, when I wrote about women crime writers of the Golden Age of Crime. To begin with, in Victorian Tales, I re-discovered a Baroness Orczy story that featured her ‘man in the corner’ amateur detective, solving a seemingly impossible crime. When I first came across ‘The Fenchurch Street Mystery’ back in 1992, I had only known Emmuska Orczy (1865-1947) for her Scarlet Pimpernel romps of which I was a great fan. Twenty-odd years later and I still haven’t read any more of the crime stories. The one in this anthology was originally published as part of a series called ‘London Mysteries’ (I assume this was a magazine series, but there is no more information in the sources section) and later reprinted in The Old Man in the Corner (1909). This was the un-named character’s first appearance in print. Here, the thin, quiet man presents a solution to a case that has apparently baffled the police. The entire story takes place in the corner of a bar, as the old man drinks his milk and knots and unknots a piece of string, while he unravels the seemingly baffling crime.

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As the old man declares, ‘There is no such thing as a mystery, in connection with any crime, provided intelligence is brought to bear upon its investigation’. When his companion dares to suggest that many crimes baffle the police at present, the old man damningly comments, ‘I never ventured to suggest that there were no mysteries to the police’. As you can tell, he is no great fan of the police and he only appears to take an interest in crime as an intellectual puzzle. He declares that ‘As often as not my sympathies go to the criminal who is clever and astute enough to lead our entire police force by the nose’.

In two other stories in this collection, lady detectives take control of the crime solving. One of the detectives, created by Catherine Louisa Pirkis (1839-1910) goes by the rather un-detective sounding name of Loveday Brooke (clearly, her parents did not envisage her future career). In ‘Drawn Daggers’ (1893) Miss Brooke tackles a case of a valuable missing necklace, the loss of which appears to be connected to anonymous threatening missives containing sketches of daggers. She deals with the case with admirable efficiency. This story was originally published in a magazine called Ludgate Monthly and later reprinted in The Experiences of Loveday Brooke, Lady Detective (1894).

Unlike our previous detective, Loveday Brooke is a professional private detective. The plot introduces Miss Brooke and her colleague Mr Dyer as they disagree about elements of the case before them. Mr Dyer irritably declares that ‘When a young lady loses a valuable article of jewellery and wishes to hush the matter up the explanation is obvious’. In return, Miss Brooke explains to her sceptical colleague, ‘Sometimes the explanation that is obvious is the one to be rejected, not accepted’. Perhaps not surprisingly the outcome of the case proves her correct, as Loveday painstakingly examines the drawings, interviews household staff and then pre-empts the next move by the crime’s conspirators to conclude the case.

Our second lady detective is equally efficient. In ‘The Arrest of Captain Vandaleur’ (1894) Florence Cusack does the crime solving honours in a gambling themed case. This is a collaborative piece by Lillie Thomasina Meade (1854-1914) and Robert Eustace (1868-1943). Michael Cox’s introduction describes Mrs Meade as ‘formidably prolific’ but it is not clear from the bibliography whether any more stories featured Miss Cusack. From the context of this story, I am unsure if Miss Cusack acts in a professional capacity or as an amateur lady detective. She seems comfortably off, as we meet her in the well-stocked library of her house in Kensington Park Gardens. In the course of the story, it is clear that she has informants and ‘channels I need not detail’ as she phrases it so we can assume that she is an experienced detective, even if an amateur one.

However, we do know that the Criminal Investigation Department called has called her in to assist in solving a horserace betting fraud. This fraud case has a connection to a friend’s husband who has developed a gambling mania. The story particularly intrigued me because of the subject of the crime. Gambling and horseracing do not immediately spring to mind as familiar subjects to Victorian spinster ladies. Nevertheless, Miss Cusack is obviously quite au fait with various confidence tricks and shady characters. Even so, even she is stumped at the meaning of the only real clue and cannot see how the betting fraud is perpetrated. She admits that ‘For five continuous hours I have worked at those few words, applying to them what I already know of this matter. It has been of no good.’ Naturally all ends well, but I won’t reveal the who and the how of it. Miss Cusack did the brainwork backed up by the brawn of Scotland Yard.

To finish my crime spree I will mention my recent discoveries of follow–up reading material, thanks to a quick search on ABE Books. You can buy reprinted editions of Loveday Brooke’s Experiences from the very reasonably priced (Dover Publications, 1986) to the eye wateringly expensive (first edition from Hutchinson, 1894 at £2,675.66). I am sure that you can guess where my inclination lies but I will have to make do with cheap and cheerful. I have also found The Old Man in the Corner: Twelve Mysteries, published by Dover Publications (1980). It is worth mentioning here that Orczy also wrote detective stories featuring Lady Molly of Scotland Yard, found on ABE in various editions (maybe a future blog post). Lastly, Lillie Thomasina Meade was indeed a prolific author and many early editions of her books (she also wrote school stories for girls) are still available, some as print on demand books. I spotted one POD title, which appears to be a collection of her mystery stories written in collaboration with Robert Eustace. Whether these feature Miss Cusack is not clear from the seller’s notes.

In short, I have plenty of ideas for future forays into female Victorian crime writers. Now, I think I will just go and write out my Christmas wish list…

Picture credits: Wikipedia (except for the image of my own copy of Victorian Tales)

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