Well, that last one may not have been publicly announced yet.
But this post was triggered by two positive things about Amazon. One was their habit of recommending things for you to buy, based on things you’ve bought before.
Sometimes this doesn’t work so well. My enthusiasm for Les Miserables, which has been reflected in my Amazon purchases, does not imply any interest in any other Broadway musicals. No number of inveigling emails will get me to buy anything to do with Phantom of the Opera.
But this did work: I read and very much enjoyed The Burning Court, and that book mentioned The Old Man in the Corner, by Baroness Orczy, which I also bought. Which led to a recommendation for the “Female Sleuths Megapack,” featuring some of the earliest mystery stories with female detectives, including Lady Molly of Scotland Yard (1910), also by Baroness Orczy.
Why did I not know about this before? Is it possible that Lady Molly, along with Loveday Brooke and Amelia Butterworth, also represented in this volume, have been forgotten by history because of their sex?
Anyway, the Lady Molly stories are pretty good, though definitely not perfect. One is rather gimmicky, and another depends on a trick which any experienced mystery reader would spot right away. But other than that they are solid. And, of course, in 1910 there weren’t experienced mystery readers as there are now. There hadn’t been enough mysteries yet.
Lady Molly’s stories are narrated by her loyal assistant, Mary, and I don’t think any detective has ever had a more devoted Watson. Mary has, as she puts it, raised obedience to the level of a fine art. Not that she’s helpless when her “dear lady” is unavailable — in fact she’s quite fearless and decisive — but she’s much happier when Lady Molly is there, and there is no situation so fraught that Mary can’t pause to praise Lady Molly’s hair, her clothes, her figure, her intelligence, her sensitivity, her eyes, etc.
Also in the Megapack volume are stories about Loveday Brooke, by C. L. Pirkis (1894), and Miss Amelia Butterworth, by Anna Katharine Green (the first Miss Butterworth novel came out in 1897, but Anna Katharine Green’s earliest mystery novel, with a different detective, preceded the first appearance of Sherlock Holmes by ten years). The Loveday Brooke stories are pretty good, but she’s definitely the least interesting of the three detectives (though I do plan to write a book at some point called “The Experiences of Jan Sleet, Lady Detective,” based on the title of the collection of Loveday Brooke’s stories).
The first Amelia Butterworth novel was a bit of a revelation, though. It was a complex story, with a series of explanations of the crime, each of which was then disproved by further evidence (Ellery Queen used this template quite often). Miss Butterworth is a spinster lady, living in New York, of colonial ancestry (as she reminds us periodically), and well-regarded in society. When she becomes a witness to a murder in the house next to hers, she starts investigating, and she rather sharply informs the police detective assigned to the case that she will be his rival, not his “coadjuter.” Their investigations are along separate lines (though part of his investigation involves having Miss Butterworth followed — he obviously takes her seriously), but near the end they do compare notes. Their explanations are completely different, and each has discovered facts which disprove the theory of the other, but it’s her investigation which leads to the real explanation (which I certainly didn’t see coming), and a wonderfully dramatic resolution.
Miss Butterworth is clearly the model for Miss Marple, but her personality is very different, and really delightful (though it’s probably more fun to read about her than it would have been to meet her — but that’s true of a lot of fictional detectives). There’s one scene where Miss Butterworth and charwoman are witnesses at the scene of a crime, and a police officer refers to them collectively to a detective who has just arrived. Miss Butterworth is quietly horrified to be lumped together with a charwoman (she who is highly regarded in society, after all), but she reasons that, of course, before the law their testimony must be seen as equal — and this is doubtless what the officer had in mind.
Miss Butterworth is an interesting contrast to Lady Molly, by the way. Miss Butterworth’s prejudices are clearly not shared by the author, and we’re supposed to think them a bit absurd (like the various types of snobbery in Sarah Caudwell’s novels). The Lady Molly stories are full of this sort of thing, too, and this is apparently an expression of the baroness’s real opinions. Manners and customs in the French colonies are “very peculiar,” a servant has a “pleasant vagueness peculiar to her class,” landladies are usually a “grasping type,” etc. At one point a man refers to the fact that Italy is rife with secret societies, anarchists, and the Mafia, and that the police and courts are all corrupt — and Mary our helpful narrator makes a point of saying that there was truth in these statements, in case any readers should think that these are baseless accusations.
And now it turns out that Anna Katharine Green also created Violet Strange, a teenage society girl who secretly works as a detective. I’m starting to read about her adventures now (I’m saving the other two Amelia Butterworth novels — I don’t want to use them up too quickly 🙂 ).
Oh, the other nice thing about Amazon? All of these great novels and stories? A total of 99 cents. 🙂