My new book, Pistols and Petticoats: 175 Years of Lady Detectives in Fact and Fiction, comes out April 26th (two weeks from today! Mark your calendars!).
Nancy Drew looms large in young-adult detective fiction, but she was not the first girl detective. In the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, there were a number of young female detectives who solved cases quite capably in their own right.
Some of the first appeared in dime novels, short, usually adventurous fiction sold as cheap paperbacks. Edward L. Wheeler’s pistol-wielding heroine Denver Doll was fighting crime, handily winning poker hands, and leading a band of adventurers known as the Red Shirts as early as 1882. Although her age is never revealed, Doll appears to be about eighteen years old with “rich brown hair” that fell in “rippling waves half-way to her waist. A plumed slouch hat of snowy white; an elegant suit of gray, and patent leather top boots, with a diamond-studded ‘boiled’ shirt, collar, and a sash about her waist beneath the coat, made up her costume, and gave her an appearance at once dashing, and characteristic of the wild roving existence she led.” Doll is particularly good at posing as a man, in one case disguising herself as a tough miner named “Glycerine George.” Doll blazed through four stories, eluding capture by both criminals and love; that Doll remains unmarried is a particularly rare feat for the young fictional heroine.
Detective Kate Edwards is, despite the title of her book, most unladylike in her adventures in Lady Kate, The Dashing Female Detective (1886) by Harlan Halsey. Edwards tried a few professions out before settling on private eye. She speaks multiple languages and dons disguises to uncover clues, appearing as everything from an old woman to a tough-talking male sailor. She knocks men to the ground and uses swords and pistols with skill. Trapped on a cliff at night during a storm, Edwards lowers herself from a tree like a superhero, climbing limb to limb to the ground and to safety. She’s not all brawn, though. In the most Sherlock Holmesian of fashion, Edwards deduces the whereabouts of a suspect by examining the clay on his left-behind boots.
Another young detective, Violet Strange, was the creation of Anna Katherine Green, a writer little known today but one once called the “mother of detective fiction” for her best-selling mysteries. Strange was a wealthy debutante and the favorite child of her father, Peter Strange. The girl’s mother had died when she was a child, and her father gives Strange free reign over her life. Her family home, on New York’s Fifth Avenue, is luxurious, and Violet travels throughout the city to social events in a chauffeured limousine. But she also gets paid to detect as a member of a high-profile private detective agency. Strange is so adept that some characters suggest she have supernatural powers, but Strange rebuffs them, asserting her practicality and displaying a talent for logic and mathematical puzzles.
Drew wasn’t all that different from these and other sleuthing peers when she made her debut in 1930. Like Strange, Drew had the financial means and freedom to travel to solve crimes, unencumbered by school or family responsibilities. Like Strange, Drew also lost her mother when she was young, and both women had fathers who paid little attention to their whereabouts.
All together, what made these girl detectives so effective is that few took them seriously or could even see them as real detectives. Doll, Edwards, Strange, and Drew all used this underestimation to their advantage.