Guest Post: Brett Fish

This was completed as part of a primary source project for EN634: Victorian Literature

Loveday Brooke: The First Important Female Detective

Very little is written about Catherine Pirkis, though what scholarship exists certainly revolves around her last published work: The Experiences of Loveday Brooke: Lady Detective. Pirkis’ first novel Disappeared From Her Home: A Novel (published in 1877) is a tightly plotted murder mystery which no doubt shaped the course of her writing. From what little we know of her biography, she enjoyed a decent life with her husband who would form a coalition with her in later life to fight for animal rights. She wrote without needing to support herself. Nonetheless, it is no surprise that she decides to try her hand at the ever popular detective story. She would go on to write nine more stories before creating the first ‘important’ female detective: Loveday Brooke.

Pirkis published The Experiences of Loveday Brooke in full in “The Ludgate Monthly” (1894), an English magazine containing short fiction and interesting articles. Though other female detectives pre-date Brooke, none were as well written and few were as engaging. The experienced reader of Sherlock Holmes will spot similar narrative structures, yet without the substance of Pirkis’ writing, which frequently reveals the unique troubles facing a relatively broke female detective. Holmes never worked a case for money after all, and neither did he answer to anyone. Brooke is tied down to Ebenezer Dyer’s detective agency, often faced with the responsibility of boosting the agencies credentials as well as cash.

Brooke first appears in the short story titled “The Black Bag Left On A Door Step” (creative, right?) and is described as such-

She was not tall, she was not short; she was not dark, she was not fair; she was neither handsome nor ugly. Her features were altogether nondescript; her one noticeable trait was a habit she had, when absorbed in thought, of dropping her eyelids over her eyes till only a line of eyeball showed, and she appeared to be looking out at the world through a slit, instead of through a window.[1]

Accompanying each story was a series of illustrations by Bernard Higham, such as the one below:

Readers of Sherlock Holmes will not be surprised by the plot structure of these stories, as they follow roughly the same pattern: A case is presented to Brooke, followed by an investigation in which Brooke picks up on clues the other characters (and the readers) fail to spot. In the end Brooke reveals exactly what happened and how she deduced the truth. Essentially she is a taste of what Sherlock could have been if he had been written as a female. Brooke is thirty years old when she enters Ebenezer Dryer’s detection agency. She fights through the ranks and earns her position. Established and trusted is how we find Loveday Brooke in Pirkis’ second to last story about the detective, The Ghost of Fountain Lane.

The Ghost of Fountain Lane – Synopsis

Loveday Brooke is on vacation, or at least as much of a vacation as she can be expected to have. Any attempt to escape her hard work results in nothing more than an over-glorified case reading on her personal couch. She is interrupted by a Mr. Clampe who, to her surprise, found her house (despite her instructions that no one have the address). Clampe informs Brooke of an interesting case: A relatively well to do man by the name of Reverend Charles Turner has lost a check. Before leaving to see a dead relative, Rev. Turner left four checks with his wife on the writing desk. Mrs. Turner goes out to water plants, comes in ten minutes later, and stows away three checks (not caring to count them before going outside, she figured three was the number of checks left to her in the first place). The Check is later cashed for 600 pounds at the local bank, who naturally are unable to identify the person who drew out the money.

Brooke shows disregard for the case, offering Clampe instead a look into a more interesting case found in the local newspaper: A young girl at Fountain Lane has seen a ghost of the great Napoleon. Her family also admits to seeing the ghost. Clampe disregards Brook’s idea of an interesting case, citing the situation as ‘just another ghost tale’. The logical Brooke corrects him by pointing out that these people are religious, Wesleyan to be exact, and that they were not likely to claim to see Napoleon of all people, but rather angels or the messiah. Clamp eventually peaks Brooke’s attention to his case by pointing out that the number 144,000 was written on the stolen check. Brooke agrees to the case, agreeing to stay at a neighbor’s inn across the street from the Turner’s.

Brooke learns from the owner of the Inn (a Mrs. Brown) that Mr. Turner is hot tempered and frequently is at odds with his wife. Brooke learns that Mrs. Turner paid off loans totaling nearly 500 pounds in her husband’s absence, right after the disappearance of the check. It is during this time that Brooke Spots a peculiar woman walking up the lane named Maria Lisle, who proves to be a former maid of Mr. Turner, and a devoutly religious woman. Brooke and Mrs. Brown walk to an orchard where Maria is spotted again, leaving in great haste. Mrs. Brown goes to follow Maria while Brooke investigates the small summer house from whence Maria just left. Brooke finds a stash of religious books, all of which are about Armageddon, and Maria’s diary. Satisfied, Brooke leaves to meet Clampe, suggesting that she has solved everything.

Clampe accompanies Brooke to a religious service (the same one attended by Brooke at the onset of the story) where a middle aged man (a gifted orator) preaches a sermon about Armageddon and the return of the great Napoleon. Brooke explains that this sermon has been preached before, and it won’t be long before he escapes with the money conned off of the people in the town. Brooke leaves Clampe to arrest the preacher, promising to explain everything later. As it happened, Maria was a devout follower of the new preacher, who steals the check from Mr. Turner under the cult’s influence (thinking it would benefit her place in eternity). Mrs. Turner is vindicated as Mr. Turner is overheard telling her off for spending the entire 500 pounds given to her before his trip. The preacher had been scaring the locals with a Napoleonic message and apparition, taking their money by manipulation in the process. The number 144,000 of course represents the elect who will be saved according to the book of Revelation. Brooke further expresses her belief that the people spread the idea of the ghost like ‘scarlet fever’ due to the mind manipulation from the cult.

Analysis

Loveday Brooke differs from Sherlock Holmes in that she has worked hard for her place in life. Sherlock is naturally gifted with a quick mind and an incredible genius to a point that it almost seems cartoonic. Brooke solves each case by logically assessing the facts without succumbing to prejudice or preconceived notions. Usually a male counterpart will attempt to sway the reader in the direction of a red herring. Conspicuously missing from this story is Ebenezer Dryer, the mainstay owner of the detections agency who butts heads with Brooke in a friendly way before and after a case.

The plot is rather contrived, and somewhat disappointing. The reader is given an obvious red herring in Mrs. Turner, but is immediately let off the hook by introducing the mysterious ‘cloaked woman’ immediately identified as Maria. However, the goal of the story does not seem to be in crafting an excellent mystery, but rather to criticize a certain brand of Christian Eschatology. The cult present in the short story is known as “Millenarianism”, a belief about the Second Coming of Christ concerning the 1000 years of peace mentioned by John in Revelation. Napoleon himself believed he was accomplishing Millenarian goals[2]. Pirkis reveals the illogic belief through the eyes of Brooke (the epitome of enlightenment thought), labeling Maria as ‘weak minded’ and portraying a preying preacher. Read in light of this critique, “The Ghost of Fountain Lane” works as a successful display of rationality against the backdrop of extreme Christian eschatology. Pirkis can be credited as retaining relevance with this particular story, as cult-like branches of eschatology exist prominently today under the name of “rapture” theology (spawning the ever popular Left Behind books).

[1] http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/pirkis/brooke/brooke.html#I

[2] Millenarianism and Messianism in Early Modern European Culture Volume IV

edited by John Christian Laursen, R.H. Popkin.

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