The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
"The Actress Detective; or, The Invisible Hand. The Romance of an Implacable Mission" (1889)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
“The Actress Detective” was written by Albert W. Aiken and first appeared in Beadle’s New York Dime Library (September 25, 1889). Aiken (1846-1894) was a dime novelist by day, churning out stories about detectives and cowboys by the thousands of pages, and a respected playwright and actor by night. “The Actress Detective” is notable as featuring what is arguably the first lesbian detective in crime fiction.
"The Actress Detective” is a standard dime novel mystery story. Hilda Serene is a female detective. One of her friends is involved in an inheritance mystery. Serene solves the mystery and gains her friend her inheritance. Serene foils the evil scheme of the “Gilded Widow” and arrests the villain who shot Mr. Mortimer, one of Serene’s fellow actors and the putative love interest in the story.
The plot of “The Actress Detective” is ordinary and the dialogue is tiresome, both run-of-the-mill for dime novel mysteries. What is most interesting about “The Actress Detective” is Serene herself. She works as an actress at the theater of the Bolosso Brothers, a pair of antisemitic stereotypes. She is a good actress, but her heart is in detecting. She calls herself a “knight of old on adventure”1 during the investigation, and she takes pleasure in helping her friend and in catching the criminals. But Serene does not do this in the stereotypically feminine way of the dime novels, and in fact is anything but feminine. Everyone who comes in contact with Serene sees her as man-like, and even her friend Louise Amherst describes her as “a strange man-woman...a great, big, horrid, dear, delightful masculine fighting girl.”2 Serene not only agrees with this description, but goes further and says,
I ought to have been a man; there is not the least doubt about that. All my tastes are masculine and not feminine, and the best proof of my assertion is the liking I have for the life of a detective.3
I am as much a woman as you are, dear, unfortunately¼I take no pleasure in the quiet home delights which are so dear to the feminine heart. Dress has no attraction for me. Jewelry I despise, and I would almost rather be whipped than go shopping any day¼I take no delight in the things that the average girl loves, but all manly sports are my passion. I can box, shoot, fence, wrestle, ride, jump, and run with any average man; ay, more than hold my own, for it takes an expert to outdo me.4
She is indeed physically capable. She weighs 140 pounds, and it seems to be all muscle. Several times during “The Actress Detective” she overpowers men, even physically preventing an Irish policeman from beating up on an innocent bystander. Although Serene takes pride in her physical strength, she views it more as a necessity:
Well, you know it is a popular fad nowadays for ladies to take fencing and boxing lessons, and only the other day there was a regular prize-fight between two women¼still it is not a bad idea for a woman who is possessed of sufficient muscular strength, to know how to take care of herself, in case she is attacked by ruffians.5
When she is attacked, she easily defends herself:
With the cunning of a veteran boxer the actress threw up her left hand, warded off the blow without any trouble, then there was a momentary stiffening of the lithe, muscular figure—the ‘gathering together’—as the pugilists term it—out shot the right arm, and the man, who got the blow on the neck under the ear on the jugular vein, received the impression that he had been struck by a fist of iron, not of flesh and bone.6
She was raised on the Western frontier and has a great deal of experience with weapons, and is willing to use her revolver or Bowie knife to defend herself.
Her personality is well-suited for the job of detecting. She is observant, is not frightened by violence of the sight of blood, is skilled at disguise as a result of her training as an actress, and can drink without getting drunk. She is an efficient detective, and draws praise not only from the chief of police in New York, who treats her as a colleague and calls her “one woman picked out of a million,”7 but from the criminals she apprehends, who describe her as “a man compounded with the magnetism of Cleopatra.”8 Serene’s lack of femininity extends even to her romantic side. She is good-looking, but she admits to never having been in love at age twenty-eight, and when Mr. Mortimer proposes marriage to her she is kind to him but does not accept his proposal. This escape from the “marriage plot” (see: “The Lady Detective”) was almost unheard of for dime novel women detectives.
This unique conclusion, though, is of a part with the rest of Serene’s character, and why she is of so much interest to modern readers. Aiken’s contemporary readers undoubtedly thought of her as a fictional example of the real female detectives of the era. But modern readers are likely to reach much different conclusions, and are likely to see Serene as a lesbian, especially because she forthrightly states that “all my tastes are masculine and not feminine” and because of her lack of romantic interest in men. The questions must be asked, then: “what was Albert W. Aiken’s intent in creating Hilda Serene? Did he mean for her to be a lesbian?” The apparent preferred inscribed narrative—that is, the story that “The Actress Detective” seems to intend to tell—is that Serene is simply a confirmed bachelorette. But on consideration, this must be called into question. Aiken, after all, lived in New York City in the 1870s and 1880s, and would have been exposed to real-life female detectives, whether in person or through newspaper accounts of their work. Most real-life female detectives were heterosexual, but some were lesbians, and the lower sorts of newspapers and magazines, like the notorious National Police Gazette, were happy to play up the sexualities of the gay and lesbian detectives in their articles, just as the Gazette was gleeful in its salacious coverage of lesbian lovers. Moreover, Aiken was a native of the theater during the 1870s and 1880s and undoubtedly encountered lesbian or bisexual actresses while also hearing stories of the same-sex affairs of famous actresses like Sarah Bernhardt (1862-1922) and Eleonora Duse (1858-1924).
It defies logic for Aiken to have been unaware of lesbians. In light of this, the passages about Serene’s lack of interest in men and her statement that “all my tastes are masculine and not feminine” can only lead the modern reader to conclude that Aiken knew what he was doing when he wrote “The Actress Detective,” and that he intended Hilda Serene to be a lesbian. Aiken could not overtly state it—the postal inspectors who acted as censors in 1886 would never have allowed such a thing—but he heavily implied it.
Too, Serene is a New Woman, albeit one chronologically avant la letter. She is a socially and economically independent professional who is performing what was traditionally a man’s job. The association in the public’s mind between New Women and lesbians took place in the 1890s rather than the 1880s,9 but the prototypical New Women of the 1880s were often seen as lesbians. The truth was often different: “the first generation of New Women asserted their autonomy primarily by denying the family claim of motherhood and choosing lives of public service.”10 But the perception of New Women was that a substantial number of them were lesbians. Again, Aiken’s portrayal of Hilda Serene seems intended to portray her as a lesbian.
"The Actress Detective” is historically significant as the appearance of what is probably the first lesbian detective, but is otherwise an unrewarding reading experience.
Print: Albert W. Aiken, “The Actress Detective,” Beadle’s New York Dime Library xliv, no 570 (September 25, 1889).
1 Albert W. Aiken, “The Actress Detective, or The Invisible Hand. The Romance of an Implacable Mission,” Beadle’s New York Dime Novel (Sept. 25, 1889): 1.
2 Aiken, “The Actress Detective,” 3
3 Aiken, “The Actress Detective,” 1.
4 Aiken, “The Actress Detective,” 3.
5 Aiken, “The Actress Detective,” 7.
6 Aiken, “The Actress Detective,” 10.
7 Aiken, “The Actress Detective,” 12.
8 Aiken, “The Actress Detective,” 11.
9 Sally Ledger, The New Woman: Fiction and Feminism at the Fin de Siècle (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1997), 124.
10 Christina Simmons, “New Woman,” in Encyclopedia of Lesbian Histories and Cultures, ed. Bonnie Zimmerman (Abingdon: Routledge, 2012), 547.