The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

The Clarice Dyke Mysteries (1882-1883)

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

The Clarice Dyke Mysteries were written by “Harry Rockwood,” the pseudonym of Ernest Avon Young (1858-1936), a dime novel and mystery writer.

Young was a prolific author who specialized in adventure and detective stories, and had a series in the Boston Daily Globe in 1882 and 1883 about Donald Dyke, a male Bostonian detective. The series was popular enough to be partially collected in Donald Dyke, the Down-East Detective (1882). In the Daily Globe’s Jan. 8, 1883 issue, Clarice Dyke, Donald’s wife, was introduced, and over the next few weeks proved herself to be a fine detective. Clarice was popular enough that Young published Clarice Dyke, the Female Detective (1883), a novelization of a Donald and Clarice Dyke series that had appeared in the Daily Globe (Dec. 31, 1882-Jan. 31, 1883).

Clarice Dyke is described in the following way on the back cover of Clarice Dyke:

As the wife and confidante of one of the most skillful detectives living, she had become an enthusiast in the profession. More than once had her wit and forethought proven themselves equal to Donald Dyke’s, and more than once had she rendered him substantial aid in the ferreting out of mysterious crimes.1 

Clarice and Donald live in the suburbs of Boston, and when a case presents itself which is too much for Donald to handle, or in Donald might actually be in danger, Clarice is willing to act the detective herself. She is as capable a detective as her husband, and in Clarice Dyke Donald is captured by a gang and is only rescued through Clarice’s efforts. She is willful and won't accept being relegated to the sideline during a case; she is willing to put herself in danger to rescue her husband or anyone else in danger. She is equally ready to assume Donald’s authority and act in his name, and even carries some of Donald's police badges while on the job so as to acquire the cooperation of the police. Generally, however, she prefers working on her own rather than bringing in the police, not least because she is afraid of ruining whatever case the police or Donald might be working on. She knows the criminals of Boston as well as Donald does, and when on the job arms herself with a revolver and knife. Clarice has the self-assurance and hauteur of a woman of the upper classes, and takes no sass from servants. She is smart and has hunches and a handy "feminine logic." And she has no small amount of grit: during the novel she gets shot but perseveres through. Her detecting methods are elementary, if effective: she has sharp eyes and uses them, uses basic deduction, skillful disguises (down to staining her skin, dyeing her hair, changing her voice, and impersonating a man), following suspects, and eavesdropping on them. At the end of the story Donald says that she has “more genuine detective genius than himself.”

Clarice Dyke is a crude, basic detective novel. The dialogue is padded—Young was clearly paid by the word for his work in the Daily Globe, and didn’t abandon that style in the novelization—the mystery rather straightforward, and the criminals (a child abductress and her gang) nasty but stupid–when Clarice is captured they gloat and give away the game to her. Coincidence and authorial contrivance greatly help Clarice in her search for her husband. And there is a certain amount of grue. After Donald is captured Clarice is sent a box with a severed finger in it and Donald's ring on the finger, although she realizes that the finger lacks a scar which Donald's ring finger has.

However, although Clarice Dyke is entirely primitive, it is nonetheless important, because it is the first American novel to feature a female detective. Clarice Dyke was not the first female professional detective–that honor goes to either J. Redding Ware’s “G,” in The Female Detective (1864) or William Stephens Hayward’s Mrs. Paschal, in Revelations of a Lady Detective (1864), depending on which argument about their respective publication dates you choose to believe. The first American female detective writer was Anna Katherine Green, who began a long career as a mystery writer with The Leavenworth Case (1878), but Green did not begin writing her most famous creation, Amelia Butterworth (see: The Amelia Butterworth Mysteries), until 1897. Clarice Dyke was certainly not the first American detective novel, either–that would be Seeley Regester’s The Dead Letter, published in 1866. And Clarice Dyke was not the first American female professional detective—that was New York Nell (see: “New York Nell, the Boy-Girl Detective; or, Old Blakesly’s Mother”).

Nonetheless, Clarice Dyke is of note because of the venue in which she appeared. The years between 1866 and 1883 were busy ones for detective publishers in the United States, with a number of detective and crime novels being published; the effect of Regester’s The Dead Letter was significant. The same cannot be said for Clarice Dyke, as the next female detective, Kate Goelet (see: “The Lady Detective”), didn’t appear until 1885, and the mass of dime novel female detectives (the dime novels being the main source of American female detectives in last decades of the nineteenth century) didn’t appear until the mid-1890s. Neither Clarice Dyke nor Clarice Dyke were influential on the female detectives who appeared after the novel was published in 1883, and it wouldn’t be until That Affair Next Door, in 1897, that female detectives would begin appearing in numbers.

Clarice Dyke is not worth searching out as prose, but its status as the first American novel with a female professional detective as its protagonist surely merits more attention than the novel and its heroine have to date received.

Recommended Edition

Print: Harry Rookwood, Clarice Dyke, the Female Detective. New York: J.S. Oglivie, 1883.


1 Qtd in Richard Dalby, “Fidelma’s Position in the Female Detective Genre,” in Edward J. Rielly and David Robert Wooten, The Sister Fidelma Mysteries: Essays on the Historical Novels of Peter Tremaine (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2012), 45.

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