The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

The Florence Cusack Mysteries (1899-1901)

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

The five Florence Cusack Mysteries were written by “L.T. Meade “and “Robert Eustace” and began with “Mr. Bovey's Unexpected Will” (The Harmsworth Magazine, Apr 1899). “L. T. Meade” was the pseudonym of Elizabeth Thomasina Meade Smith (1844-1914) and “Robert Eustace” was the pseudonym of Eustace Robert Barton (1854-1943). Smith is forgotten today, but in her time she was an important writers of detective fiction and one of the earliest and most prolific authors of girls’ school stories. Barton was a British doctor and mystery writer.

Florence Cusack is a beautiful, well-dressed, wealthy, independent sleuth. Her origin is never really described. She hints that she works as a detective because she is “under a promise, which I must fulfill,”1 but this hint is never followed up. She has something of the ennui of Sherlock Holmes (see: The Sherlock Holmes Mysteries), finding detecting attractive because it relieves her boredom and because “the life is fraught with the very deepest interest.”2 When a case really interests her it gets “the old desire going to the point of madness,”3 and she does not sleep for days on end. This has a negative effect on her, and she becomes subject to “periodical and very acute nervous attacks,”and she develops a “strange and nervous automatism”5 of clenching and unclenching her fingers. It is this which first sends her to Doctor Lonsdale for treatment. Lonsdale does not ever cure her physical maladies but does become her friend and then her Watson as well as the narrator of her stories. Lonsdale does not live with Cusack, nor does he become her lover or husband. He is just a friend who, when summoned by her, runs to her assistance. She, for her part, likes Lonsdale, although as with Holmes she holds Lonsdale in a sort of genial contempt.

Cusack is capable and successful as a detective. Like Holmes, she is highly respected by Scotland Yard, who are pleased to follow her orders and who even call her in for special cases that they can't solve themselves. She is businesslike about solving crimes, although she avoids the dreaded “mannish” tag by being friendly and feminine, albeit not sweet. Cusack is well aware of the ways of criminals, such as leaving coded messages in personal ads. She knows their psyches, and knows both infamous individuals as well as notorious groups. She knows the tricks of swindlers, gamblers, and the criminals of the Continent.

Cusack’s detecting methods are straightforward: the use of disguises, a certain amount of luck, the inspection of crime scenes, the asking of questions to the right people, and the proper application of her not inconsiderable ingenuity. She is good at figuring out the clever tricks and dodges of criminals, and Meade and Eustace come up with some nice story twists, including stolen gold cast as balls, repainted, and hung outside an apartment window; a specific aftershave used to tip off horse gamblers in a swindle; and valerian used to train a cat in order to illegally get stock tips. When there is heavy lifting to be done, or when she might be in danger, she brings along police detectives in disguise, to protect her and to do the actual arresting.

Cusack is a detective of the upper classes, taking on cases which involve the upper classes. She does not solve street crimes, but rather gets accepts cases that involve activities like stock tip swindling. She has a considerable amount of sang froid, but can be impatient and occasionally sharp with people, including Lonsdale. But she is also warm and generous to her friends and goes out of her way to help them when they are in trouble.

The Cusack mysteries are in the typical Meade and Eustace style: short, briskly told, and usually clever in conception if not always in execution. They are perhaps the stereotypical New Woman mysteries. As a female detective Cusack is almost automatically a New Woman character, and the lack of any love interest or romantic subplot in the stories emphasizes this point. (New Woman were seen as either sex-crazed proponents of free love, or “female eunuchs” uninterested in sex or romance of any kind; Cusack is the latter). Unlike many other Victorian female detectives, Cusack did not become a detective to clear the name of a man, or to support a wounded husband (see: Dorcas Dene, Detective). Cusack’s reasons for becoming a detective remain ambiguous but involve a decision on Cusack’s part, rather than because a man needed her to become one. Most likely deliberately, Meade and Eustace invert the ordinary sexual politics of late Victorian detective fiction so that Cusack leads and Lonsdale follows; Cusack commands, Lonsdale obeys; Cusack is sharp, Lonsdale meekly takes it; Cusack brooks no dissent, and Lonsdale is rather passive. She is clearly the lead, and Lonsdale is clearly the follower and assistant. Similar feminist messages appear in the stories, with the portrayal of one male character and his complaints about what men are expected to do to maintain their manhood, in “The Arrest of Captain Vandaleur” (Harmsworth Magazine, July 1899), being “in terms of late nineteenth-century culture, an amazing statement, showing that men as much as women repudiate or find intolerable the expectations of their gender construction.”6 

“The Arrest of Captain Vandaleur” is important to the Florence Cusack mysteries in another way. Not only is it one of the “impossible crime” stories that Meade and Eustace were famous for, the story

assumes a symbolic dimension. Members of the culture would not believe a husband could so callously cause his wife's demise by his recklessness. Nor would they believe that a young male would express his dissatisfaction at the cultural expectations of men: Farrell's outré behaviour is really a form of revolt against the female conception of the perfect man. If women are forced to accept the model of the Angel in the House, then men suffer as well from the expectations of their respective Angels. The fears of the culture about the racial decline of British males pervade the “The Arrest of Captain Vandaleur.”7 

Nor was this the only story in which Meade and Eustace would play on the contemporary Fin-de-Siècle Unease. Male vulnerability—physical, mental, and moral—is a recurring theme in the Florence Cusack stories, as are the strains placed upon relationships by erring men or women.

The Florence Cusack stories are, as noted, perhaps the stereotypical New Woman mysteries. They lack, though, any sense of ideological hectoring, and instead are brief and entertaining, if not immortal.

Recommended Edition

Print: L.T. Meade and Robert Eustace, The Detections of Miss Florence Cusack. Shelburne, ON: Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, 1998.


1 L.T. Meade and Robert Eustace, “Mr. Bovey’s Unexpected Will,” The Harmsworth Magazine (Apr. 1899): 259.

2 Meade and Eustace, “Mr. Bovey’s Unexpected Will,” 259.

3 L.T. Meade and Robert Eustace, “A Terrible Railway Ride,” The Harmsworth Magazine (July 1900): 564.

4 Meade and Eustace, “Mr. Bovey’s Unexpected Will,” 259.

5 Meade and Eustace, “A Terrible Railway Ride,” 564.

6 Kestner, Sherlock’s Sisters, 150.

7 Kestner, Sherlock’s Sisters, 150-151.