The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
"The Lady Detective" (1885)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
“The Lady Detective” was written by “Old Sleuth” and first appeared in Old Sleuth Library no. 18 (Nov. 9, 1885). “Old Sleuth” was the pseudonym of Harlan P. Halsey (1837-1898), a prolific and popular dime novelist and publisher of dime novels.
Kate Goelet is a private detective working for a large private detective agency, and in “The Lady Detective” she takes a case involving the theft of a large amount of negotiable bonds from a banking house. The reward for recovering the bonds is ten percent of their value, which will give her enough money to retire. But as Goelet quickly discovers, the supposed thief, Henry Wilbur, is handsome and honest and seems in most ways unlikely to have committed the crime. By the end of the story Goelet and Wilbur have fallen in love and married, and Goelet has abandoned her profession to become a wife.
Although there were American female private detectives in real life for well over a decade preceding “The Lady Detective” (see: Female Detectives), their fictional counterparts were not exact duplicates or anything approaching them. The first woman detective in American fiction was New York Nell (see: “New York Nell, the Boy-Girl Detective; or, Old Blakesly’s Mother”); the second was Clarice Dyke (see Clarice Dyke); the third was Kate Goelet. Both New York Nell and Kate Goelet appeared in dime novels, and the dime novel audience had expectations of neatness and ideological correctness for their female characters–and neither trait could be applied to female detectives in real life, which rarely followed the rules of fiction. One of the most common expectations–one held by both the dime novel audience and, later, by the audience for more mainstream fiction–was what Kathleen Gregory Klein called “the marriage plot.”1 The marriage plot–a concept brought over from the domestic novel–in detective fiction always forces the female detective to fall in love, in the course of a story with either the chief suspect of the crime or with another detective. At story’s end the female detective abandons her profession, and by extension her independence and freedom, to become a wife. The marriage plot was ideologically reassuring to the dime novel audience and provided a safety valve for a real-life phenomenon–women working as private detectives, and more broadly New Women acting sexually and financially independently and taking jobs outside the home–which conflicted with the audience’s assumptions about women.
The marriage plot is in full effect in “The Lady Detective.” In the story’s first half Halsey stresses Goelet’s capability as a detective: her great intelligence and ingenuity, which the chief of her detective agency remarks upon; her “intuition,” which is the cause of her conviction that the Wilbur is innocent; how she has “the courage, cunning, patience, endurance and sagacity of the most experienced officer on the whole detective force;”2 her mastery of disguise; her “resources for self-protection,”3 including spring-loaded stilettos hidden up her sleeves; and the gadgets she uses to listen through keyholes and to pick locks. Halsey emphasizes Goelet’s experience, how she had “associated in all kinds of rough company and mixed in all kinds of horrid scenes while performing her duty as a professional detective.”4 Halsey stresses the existence of other lady detectives besides Goelet, perhaps referring to the female detectives of real-life New York City or simply engaging in authorial license: in the world of “The Lady Detective” “there was a corps of lady detectives on hand to pipe and prepare the way for more able-bodied officers.”5
But the novel’s end negates the preceding, as Goelet, having proven Wilbur’s innocence as well as his love for her (as opposed to the flirtatious Mary Clarkson, who is Goelet in disguise), is happy to fall into his “strong, brave arms,”6 forget her achievements as a professional, and settle for being Wilbur’s wife. To this point Halsey has been willing to balance Kate’s professional side with her personal side, which Halsey shows to be both concerned with Wilbur’s opinion of her (if he discovers that she is actually a private detective, “he would despise her, and treat her with contempt and scorn”7) and filled with sympathy for victims and those driven by poverty to crime. But at the story’s end Halsey panders to his audience’s expectations and has Kate sacrifice her profession for the role of a wife. The last words in the story are given not to Kate but to Wilbur; he says that, had she been born a man, Kate would have rivaled Napoleon, but because she is a woman, she is only the “best, handsomest, and smartest woman in the world.”8 (Because “The Lady Detective” is text, Wilbur’s patronizing tone can only be imagined).
“The Lady Detective” is a typical dime novel whose main interest is how explicitly the marriage plot is worked out in the narrative.
Print: Old Sleuth, “The Lady Detective,” Old Sleuth Library no. 18 (Nov. 9, 1885).
1 Kathleen Gregory Klein, The Woman Detective: Gender & Genre, Second Edition (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois, 1995), 36 ff.
2 Old Sleuth, “The Lady Detective,” Old Sleuth Library 8 (Nov. 9, 1885): 3.
3 Old Sleuth, “The Lady Detective,” 18.
4 Old Sleuth, “The Lady Detective,” 31.
5 Old Sleuth, “The Lady Detective,” 7.
6 Old Sleuth, “The Lady Detective,” 31.
7 Old Sleuth, “The Lady Detective,” 23.
8 Old Sleuth, “The Lady Detective,” 31.