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Thursday, 19 November 2020

‘Sherlock’s Sisters by Nick Rennison

Published by No Exit Press,
24 September 2020.
ISBN: 978-085730398-1 (PB)

Sherlock’s Sisters is a collection of fifteen stories published during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  As the title suggests, each tale features a woman detective.  

The compilation begins with Madame Duchesne’s Garden Party (c.1894) by Elizabeth Burgoyne Corbett.  Dora Bell is engaged by a young woman, Mrs Bevan, to find a ‘jewelled pendant’ that was ‘lost’ during a party at the home of the German ambassador. It transpires that other partygoers had the same experience.  The next female sleuth is the brainchild of Catherine Louisa Pirkis.  Loveday Brooke works for a detective agency in Fleet Street and made her first appearance in the same year that Sherlock Holmes plunged over the Reichenbach Falls.  In The Redhill Sisterhood (1893) Loveday is asked to investigate an unusual religious community when their acts of charity coincide with a series of attempted burglaries!

LT Meade and Robert Eustace contribute two detectives to the compilation.  The first is Miss Florence Cusack who, in Mr Bovey’s Unexpected Will (1899), must solve a crime implicating the three prospective beneficiaries.  Sir Penn Caryll’s Engagement (1902), by the same authors, features Diana Marburg, a professional palm reader.  In this story, Diana uses intelligent decoding rather than supernatural gifts to discover whodunit.

1899 saw the publication of Beatrice Heron-Maxwell’s The Adventures of a Lady Pearl Broker in which Millie Delamere is asked to recover a lost jewel and avoid a social scandal in the process.  This is followed by The Haverstock Hill Murder (c.1897), one of a series of stories by author George R Sims to feature Dorcas Dene, a former actress turned detective.  In this tale Dorcas is asked to save a man languishing in Broadmoor Prison for killing his wife.

The Dope Fiends is chapter 11 of American mystery writer Arthur B Reeve’s Constance Dunlap Woman Detective (1913).  In this episode, the eponymous detective finds herself embroiled in a ruthless drug ring and puts herself in danger to expose the leader.  Look out for ingenious contraptions including the deliciously named “Detectascope”.  Next comes Mary E Wilkins’s The Long Arm (1895).  Sarah Fairbanks is forced to turn detective when she finds herself “condemned to something infinitely worse than the life-cell or the gallows.”  Gripping stuff written as a first-person narrative. 

The Fifth Customer and the Copper Key (1898) by Fergus Hume, stars Hagar, a Lambeth pawnbroker and erstwhile detective.  Hagar’s curiosity is aroused when a surly old man accepts £1 in exchange for an obviously much more valuable antique copper key.  She is determined to find out what secrets it will unlock.  In Eavesdropping At Interlaken (1911), by Richard Marsh, seventeen-year-old Judith Lee is framed for a series of jewellery thefts whilst travelling abroad.  Judith has to rely on her gift for lip-reading to save her reputation. 

The next contribution comes from Baroness Orczy’s 1910 collection, Lady Molly of Scotland Yard. In The Woman in the Big Hat, unflappable Lady Molly exposes a cold-blooded poisoner in a story that has a twist in its tail.  American Madelyn Mack investigates in The Man with Nine Lives (1914) by Hugh Cosgro Weir.  Whilst enjoying a few days leisure at her chalet on the Hudson River, the New York City detective receives a letter from newspaper magnate Wendell Marsh.  The note describes how eight attempts have been made on his life and includes a postscript, “For God’s sake, hurry!”  Madelyn cannot resist.

An Intangible Clue (1915) by Anna Katherine Green, provides the next story.  An elderly embroiderer is found murdered at her home and police discover a box addressed to Green’s protagonist Violet Strange.  Violet is summoned to the premises.  The box reveals nothing of interest, but the investigator notices several anomalies at the crime scene.  She uses her brilliant intellect to discover the murderer’s identity.  Next, we are treated to Clarence Rook’s 1898 short story The Stir Outside the Café Royal in which the wonderfully named Nora Van Snoop must act quickly if she is to apprehend a ruthless murderer.

Hilda Wade is just one of Grant Allen’s several ‘New Woman’ protagonists.  The Episode of the Needle that did not Match is actually a chapter from Grant’s novel, Hilda Wade: A Woman with Tenacity of Purpose.  Hilda has taken a job as a nurse in St Nathanial’s Hospital in an attempt to expose its leading surgeon, Professor Sebastian, a man she believes was responsible for her father’s untimely death.  Whilst assisting Sebastian as he undertakes a medical procedure, Hilda finds herself in jeopardy. 

Sherlocks’s Sisters: Stories from The Golden Age of the Female Detective is a joyful celebration of Victorian and Edwardian lady detectives.  As always, Nick Rennison has chosen an array of tales that are as entertaining as they are different, whilst his editorial notes provide fascinating and informative histories of the authors and their creations.  This is a highly enjoyable collection that will appeal to readers seeking their first taste of late nineteenth and early twentieth century detective fiction as well as those who are familiar with the period and its rich variety of literary sleuths.

Reviewer: Dot Marshall-Gent

Nick Rennison is a writer, editor and bookseller with a particular interest in the Victorian era and in crime fiction. He has written several Pocket Essential guides published by Oldcastle Books including Short History of the Polar Exploration, Roget, Freud and Robin Hood. He is also the author of The Bloomsbury Good Reading Guide to Crime Fiction, 100 Must-Read Crime Novels and Sherlock Holmes: An Unauthorised Biography. His debut crime novel, Carver's Quest, set in nineteenth century London, was published by Atlantic Books. He is a regular reviewer for both The Sunday Times and BBC History Magazine.

Dot Marshall-Gent worked in the emergency services for twenty years first as a police officer, then as a paramedic and finally as a fire control officer before graduating from King’s College, London as a teacher of English in her mid-forties.  She completed a M.A. in Special and Inclusive Education at the Institute of Education, London and now teaches part-time and writes mainly about educational issues.  Dot sings jazz and country music and plays guitar, banjo and piano as well as being addicted to reading mystery and crime fiction.  

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