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Pistols and Petticoats: 175 Years of Lady Detectives in Fact and Fiction

Ms Janik has found a fascinating topic which encompasses many areas of female involvement in crime fighting. She has looked at early police women and also female fiction characters fighting crime and how they emerged. The author compares fiction female crime fighters with the real women who did enroll in the police force.

 It is thought provoking to realize that detective stories actually “had strong ties with the Gothic novels of the late 18th century”. In 1794 “The Mysteries of Udolpho”, by Ann Radcliffe was a very popular book, “which balanced traditional moral values with strong political statements”. These stories always exposed the oppression of women. In the 1860s, detective novels began to flourish. They seemed to mix the Gothic with realism to make the story more plausible. The developments in science and technology allowed much more specific data to be gathered, and family secrets were no longer sacred. Mary Braddon was one of the first to pen sensational novel forms, writing about “far from virtuous females”. More crimes were written about the wealthy classes now, which was quite a contrast to the poor, bewildered women previously victimized. Many of these topics were seen as unsuitable which increased their appeal.

 Sensational real life stories were capturing the public’s fascination with death. The National Police Gazette was a popular read as it described criminals explicitly and in the USA, Americans fervently read about the gory details involved in many crimes. Biographies of murderers sold very well, and true crime began to creep into fiction books. It was at this time that women were joining the Police Force, with many seen as valuable contributors to solving a crime. They were discriminated against, but persevered, because for these women, it was a true calling.

 It seems that fictional detectives began to appear at the same time as the Police Force began to emerge in America. A system of the night watch and volunteer groups had previously looked after public safety. Fictional women detectives were “Independent, confident women,” who observed human behavior and understood the family and home life. Real woman, who joined the Police Force, often worked to protect young girls on the streets and were able to steer many away from the life that faced them.

 Erika Janik has won awards for her writing and as a historian, she weaves a clever tale around the women she has written about. We hear about Agatha Christie, as well as Patricia Cornwell, Kay Scarpetta, and Sue Grafton. There are also TV characters such as Olivia Benson in Law and Order mentioned. Women in today’s Police Force are able to progress in their career, we hope, without the tremendous battle for acceptance that their forerunners experienced.



Author Erika Janik
Publisher Beacon Press
ISBN 9780807039380
Distributor New South Books
Released July 2016