Revelations of a Lady Detective, published anonymously (1864)
Until recently, this seminal work in the mystery fiction canon was itself shrouded in mystery. Copies of this book were all but impossible to find; indeed, it was rumored that the only known copy lay in the British Library. A very few other copies have since turned up and one of the stories ("The Mysterious Countess", the first in the book) was reprinted in Laura Marcus and Chris Willis' anthology Twelve Women Detective Stories (1997). It was generally assumed from that first story that Revelations of a Lady Detective was a bland collection of mystery stories whose only significance was that it was the first to feature a female detective.
Frederick Dannay, in his role as one half of "Ellery Queen," contributed to the confusion when he issued the Queen's Quorum, a chronological listing of the most significant volumes of short stories in the history of crime literature. There at #5 was: "Anonyma" - The Experiences of a Lady Detective - 1861." Unfortunately Dannay got several things wrong. The author was not "Anonyma"; no author was listed at all on the book. There was, however, a previously published book titled Anonyma from the same publisher which became known as the first of a series. The Anonyma books had nothing in common with each other except as a hook for the publisher to sell more books. For years, many researchers were trying to figure out who the female author "Anonyma" was, or if "Anonyma" was a female at all. Authorship of the book was variously attributed to an unknown stable of male writers, to two woman writers of the day, to E. L. Blanchard, and to Bracebridge Hemyng, until finally landing on W. Stephens Hayward, an author known to have written two of the titles in the Anonyma Series (Skittles and The Soiled Dove), as the most likely author of Revelations of a Lady Detective.
Queen also got the title wrong. Revelations of a Lady Detective was the book's original title and it was reprinted under that name in 1868. The next reprinting, in 1870, titled the book The Lady Detective: A Tale of Female Life and Adventure. Also in 1870 (and again in 1884) the book appeared as The Experiences of a Lady Detective. And if Queen had gotten the book's date correctly, it would have become #6 on the Queen's Quorum, placing it directly behind Aldrich's 1862 Out of His Head and directly ahead of Twain's 1867 The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.
There's an even chance that Queen was correct in stating the book was the first collection to feature a woman detective. There is also an even chance that honor goes to The Female Detective, another anonymously published book (now credited to Andrew Forrester, Jr., itself a possible pseudonym) which appeared at almost the exact same time. It's impossible to determine which came first.
Both Revelations of a Lady Detective and The Female Detective were finally made available to the general public in The Frist Female Detectives (1864), an omnibus transcribed, edited, and introduced by Dagni Bredeson and published by Scholars Facsimiles & Reprints (Ann Arbor, MI) in 2010. (Much of the information I have given above was gleaned from Bredeson's informative introduction.) Revelations of a Lady Detective received a separate publication under Haywood's name as author by The British Library Publishing division in 2013.
What of the book itself?
The Lady Detective is Mrs. Paschal, a widow in her forties who has found employment with the Metropolitan Police. (This being some years before the real police officially began hiring female officers, and the mostly as matrons, although the is some evidence that the police and individual officers has used women as hired detectives prior to 1864.) In any event, Mrs. Paschal has a police identification card and is well-known to the officers at headquarters. She reports to a Colonel Warner, the head of the Detective Department of the Metropolitan Police and with whom she appears to be on good terms. Warner offers her assignments that he feels are suited to her talents, which Mrs. Paschal may accept or reject . This indicates that she is employed on a contingency basis. (Often she is paid by clients themselves.) It's all pretty confusing to me but it is apparent that Mrs. Paschal has got herself a sweetheart deal.
In "The Mysterious Countess," Mrs. Paschal as a maid to a woman who is spending far more money than should be possible. Mrs. P. trails the Countess through a series of dark tunnels to discover she is robbing gold from a bank vault. Why the bank never figured out that a vault with an extraneous and unexplored tunnel would be a security risk is beyond me.
In "The Secret Band," An Italian revolutionary is marked for death for betraying his compatriots an Mrs. P. once again goes undercover to apprehend the leader of the gang. Captured, she is to be crushed to death in an abandoned mill. Horrors! What would we do without our friend, deus ex machine?
"The Lost Diamonds" in the next story belong to the Duke of Rustenburgh, whose monomania concerning gems is threatening his marriage. With the help of a young former-pickpocket friend, Mrs. P. is able to restore order and make things right, although she is prevented from making an arrest.
In "Stolen Letters," Mrs. P. is once again undercover, working in a Post Office which has had valuables and letters go missing. Not only does she suss out the culprit and the mastermind behind the crimes, but she treats us to an examination of a modern marvel, the pneumatic tube (I prefer to think of it as a "whoosh machine") through which letters travel.
In "The Nun, the Will, and the Abbess," our heroine takes on a private client to release the client's daughter from a convent before she takes her vows and turn her entire fortune over to a scheming abbess. (The anti-Catholicism here almost drips off the pages.) Mrs. Paschal is once again under cover. this time as a novitiate. She manages to free the girl, unite her with her true love, and bribe the abbess with merely half of the girl's fortune. Huh?
"Which Is the Heir?" is the question bothering the newly title Lord Northend. A former maid claims to have switched her child with the infant Lord Northend, in order to cash in when the title comes down to the baby. Mrs. P. unravels the nefarious plot and lets us know how vile gypsies are.
Sir Castle Clewer, a notorious rake, is accused of killing a teenaged shopgirl who had rejected his lecherous advances and was then "Found Drowned." Mrs. Paschal unmasks the real killer, thereby acquitting the dirty old man.
In "Fifty Pounds Reward," a young and foolish wife falls under the influence of a grasping woman who convinces her to forge one of her husband's checks. It's up to Mrs. Paschal to set things right and give the evil woman her comeuppance.
Lastly, in "Mistaken Identity" a twin long thought dead commits a crime that his respectable brother is accused of. Despite all evidence, Mrs. Paschal becomes convinced of the respectable brother's innocence. Not only does she solve the mystery, she reunited the brothers, manages to avoid the twin's arrest, and sets him on the path to respectability.
"Incognita" is the name of a former actress who has seduced a wealthy young man and is draining him of his fortune. They are not, as was assumed, living together, but they about to be married. Mrs. Paschal is hired by the man's mother to convince him to break off relations with the girls. Once again undercover, this time as a maid, Mrs. P. works to uncover Incognita's secrets.
Revelations of a Lady Detective was published as a cheap "yellowback," sold at railway stations to a public looking for a quick, thrilling, and often sensational read. These yellowbacks were never meant to be lasting literature, but they did serve their purpose. The stories in this volume were surprisingly varied, and several of the episodes had more than their share of thrills. We learn little of Mrs. Paschal. She relies more on intuition than on ratiocination. She is able to blend in at almost every level of society; she came from a good family but she worked as a barmaid in her early years. She sympathizes with a number of those she must capture and, in at least one case, she helps him. Mrs. Paschal is determined in her pursuit. She believes in -- and is proud of -- her job. (She often reveals herself as "a lady detective!" to the amazement of the culprit, who (depending on the culprit) either wonders at such a thing, or who has heard of the remarkable successes of lady detectives.
The stories are interesting while not being the best written. They should be taken with full awareness of their limitations and of the prejudices of the time. With that in mind, perhaps you will enjoy them as much as I did.