A Female Sherlock Holmes? From Detectives to Dogs

On 18 May 1894, the new premises of the Women Writers Club were opened at Norfolk Street in the Strand area of London. The event gathered substantial media attention, with the new rooms opened by Princess Christian, wearing “a dress of pale fawn cloth made with a waistcoat of white corded silk sprigged with deep mauve flowers, and a black lace bonnet trimmed with flowers of a paler mauve,” and guests included literary celebrities including Eliza Lynn Linton, Mrs Humphry Ward, Israel Zangwill, and Thomas Hardy. The ceremony ended with a presentation in which in which “the Lady Detective Loveday Brooke presented the Princess with the published volume of her experiences, which was graciously accepted.” There was, however, one problem with this widely reported story: Loveday Brooke, the lady detective, did not actually exist.

Loveday Brooke was, in fact, the fictional creation of Catherine Louisa Pirkis, a moderately successful author of Victorian romance fiction, who had turned to the increasingly popular genre of detective fiction for the serial The Experiences of Loveday Brooke, Lady Detective, first published as a series of short stories in the Ludgate Monthly magazine in 1893-4. Pirkis’ stories were just one of many periodical detective series that rushed to fill the gap left by Arthur Conan Doyle following his killing off of Sherlock Holmes in 1893, and indeed Loveday Brooke never quite escaped from Holmes’ shadow, a situation not entirely helped by the stories being advertisedas the cases of “A Female Sherlock Holmes.” Most reviews were positive, although the Pall Mall Gazette’s comparison of Brooke to Holmes was uncharitable:

The idea is the same as Mr Conan Doyle’s, though no doubt prompted by an uneasy desire to avoid the charge of plagiarism, the author has made his [sic] central figure a lady detective; but somehow the interest is wanting. As moonlight is to sunlight, and as water is to wine, so are the methods of Loveday Brooke compared with those of Sherlock Holmes. The fact is, we get wearied with these stories…. [t]he recipe is invariable: avoid the obvious criminal: connect your case if possible with some absolutely irrelevant advertisement read by chance in the morning paper: score off everyone all round, but remember last of all that it is possible even for an amateur detective to be a bore.

The Pall Mall Gazette’s confusion over Pirkis’ gender was a recurrent theme of reviews (and potentially accounts for the journalistic errors in the reporting of the Women Writers Club ceremony). The Liverpool Mercury ascribed the Experiences to “Mr Parkes” (Literary Notes 7) and the Dundee Courier and Argus to “Mr Perkis.” The Speaker did slightly better in getting Pirkis’ surname correct, but still insisted that the author was male.

Yet while publicity for Loveday Brooke attempted to use the Holmes brand to attract attention, the comparison of Brooke to Holmes downplayed the ways in which Pirkis’ detective differed from Doyle’s. Some of the stories covered the familiar Doylean ground of jewel theft and royal intrigue, but there was a more religious (and occasionally apocalyptic) subtext to Brooke’s cases; in one story, she investigates a Millennial sect; in others, she infiltrates religious sisterhoods and investigates reports of ghost sightings. While Doyle’s detective placed emphasis on an (often spurious) rational reasoning, occasionally solving crimes without even leaving Baker Street, Loveday Brooke often goes undercover. While Holmes famously used disguises, these were often offstage; the Brooke stories, by contrast, follow her as she takes on a variety of roles. In this, Pirkis plays into a familiar trope of the 1890s lady detective as actress, seen in George R. Sims’ Dorcas Dene, Detective (1897).Of course, the late Victorian actress, like the late Victorian detective, was a figure of fascination but also of suspicion; both characters could cross boundaries (both geographically and socially) at will.

One of the Loveday Brooke stories intersects neatly with what would become Catherine Pirkis’ more famous legacy. In “The Murder at Troyte’s Hill”, Brooke investigates the death of a servant found dead in a disarrayed room that recalls Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” During her investigations, Pirkis also finds the body of a recently killed dog. Brooke concludes that both were killed by the master of the house, a philologist whose attempt to identify the fundamental sounds of language (and in particular the sound of fear) have led him to experiment first on animals, and then on humans. Pirkis’ story thus fits into a fin de siècle subgenre of (anti)vivisectionist fiction, which I discuss in more detail in Purity and Contamination in Late Victorian Detective Fiction. Pirkis was a dedicated anti-vivisectionist, and as such her most famous cultural contribution was not the Loveday Brooke stories, but the establishment (with her husband Frederick) of the National Canine Defence League in 1891, a body which continues to this day as the Dogs’ Trust.

You can read more of Dr Pittard’s research on Loveday Brooke in a special issue of Humanities on ‘The Victorian Art of Murder’ (edited by Neil McCaw), here:

< https://www.mdpi.com/2076-0787/7/3/65 >

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