Erika Janik is the author of the new book Pistols and Petticoats: 175 Years of Lady Detectives in Fact and Fiction. Her other books include Marketplace of the Marvelous and Apple. She is the executive producer of Wisconsin Life on Wisconsin Public Radio, and she lives in Madison, Wisconsin.
Q: How did you get interested in the topic of female detectives, and why did you decide to write a book about them?
A: Even though I grew up reading some detective books and watching Sherlock Holmes movies with my Dad (Basil Rathbone for the win), this book really began when I ran across an ad from around 1900 for a female private eye in Chicago.
In the ad, she said she could solve any case but really marketed herself to other women, asserting, in part, that she would do a better job with women’s cases because she was a woman herself.
I was surprised to see that a woman was running her own agency (and that there weren’t outraged letters about it in the newspaper!) at that time so I started looking deeper into women in detection.
Something that motivates much of my work is what I call “women in unexpected places.” I like to tell stories about women that I – and I suspect a lot of other people – hadn’t heard about before.
I also realized that while I’d given plenty of thought to Cherry Ames and Trixie Belden, I’d never stopped to wonder about real women in detection.
Q: What are some of the similarities and differences between the actual work these women did and they way they were portrayed in crime novels?
A: This changes over time but one of the biggest differences is the type of cases that women solve. In fiction, female detectives solve murders and foil thieves. In real life, women returned runaway children to their parents and stopped pickpockets in department stores.
The pioneer generation of policewomen and detectives saw themselves as protectors of women and children. They argued that women had a different role to play in law enforcement than men and carved out a niche for themselves as essentially “mothers” with badges. They didn’t wear uniforms. They didn’t carry guns. Many of them were mothers with grown children or were widowed.
Fictional female detectives in the early years tended to be skilled amateurs who detected on the side, often in conflict with the professional male detective brought in to solve the case. These women tended to be either spinsters or young women without families and households to look after so they have time to detect.
These young women often end up married at the end of the story, which is the end of their detecting careers. Spinsters tended to have longer careers, and found quite a lot of clues knitting, gardening, bird watching, and generally keeping an eye on the neighborhood.
One thing both real and fictional women had in common is being underestimated by the men they work with and for. But the person no one suspects of being a detective is often the best detective of all. Women prove themselves to be highly competent detectives in both arenas.
Q: What would you say are some of the biggest changes over the years in the work female detectives performed?
A: The protective role that the pioneer generation of women fought for begins to give way in the 20th century to a role more on par with the male police and detectives.
Men didn’t welcome women in, however. Women had to fight for their spot on police forces in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and had to fight again, often through court cases, to earn the right to stand for promotion, to go on patrol, and to have an equal role as men in the 1960s and 1970s. Many women didn’t even have a standard uniform until late in the 20th century.
You see these changes reflected on the page as well, particularly in the 1970s with the new breed of female detectives like Kinsey Millhone and Sharon McCone who are tough, urban detectives more like Chandler’s Philip Marlowe than Miss Marple. You also start to see the police procedural style story where women are part of a professional team solving crimes.
Q: How did you research the book, and what surprised you most in the course of your research?
A: I read a lot of 19th century detective stories for one, and combed through decades of newspapers looking for women. The good news in writing about real women detectives is that they were so rare and such an astonishing sight in the early 20th century that almost everything they did made the newspaper.
When 10 women joined the police department in Chicago in 1912, reporters eager to record their every move followed them around the city waiting for them to arrest someone. The image of a woman wielding any kind of police authority was a newsworthy, and often ridiculous, sight in the first half of the 20th century.
The most surprising thing to me is how early the first female detectives appear in fiction – two in 1864 – and that women writers were so prominent in the thrillers, sensation, and Gothic novels that really laid the foundation for detective stories.
It was also thrilling to learn about Kate Warne, the first known female private eye, who went to work for Pinkerton in the 1850s and was involved in high-profile cases, including one involving Abraham Lincoln.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m exploring a few different stories right now but nothing definite. Rest assured, women blazing trails will play a strong part.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I think that in the current fictional landscape of detection – movies, television, books – it would be easy to think that there is a woman on every police force in the country.
But in reality, only about 12 percent of police officers are women in the United States and 15 percent of homicide detectives are women. We have a long way to go to make reality match fiction.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb