Her name was Mrs. Paschal - no first name was ever given. She made literary history in 1864 by becoming only the second female detective ever to appear in a novel. The book was called Revelations of a Lady Detective, by William Stephens Hayward, and it is the subject of today's audio review on the Classic Mysteries podcast. You can listen to the full review by clicking here.
Mrs. Paschal was indeed a woman ahead of her time - it wasn't until 1883 that the English police began hiring women. But Mrs. Paschal's fictional exploits certainly proved popular with the reading public two decades earlier. A widow, left in dire financial straits by the death of her husband, Mrs. Paschal chose to put herself in what, at the time, was certainly not considered "a woman's work." In these stories, she works often with the official police force, though she also occasionally makes herself available as a private detective.
Revelations of a Lady Detective is a collection of ten episodes featuring Mrs. Paschal, a lady adept at disguising herself when she needs to go unrecognized, willing to use a gun if necessary, and quite good at following the clues uncovered and developed by her own intuition. She thinks nothing of following an apparent thief through secret passageways that take her into a room filled with treasure, or spying on a murderous secret society, or uncovering the evils of a kidnapping plot. She deals with murder, but also with lesser crimes, such as robbery, and even with a case of mistaken identity.
I suspect that a lot of readers will come across situations in this book which sound to them like cliches. Remember, however, that they were most certainly not cliches at the time they were written, for this book is among the very first crime novels of any kind. Mrs. Paschal herself is a memorable character, tough, but with a kind heart. Revelations of a Lady Detective has just been republished by the British Library with a new introduction by Mike Ashley, and the University of Chicago Press is distributing the book both in paper and as an e-book and provided me with a copy for this review. This book is far more than merely a literary curiosity - it is a collection of thoroughly entertaining tales about a woman who really was a pioneer in a field where Victorian women simply were not expected to tread.
I am entering Revelations of a Lady Detective in the Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge under way at the My Reader's Block blog, in the category "Wicked Women" - being fairly sure that, to a lot of Victorian readers, Mrs. Paschal probably fit the category as well!