Tuesday, May 03, 2016

Pistols and Petticoats by Erika Janik

The subtitle of Erika Janik's nonfiction book, Pistols and Petticoats, is "175 Years of Lady Detectives in Fact and Fiction". Although the two subjects should fit together perfectly, they didn't seem to flow as well as they should have in the book. However, if you are interested either in the role of women as police officers and private investigators, or their role in literature, Janik provides an excellent history lesson.

Manik claims the history of interest in crime literature went hand-in-hand with the history of the police, beginning with Robert Peel's establishment of the Metropolitan Police in London in 1829. In the United States, Allan Pinkerton was his own best advertisement, hiring a woman as a detective in 1856, and writing detective novels. But, it was Anna Katherine Green who introduced the first popular female detective in literature, Amelia Butterworth. The "spinster sleuth" made her first appearance in Green's novel, That Affair Next Door, in 1897. Green introduced elderly spinster sleuths and young female sleuths, influencing many authors that came after her.

But, that's my problem with this book. Although Janik tells the story of the development of female sleuths from the 1890s spinster sleuth through the popular girl sleuths to the tougher detectives written by Marcia Muller and Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky in the late 70s and 80s, she spends much more time discussing the history of women in the police force, beginning with those hired as matrons who were to exemplify mothers and social workers. Those sections of the books, alternating with the history of mysteries, were extremely dry, and very lengthy. And, unfortunately, women have made more progress in fiction than in reality.

Although Janik is an award-winning writer and historian, I felt as if, in this case, her interest was actually in the reality of women in the police force.  She went into extensive detail as to the history, throughout the United States, of women working for police departments. She covered the social movements, the wars, the lawsuits that put them in those positions. The history of women in mysteries almost seemed to be an afterthought. There was very little in that second history, lady detectives in fiction, that was new to me. The sections about lady detectives "in fact" seemed dry and repetitious.

Pistols and Petticoats was an interesting concept. It just didn't work for me in reality.

Pistols and Petticoats: 175 Years of Lady Detectives in Fact and Fiction by Erika Janik. Beacon Press. 2016. ISBN 9780807038380 (hardcover), 238p.

FTC Full Disclosure - I bought my copy of the book.


Carol N Wong said...

Disappointing, now I feel better about not winning it. Thank you for this review!

Lesa said...

You're welcome, Carol. It was just OK. Don't worry about it.