Back to Book Reviews

Back to Cercles



Pistols and Petticoats

175 Years of Lady Detectives in Fact and Fiction


Erika Janik


Boston: Beacon Press, 2016

Paperback. vi+238 p. ISBN 978-0807047880. $18


Reviewed by Christophe Gelly

Université Clermont Auvergne




Erika Janik’s essay is a well-informed study of the emergence of a female class of investigators and law enforcers both in actual history and in the field of fiction. The interest of the text is, let it be said immediately, primarily historical and cultural and the literary analysis properly speaking is confined to a relatively small number of sections, primarily dealing either with relatively unknown authors (whom Ms. Janik introduces to her reader in a very convincing way) or with major figures of the genre (Raymond Chandler, e.g.) on whom the text is maybe not so innovative. The essay develops chronologically from the first “prison matrons” (Chapter 3, “Sisterhood Behind Bars”) to the first female sleuths and the first “policewomen” (a term which took a significant amount of years to come into full usage), and intersperses this historical survey with constant returns to the evolution of fiction towards the changes in society—an evolution which is by no means totally linear and which alternates passages in which fiction is ahead of the social movements with passages in which it is rather lagging behind.

In so far as the purpose of this essay is to trace back our fascination with legal procedure and / or criminal investigation to the period in which the public image of the police in general and the recruitment of police officers in particular became a matter of widespread interest, Pistols and Petticoats is successful and generally it is agreeable reading too, thanks to the great number of anecdotes and historical examples which Ms. Janik takes care to select in each chapter. But the reader cannot help experiencing a feeling of repetition in the course of the several sections which are bound to recount the various back and forth movements—more politically speaking, the liberal and conservative trends—in reaction to this entrance of women into the field of law enforcement, whether private or public. This feeling of repetition also proceeds from a specific choice made by the author, which is to illustrate the development of her topic through individual examples taken from the history of criminal investigation and police institutions. Thus, if it is perfectly understandable that an important section should be devoted to Allan Pinkerton’s agency [20-24], Ms. Janik resorts to individual examples of female private or public investigators all too often not to suggest an element of fragmentation in her argumentation, which sometimes can be likened to a catalogue of such examples. This is also the case for writers whose names and various stories are quoted and quickly described, not always with a very clear presentation of the place they fit in regarding the evolution of the image of policewomen. These series of real-life and fictional sleuths make the essay rather agreeable reading but not always rewarding from a more academic—historiographical or literary—standpoint.

A number of topics are yet broached which are very worth looking into in details. The first of them, very much suggested by the subtitle of the essay, is the interaction between fact and fiction. It is very significant, indeed, that the evolution of social apprehension of policing women should be announced, confirmed, denied, censured or approved of by the fictional representations of such characters. This is noticed by Ms. Janik for instance on p. 115, where she remarks that although mothers and wives were not to be found in fiction in the role of sleuths, the reverse was true in real life. However, that interaction between fiction and reality as it is represented in the texts themselves, in other words the reflexivity of detective fiction in its relation to reality—the quality of the generic texts as comments on the very nature of writing towards reality—is never referred to in the essay. Some very recognized academic work is yet available on that chapter,(1) and could have been integrated to the cultural perspective profitably. More generally, the specifically literary evolution in the body of texts bearing on female investigation that is referred to is never made clear. For instance, the study of Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled variation on the classical whodunit stories is examined largely from the viewpoint of contents [129] with a view to comparing the American writer with the “game aesthetics” that prevailed among the Golden Age crime writers. It is a pity, then, that the very significant change in narrating technique operated in Chandler’s novels—the shift to the first-person narration associated with an impersonal, external point of view inherited largely from Ernest Hemingway—is never approached in the essay whereas this shift constitutes a defining trait of the hardboiled genre, and could have been integrated in the argument on the evolution of representation of policing characters in connection with changing generic patterns.

By and large, yet, the cultural approach in the essay is rather convincing when it comes to identifying the various contradictions in the social evolution of the status and reception of policing women, whether private investigators or police officers. For instance, Ms. Janik shows very clearly that some of the real-life or fictional sleuths that paved the way to more radical forays into equal treatment between men and women were in fact rather opposed to any association with feminism. She also establishes interesting parallels between white policewomen and black policewomen [109, 176]. Most importantly, she shows that class struggles are also underlying the difficult emergence of policewomen as a professional category, pointing out how very influential some prejudices were in the representational strategies associated with this topic in public debates or in the press. Thus she shows that the public expected different reactions to criminals from female police officers, and the fulfilment of some kind of motherly role, as in the case of the prison matrons [74]; she also shows that the policewomen issued from the ranks of the “New Women” at the beginning of the 20th century were more likely to belong to the middle class when they entered the institution, compared to men [89]. Other interesting topics are also broached, such as the correlation between spinsterhood and working as a policewoman, and the evolution of this correlation is approached in a convincing way too. Despite minor details, such as some problematic footnote references, the editorial work that has been done on this study is quite satisfactory. But some elements still seem problematic and testify to some lack in totally clear argumentation—for instance, the study of fictional series staging female sleuths posits than “gender changes meaning” [191]. The kind of changes that is implied here is never fully developed in terms of reception and the history of it, beyond the suggestion that the audience is bound to have changed in proportion to our modern heightened sensitivity to violence exerted against women. Despite these reservations, Ms. Janik’s essay is composed in a very open-minded spirit generally, and it rightly stresses the necessary distance between actual social evolution and representational choices in fiction. As such it constitutes a good introduction to the history of the detective genre from the viewpoint of cultural studies.


(1) See for example S.E. Sweeney, "Locked Rooms : Detective Fiction, Narrative Theory, and Self-Reflexivity”, in The Cunning Craft : Original Essays on Detective Fiction and Contemporary Literary Theory, Ronald G. Walker & June M. Frazer (eds.), Macomb, Ill: Essays in Literature, 1990 : 1-14; and Ronald R. Thomas, “Making Darkness Visible : Imagining the Criminal and Observing the Law in Victorian Photography and Detective Fiction”, in Victorian Literature and the Victorian Visual Imagination, John O. Jordan & Carol Christ (eds.), University of California Press, 1995 : 134-168.


Cercles © 2017

All rights are reserved and no reproduction from this site for whatever purpose is permitted without the permission of the copyright owner.

Please contact us before using any material on this website.