Pistols and Petticoats: 175 Years of Lady Detectives in Fact and Fiction by Erika Janik
Published by Beacon Press on February 28th 2017
Genres: History, Mystery, Non-Fiction
Length: 248 pages Source: LibraryThing Early Reviewers
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A lively exploration of the struggles faced by women in law enforcement and mystery fiction for the past 175 years
In 1910, Alice Wells took the oath to join the all-male Los Angeles Police Department. She wore no uniform, carried no weapon, and kept her badge stuffed in her pocketbook. She wasn't the first or only policewoman, but she became the movement's most visible voice.
Police work from its very beginning was considered a male domain, far too dangerous and rough for a respectable woman to even contemplate doing, much less take on as a profession. A policewoman worked outside the home, walking dangerous city streets late at night to confront burglars, drunks, scam artists, and prostitutes. To solve crimes, she observed, collected evidence, and used reason and logic--traits typically associated with men. And most controversially of all, she had a purpose separate from her husband, children, and home. Women who donned the badge faced harassment and discrimination. It would take more than seventy years for women to enter the force as full-fledged officers.
Yet within the covers of popular fiction, women not only wrote mysteries but also created female characters that handily solved crimes. Smart, independent, and courageous, these nineteenth- and early twentieth-century female sleuths (including a healthy number created by male writers) set the stage for Agatha Christie's Miss Marple, Sara Paretsky's V. I. Warshawski, Patricia Cornwell's Kay Scarpetta, and Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone, as well as TV detectives such as Prime Suspect's Jane Tennison and Law and Order's Olivia Benson. The authors were not amateurs dabbling in detection but professional writers who helped define the genre and competed with men, often to greater success.
Pistols and Petticoats tells the story of women's very early place in crime fiction and their public crusade to transform policing. Whether real or fictional, investigating women were nearly always at odds with society. Most women refused to let that stop them, paving the way to a modern professional life for women on the force and in popular culture.
Disclaimer: I received this book for free from LibraryThing Early Reviewers and Beacon Press in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
Erika Janik seems to me like the type of person who learns a fact, then gets really excited about it and learns everything possible about the subject. She is clearly enthusiastic and while I found Pistols and Petticoats interesting, it was a little too ambitious and scattered for my tastes.
There are several ways to format any non-fiction work. My experience in historical works is that they are approached from a chronological point-of-view. Janik, instead, chooses to take the route of division of subject matter. There are chapters about the first women in real life and fiction, there are chapters about uniforms and dress, job requirements, the social stigmas of being in law enforcement and so forth. If I were a researcher looking for a specific body of information, this would be quite useful. From a read-through standpoint, however, it makes the work feel scattered. Names come up time and again and are not always reintroduced so I would have to keep jumping back to figure out who she was talking about.
Speaking of names, there are a lot of them. Tackling both real-world women and fictional ones, and their authors is a fairly ambitious topic for so small a book and there are a lot of condensed facts. If anything, I would have advised breaking this work into three separate sections and tackling each angle one at a time, just for the reader’s sake. Having to go back and fact check on fictional vs. real life women definitely disrupted the flow.
Detail is something Janik offers in spades. It is immediately clear how passionate she is about her subject, and her desire to share every little bit of what she has learned. There is absolutely nothing vague about her work – you want detail? You got it.
Women in law enforcement is an interesting subject and I do appreciate how Janik has tried to offer even more illumination by wrangling the likes of Miss Marple and Nancy Drew into the mix. I think I was more interested in the history of female detectives in fiction than I was in the real life women, although the included image section in the middle of the book was a nice touch. I never knew, for example, that L. Frank Baum had written a series of adventuring women. I don’t know how thoroughly this subject has been approached before, or if there are any other books quite like this one, but Janik’s passion certainly presents an interesting subject.
I think there are about twenty pages of source material and references in the appendix of this book, and all are great for those who found this book interesting, but wanted to dive more deeply into a singular section of the material – women’s treatment in prisons, for example. Janik is very well researched.
Overall, I just wasn’t blown away by this book. I will not deny that Janik knows her source material and knows it well, and the subject is interesting… but I found the readability very difficult for me. I know this isn’t always evident from my blog and reviews on Goodreads, but I have ready a fair amount of historical non-fiction and don’t attribute the difficulty in reading this to a change in flow from fiction to non-fiction. In fact, I find that formats like this are the types that steer laymen away from history – there are so many names and dates and not a clear lineage of growth of the story (and yes, historical non-fiction definitely has a story). Pistols and Petticoats is a fine book for academics to pick up and peruse, but it may be less accessible to those unprepared to jump into a lot of scattered detail.
“With high heels clicking across the hardwood floors, the diminutive woman from Chicago strode into the headquarters of the New York City police.”
“”Another woman, Vera Bash, found herself out of a job in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, after opponents found her too attractive to be effective at policing. “Her beauty interfered with her work,” reported the Portsmouth Herald. “The presumption is that no one had the hardness of heart to tell the young woman that beauty is not an asset to the Police Department.” “
“Americans focused more on leisure and entertainment than on lobbying and petitioning, as reform movements of all kinds lost steam.”
“Florence Dempsey, played by Torchy Blane actress Glenda Farrell, goes so far as to memorably declare to her friend Charlotte in The Mystery of the Wax Museum, “You raise the kids; I’ll raise the roof!””