If you read this blog, chances are you’re a fan of the girl detective. Whether you just discovered Myrtle Hardcastle or grew up with Nancy Drew, you are enjoying a breed of sleuth that has been entertaining readers and outwitting criminals since the earliest days of detective fiction.
Like many things we’ve discussed on #MyrtleMondays, it should be no surprise to learn that girl detectives are an invention of the Victorian era. The first young detective—at least in name—was 1866’s Ernest Keen, Boy Detective, who starred in dozens of penny dreadful adventures, although his actual crime-solving was minimal. As detective fiction gained in popularity, female detectives—usually professionals—soon joined the game, with their younger counterparts to follow.
As historian Lucy Worsley explains in The Art of the English Murder, these female detectives allowed girls to explore identities that may have been out of reach in a real life that expected girls and women to stay at home while their brothers were gallivanting about in the world. They also present the perfect subterfuge. Easily dismissed or overlooked, girl detectives can take their criminal foes (and police colleagues) by surprise, uncovering clues the men have missed, and making the comeuppance all the more satisfying for the reader.
I have several of these early sleuths to share with you in the coming weeks! You’ll see that they’re very much the products of their era, yet still offered their readers an escape into a world of high adventure.
Today I’ll introduce you to one of the earliest girl detectives, New York Nell.
New York Nell, the Boy-Girl Detective by Edward Lytton Wheeler hit the pages of American dime novels in 1880. Irrepressible teen Nell Niblo cheerfully disguises herself as a boy and unravels a scheme to defraud the heir to a fortune. In true penny-dreadful/dime novel fashion, Nell races up and down the east coast, from Philadelphia to New York, brandishing pistols and even re-disguising herself as a proper young lady of quality when necessary. Nell’s versatility allows her to move between the rugged street and refined drawing room—while also rather overtly commenting on the “unfeminine” nature of girls involved in the gritty world of crime.
You can read New-York Nell: The Boy-Girl Detective here at the Dime Novel Library at the Northern University of Illinois.