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Pirkis, CL

Page history last edited by Jon 10 years, 9 months ago

Loveday Brooke

Catherine Louisa Pirkis (1839 - 1910) was a British writer. She was the granddaughter of the Reverend Richard Lyne, who wrote both a Latin grammar and a primer then in widespread use. She married a naval officer and wrote a total of fourteen books, of which The Experiences of Loveday Brooke, Lady Detective (1894), was the last. With the end of her writing career, she began to devote herself to "good works"; with her husband she founded the National Canine Defence League, which is still today active in Great Britain.


The Experiences of Loveday Brooke is available here.


A detailed review of the Loveday Brooke stories by Chris Willis can be found here.


Mike Grost on CL Pirkis


Catherine Louisa Pirkis' Loveday Brooke tales (1894) seem partly in the tradition of 1860's British casebook literature, partly puzzle plot stories showing the influence of Sherlock Holmes. Loveday is a professional detective who mainly investigates robberies. She shows up undercover in some new identity in a household or a neighborhood, asking questions and sneaking up on suspects. All of this is right out of the casebook tradition. But her two best stories involve puzzle plots, and both have the surprise solutions of puzzle plots in general, and the Holmes stories in particular.


Pirkis' best stories involve three stages. The first is the setting forth of the mystery; the last is the solution. In between is an episode in which Loveday elaborately interferes in the activities of the culprits, leading to their neutralization and capture. This can become ingeniously complex. "It's all so intricate - so bewildering", one character exclaims as Loveday explains it all to him, in "Drawn Daggers". This stage of mystery fiction seems to be unique to Pirkis. It has its roots in the casebook school - all the casebook detectives had to not just identify the criminal, but lay traps to catch him, (unlike Golden Age detectives, in which the revelation of the killer's identity usually led swiftly to his arrest). Still, Pirkis has developed this into something personal and ingenious.


Pirkis' poorer stories suffer from a lack of what would later be called "fair play". While it is perhaps unfair to judge an earlier writer by the norms of a later age, Pirkis' lesser mysteries (e.g. "Missing!") sometimes have solutions that come at the reader completely out of left field, involving elaborate early histories of the characters or other events that have been completely unprepared for in the tale. The solutions can also involve deductions from clues that have never been shared with the reader. Fair play is sometimes treated today by critics as a campy remnant of a stiff upper lip era of British sportsmanship - good form, and all that. I wish to vehemently disagree. Fair play is deeply embedded in the logic of the mystery form itself. It has nothing to do with manners or social customs or even morality. Instead, the mystery as an art form depends on the logical unfolding of solutions to puzzling events. Unless the solution is logically deductible from the information provided in the earlier parts of the story, the mystery logically falls apart. By the 1920's people began to understand this as an explicit principle of mystery construction, although the principle had been used implicitly much earlier by authors, such as Conan Doyle. It had also been set forth by Israel Zangwill in his 1895 introduction to The Big Bow Mystery (1891), although Zangwill did not use the actual name "fair play". It applies to virtually any tale that involves a mystery, and is not restricted to any one school of detective fiction. (Of course, it is inapplicable and irrelevant to crime novels, books that tell the story of a crime without any mystery in their plots.) The principle is related to the general aesthetic principle of "artistic unity", the idea that all parts of a work of art should work together to create a logically coherent effect. The concept of fair play goes beyond that of artistic unity, however, in that a work of art can lack artistic unity, and still be made up of outstanding pieces, whereas a mystery tale that ignores fair play will probably just be an incoherent mess. The name "fair play" for this principle is perhaps mildly unfortunate. It suggests good sportsmanship and/or honesty, two things highly desirable in themselves, but which actually have little to do with fair play, in the detectival sense.


All of the Loveday stories show a feminist point of view. Women in the tales are often struggling to get out from under male control. This control is often used to lead them into crime or corruption, something the women are struggling to avoid. Society's sympathy for men and lack of sympathy for women is shown to be often deeply misguided, from a moral point of view - not to mention a good source for detective plots. Loveday herself is shown to be a highly professional, intelligent detective. This is one of the most "liberated" portraits in detective fiction history, even by the standards of the 1990's.


Pirkis' religious points of view come through loud and clear in the tales, as well. She admired what she called "practical Christianity": doing good works and charitable activities. She disliked what she called "religious hysteria" and cult groups. She saw the "millennial" sects of the 1890's as purely bad. Pirkis also admired independent thinking, and warned of the dangers of blindly following charismatic leaders.


"The Ghost of Fountain Lane" is an early story in which the detective investigates two seemingly unrelated cases, which gradually coalesce and prove to be linked. Raymond Chandler did this in Farewell, My Lovely (1940), and it has been common in modern private eye and police procedural books. I have no idea who was the first person to write such a mystery story.


Pirkis' two best tales are such triumphs in the history of detective fiction that one wishes she had written much more in our genre. She seems to have turned to detective fiction because it was what was selling in the 1890's, after the success of the Holmes stories. (See remarks in "The Redhill Sisterhood".) Perhaps there are other important Pirkis tales among her uncollected magazine short stories.


Bernard Higham's illustrations to Loveday Brooke are halfway between Sir John Tenniel, and the sort of Victorian narrative art burlesqued in Herriman's Krazy Kat comic strip. There are the props like clocks and food on the table, sentimental portraits of sad heroines and heroes that merely look a bit wimpy by today's standards, an interest in staged tableaux, and an overdone emotionalism in the hand gestures - all part of the Kat tradition. Despite all of this, Higham was not a bad artist. He did have the ability to create his own world. His sentimental pictures seem at odds with Pirkis' forceful, dynamic characters. There is something clean cut and straightforward about Pirkis that seems antithetical to all this Victorian folderol.



The Experiences of Loveday Brooke, Lady Detective (1894)


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