When M. Ruth Myers and I discovered we were both promoting books in our respective historical mystery series at the same time, we thought how much fun it would be to compare the responses our female sleuths from different historical periods would make to the same questions. (This is reposted from a two part series on M. Louisa Locke’s and M. Ruth Myers’ blogs.)
On the surface, Mrs. Annie Fuller, the protagonist in my Victorian San Francisco Mystery series, is a rather typical 19th century widowed woman who supports herself by running a boarding house. The fact that she supplements her income as the pretend clairvoyant, Madam Sibyl, is a secret she must protect in order to preserve her reputation as a respectable lady.
In contrast, in M. Ruth Myer’s award winning series, her protagonist, Maggie Sullivan, is proud of her profession as private eye. Living in Depression-era Dayton, Ohio, Miss Sullivan drives a DeSoto, carries a .38, and isn’t ashamed to admit she likes an occasional nip of gin.
In short, you might imagine that Miss Maggie Sullivan couldn’t be more different than my genteel Mrs. Annie Fuller.
Well, let’s just see, as we ask them a series of questions.
ANNIE: Although I know that there are such things as female investigators who work for the Pinkerton Agency, I am strictly an amateur. In fact, it is my occupation as the clairvoyant Madam Sibyl, giving out financial advice to wealthy San Francisco businessmen, which got me involved in solving crimes. When one of my favorite clients died under suspicious circumstances, I decided to go undercover as a servant in his household to find out who killed him (and recover his missing assets.)
MAGGIE: My dad was a cop, so I grew up around cops from the time I knew how to toddle. I wanted to do what they did, but I wasn’t very good at following rules the way policemen had to. Then a woman in our neighborhood killed herself after her husband skipped out and she heard rumors he might have another family down in Cincinnati. My dad said if she’d been able to hire a detective and find out for sure, it might not have happened. I decided that’s what I wanted to do, to help people like that.
2. What is your relationship with local law enforcement like?
MAGGIE: Way too many of them try to mother hen me because they watched me grow up. Half the others, I went to school with. I get along fine with everyone on the force except two. One made a pass at me and I had to hurt him where it counted to convince him No meant No. The other’s the head of homicide, who clings to the notion I find things out by batting my eyes instead of using my brain. Nobody slips me information and I never ask for special favors – although I’ve been known to trick people into inadvertently letting a tidbit drop now and then.
ANNIE: Actually, I have tried very hard not to have my activities as an investigator come to the official attention of the San Francisco authorities, since any public recognition of my involvement would damage my reputation as a lady. All formal connections with the police have come through the San Francisco lawyer, Nathaniel Dawson, and Patrick McGee, a local patrolman, who happens to be my cook’s nephew. They have both proven to be invaluable collaborators in my investigations.
3. How do clients hear about your services?
ANNIE: Several of my first cases came from people who live in the boarding house I run who asked for my help, and Mr. Dawson has kindly brought me in to assist people that his law firm was hired to represent. Recently, it has been my growing reputation as an accountant who can ferret out financial wrong-doing that has led people to ask for my assistance.
MAGGIE: Many of my clients come to me through word of mouth. Some come because they’ve seen my number in the telephone directory. One even came to me because she found my business card in a library book.
4. Are there any ways in which being a woman gives you an edge over a man in pursuing your cases?
MAGGIE: Sure, several. It doesn’t occur to most people that a woman could be a private eye. That means I can blend in. Men, even when they find out what I do, tend to underestimate me. Women, on the other hand, are more likely to talk to me than they would a man. Sometimes I have to let them chatter on to sift out a tidbit or two. Men don’t have that kind of patience. Mostly they don’t even think of questioning the likes of manicurists and cigarette girls because such women are invisible to them.
ANNIE: I must say I agree with Miss Sullivan, that the fact that people tend to underestimate or over look me as a woman gives me an edge. It was amazing what I learned when I pretended to be a female domestic…people simply didn’t notice I was in the room. Women have to be observant to survive in a world dominated by men, so despite my relative youth, I have learned how to read the unspoken meanings behind a person’s clothing, the way they hold their bodies, and their facial expressions. And I can ask the kind of questions that would be seen as suspicious or rude, if I were a man, because I am perceived as just a gossipy woman.
5: In a tight spot, how do you hold your own against a man who’s bigger, heavier, stronger?
MAGGIE: My first line of defense is awareness of my surroundings – people on the street, whether I’ve seen a car behind me before — and using my wits. Sometimes just confronting someone is enough to make them back off. I don’t like scars on my face any more than the next girl, so if I get backed into a corner I throw a mean punch. Making a man drop his trousers around his ankles takes a lot of the tough out and keeps him from moving unexpectedly. Of course that generally requires persuasion from my .38 Smith & Wesson. When necessary I use it for more than persuasion.
ANNIE: One of the things I have learned the hard way is not to go alone into potentially dangerous situations. For a woman, there is safety in numbers…even if the other people are other women. It is amazing what two or three determined women can do against a single man. You just have to be clever about these things, think ahead. However, since my father taught me to shoot when I was a girl growing up on our ranch outside of Los Angeles, I have been tempted to buy a small derringer.
6. What’s the biggest misconception men have about women in your era?
ANNIE: That we are too unintelligent to take care of ourselves. I hate to be so blunt. But as someone who had to sit by and watch my first husband squander away my fortune rather than take my advice, forcing me into five wretched years of financial dependence on my in-laws, I am a bit bitter. Then the whole reason I became Madam Sibyl, the clairvoyant, is that men would rather believe that my business advice comes from my ability to read the lines on their palms than from my excellent training and the solid research I do. Very frustrating. Thank goodness, a few men in my life, like the lawyer Nate Dawson, have been willing to recognize that I am their equal intellectually and that I can take care of myself.
MAGGIE: That we’re less competent than they are just because of our gender. That we’re smart enough to put on lipstick, but not to do as well at any job we choose as a man. Hand-in-hand with that is the notion that when we do work, it’s just to mark time until we meet the right fellow, because what we really want, even if we’re too silly to know it, is to settle down and have a family.
7. Of the people in your life, whom do you trust most?
MAGGIE: Seamus Hanlon, a cop who’s nearing retirement age. He was one of my Dad’s closest friends, and has been a part of my life as far back as I remember. I’ve never asked him to do me a favor, or to risk life and limb for me, but I know he would. At some point in the series, he’s going to, in fact. What I cherish him most for is that he never judges me or tells me what to do. He’s just there. A rock. Always.
ANNIE: It may be difficult for many people of my social class to understand, but the people in my life I trust the most are domestic servants. Beatrice O’Rourke, my cook and housekeeper, and Kathleen Hennessey, my personal maid, have always been there for me, helping me run the boarding house, even helping me solve crimes. And then there is the Chinese manservant, Mr. Wong, who I met on my first case. I swear I have never met a man of such kindness and integrity. Unlike many of the men and women of my class who seem to spend all their time pretending to be something they are not, these hard working but often despised individuals don’t waste time with artifice…and I would (and have had to) trust them with my life.
8. What gadget would you like to see invented to help you as a detective?
ANNIE: Only two years ago, a new-fangled invention called the telephone was introduced in San Francisco. This gadget magically permits you to speak to someone over some distance. They are expensive to install, so only a few wealthy families have them, and as far as I can tell they mostly use them to order meat from the butcher or call a doctor in an emergency. But I can tell you it would certainly make my job easier if these telephones were available everywhere. No depending on some errand boy to run across town to deliver a message, or waiting a day for a letter to arrive, or trying to say all you need in a few words for a telegraph message.
MAGGIE: I wish someone would come up with a telephone that worked in my car. When I’m out of my office and need to ask a vital question or warn a client, it would save so much time if I didn’t have to find a pay phone and dig out change. They’re already starting to put radios in cars. How hard could a phone be?
You can find Locke’s Uneasy Spirits, the second book in the Victorian San Francisco Mystery series on Kindle.