Pistols And Petticoatsby Erika Janik (Beacon Press hardcover, 2016)
The back cover says, “Fiction and reality meet and mingle in this fascinating work of cultural history. Who are the great female detectives in literature? Who were their historical precedents? How did they make their way in a predominantly male world, whether we’re talking about the Pinkerton Detective Agency in 1861 or SVU on NBC?”
Wisconsin NPR producer Erika Janik’s Pistols And Petticoats – 175 Years Of Lady Detectives In Fact And Fiction covers a lot of ground in 200+ pages: The emergence of women in official law enforcement, as well as women investigators – private eyes, plucky girl detectives and police women – in literature, film and TV. The book is organized more or less in chronological order, starting with a juxtaposition of some key police women alongside various literary female sleuths from the 19thand early 20thcentury, then breaking into chapters that chronicle the rise of women as integral parts of official law enforcement agencies while combatting constant harassment and discrimination, and the increasing appearances of female crime solvers in pulp fiction, mid-20thcentury cinema, comics and crime fiction. There are a lotof people to keep track of here, including many fictional characters that I never heard of and now need to learn more about.
Pistols And Petticoatsis a very readable book, deftly merging scholarly details and insights without being dry or pendantic. Frankly, it almost feels like it deserved to be a two-volume set, one a history of women in police work and the other a companion piece chronicling sleuths in literature film and pop culture. A couple hundred pages with a detailed list of sources can’t possibly cover every character, of course, so readers shouldn’t be miffed if their own favorites are overlooked or short-changed. Inevitably, books like this become obsolete the moment they hit the shelves, since new novels, characters, films and television shows constantly appear. But for real historical ground-breakers and familiar late 20thand early 21stcentury literary entertainment characters, it’s an excellent primer.
In the book’s final chapter, Janik notes, “Though television would have you think there is a woman homicide detective in every police department in America, only 15 percent of homicide detectives are women. Real women have fared far worse professionally than their fictional sisters. We’re far more comfortable with powerful, competent police women in books and on television than in real life”.