Saturday, May 14, 2016

Review: Pistols and Petticoats: 175 Years of Lady Detectives in Fact and Fiction by Erika Janik

Synopsis: 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. (from the inside cover of the book)

Review: With clear and lively pose, Erika Janik takes the reader through the tempestuous history of women solving crime. Loosely chronological, Janik starts in late 1700s, with the Gothic novel – the forerunner of mystery novels. Her research is excellent, bringing the historical and fictional characters to life. Non-fiction historical writing can be dull, even with a lively subject, but Janik deftly dodges that trap and creates a book that is amusing, intriguing, and easy to read. She didn’t get bogged down in a plethora of details, adding just the right amount to draw the reader into the world.
In particular, I enjoy how she compared the women in fiction to those in real life. As often occurs, the female detectives in fiction lived exciting, glamorous lives, solving strange and wild mysteries. In contrast, the women in real life where usually relegated to being social workers with badges or moral keepers, shepherding vulnerable girls away from dance halls and malt shops. Janik did an excellent job of tracing how women moved from these background positions to where they are today – chief of police, head detectives, and women on patrol, with all the duties, power, and responsibilities of their male counterparts.
The prose repeats itself occasionally, but that doesn’t detract from the book. It’s inevitable when writing about any historical subject – it gets tangled.
I had a similar emotional response to her work that I often have to books about the history of women – a deep annoyance at the ignorance of men (and some women) regarding the capabilities of women. The arguments used to keep women out of certain professions, the unfair treatment, the rigged standards, and the sexual harassment. It burns me up.
To conclude, I would recommend Janik’s book to many people. This is perfect as an overview of the subject, and an excellent place to start reading about the topic. It will be of particular interest to those lovers of crime fiction, women’s history in the United States, and anyone who is looking for an enjoyable non-fiction read. This would make an excellent beach book, even if just to give you ideas of excellent crime novels to read!

Note: I received this book free through LibraryThing's Early Reviewer's Program, in exchange for my fair and honest opinion. 

Bookmarks: 7 of 10

Awards: None

ISBN: 978-0-8070-3938-0
Year Published: 2016
Date Finished: 5-12-2016
Pages: 238

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