Sunday, August 11, 2013

Introducing Miss Hermione Packer, of Chicago: The Investigators (1902), by J. S. Fletcher

"Miss Packer," said he, "you're the cleverest, the most practical, and the most sensible young woman I've ever met.  I've a most tremendous admiration for you."

"Well, I guess that's natural," said Miss Packer.

Miss Packer investigates....
The British first edition
by John Long
As far as I can tell, The Investigators, published just over 100 years ago, was J. S. Fletcher's first real mystery novel (Fletcher would produce about eighty odd more over the next thirty-five years). The novel has real charm, mostly on account of the marvelous Hermione Packer, an irrepressible Chicago pork heiress (more on her below).  However, the plot is rather feeble, like the plots of the short stories in Fletcher's mystery collection The Adventures of Archer Dawe (Sleuth Hound) (1909), previously reviewed here. Fletcher got a good deal better at mystery plotting over time.

The Investigators takes place in Lincolnshire (adjacent to Fletcher's native Yorkshire), mostly at a sinister country house, The Bower, "a queer, rambling, old place" outside the village of Danesford, not too far from Grantham.

The beautiful and vivacious Agatha Burton--wouldn't it have been great if she had been named Agatha Christie?--has returned from schooling on the Continent to reside with her bachelor uncle and guardian, Dr. Henry Williams.  The other denizens of The Bower include a forbidding housekeeper, Mrs. Hargreaves, and Dr. Williams' mysterious neurasthenic patient, Charles Ashley, who keeps to his own suite of rooms, never leaving the house.

Nearby, at Danesford Manor, resides the young, unmarried, genteel and handsome squire, Leonard Charlesworth.  If you think Leonard and Agatha might catch each other's eyes before you can say Jane Austen, well, you've probably read a book or two like this before.

Our last major characters are the investigators of the novel's title: Napthali Hopps and Hermione Packer.  As their names suggest, both are nouveaux riche.  Mr. Hopps inherited a fortune from his English railroad magnate father, while the tellingly-named Miss Packer is the heiress of a Chicago nabob who made his pile in pigs.  Here's where the fun starts, and a novel lifted out of the rut.

In the opening chapter, Hopps is presented as a Sherlock Holmes figure (Arthur Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles was appearing serially around the time of the writing of this novel). He's a confirmed bachelor (no woman would marry a man with his name, he says) and he makes brilliant deductions about people, we're told:

Dr. Williams menaces....
the 1930 American edition
by Edward J. Clode
"I've been diagnosing character for over a year now, and I flatter myself that my methods are really successful.  I had no end of fun coming back from Egypt....I've got a book somewhere, in which I wrote down all my impressions and conclusions as to the characters and peculiarities of my fellow-travellers. Some day I shall develop the thing into an exact science, and write a monograph on it."

When he and the Squire encounter Dr. Williams and Agatha Burton at the Danesford train station, Hopps is filled with foreboding, as he tells Leonard:

"At present I think that he [Dr. Williams] is diabolically cruel, that he has some awful secret on his mind, that he's the sort of man who would commit the most revolting murder without a pang of commiseration for his victim, and that altogether the young lady whom he is now driving home is much to be pitied."

And, you know, Hopps is right!  But disappointingly, unlike Sherlock Holmes, Hopps never substantiates his conclusions as anything more than intuition or premonition.  And soon he is taking orders from Agatha's best friend from school, Miss Hermione Packer, of Chicago, who has come to The Bower to enjoy an extended visit with her chum.  Miss Packer senses something rotten at The Bower and, like Hopps, her suspicions focus on Dr. Williams.  The pair resolve on investigating further after an odd death takes place at The Bower.

Fletcher makes clear that it is the lady who will be taking charge:

"I've been thinking matters over," said Miss Packer, "since we last talked, and there's a thing or two I'd like to say.  Now, since we've gone into this business together, I guess we've both an equal right to consider ourselves bosses.  We're both managing partners.  But there's a notion strikes me.  It's just this--we've got to have a boss-in-chief.  And that boss-in-chief's got to be Me--just Me....You're clever, you've notions, you'll do very well, but you must play second fiddle.  I'm a woman; I can see through a wall where you can't see through a window; I'm twice as naturally 'cute as you, and I've got a bit of devilry in me that's wanting in you.  You and me, working together, can do wonders in this or any other case, but I must be the boss.  Is it a bargain?"

"I believe you're right," said Mr. Hopps, thoughtfully.  "Yes, it is a bargain.  I swear allegiance."

"Guess we shall do very well now," said Miss Packer, settling herself more comfortably in her chair, "and I'll give you our instructions right off.  First, you're never to do anything without my orders, you're to take my advice on whatever matter puzzles you, and you're to act on my instructions even if I don't choose to tell you why I issue them."

"I'm agreeable," said Mr. Hopps.  "I believe you're fully up to bossing the whole show."

Hermione Packer had sisters
 in crime detection
And, you know, Hopps is right!  Disappointingly, the investigation the two conduct goes along "elementary" lines, but Hermione Packer is a fun character, quite worth noting, I think.  It's a disappointment to me that she apparently never returned to "man" another Fletcher tale.

In The Penguin Book of Victorian Women in Crime (2011), Michael Sims has lamented "how few of the great women detectives and criminals of the Victorian and Edwardian eras are remembered today" (Lucy Sussex has written about this too).  I don't really believe Hermione Packer is a "great" detective, but had it not been for her determined investigations at The Bower the machinations of a fiend would have gone unchecked; so here's to you Miss Packer!

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